Scott Joplin could not have conceived and composed a more suitable musical and dramatic finale for Treemonisha. Ed Berlin provides an excellent overview of Joplin’s accomplishment:
Treemonisha stands on a bench and calls the steps, sometimes assisted by Lucy. She leads the townspeople on two levels: on the literal level, she calls the steps for the dancers of “A Real Slow Drag”; metaphorically, she guides the people to a better life—“Marching onward.” But they march not to the military strains of a John Philip Sousa; rather, they march to a characteristically African American music—a rag, a slow rag. This finale is a fitting and glorious conclusion, summing up Joplin’s philosophy that African Americans choose education as their means to a brighter future. (King of Ragtime, 2016, 270)
Although Berlin’s multifaceted interpretation encompasses the message inherent in Joplin’s lyric and the culturally appropriate music genre in which Joplin couches that message and dramatically concludes the opera, there is more. This slow march forward to a brighter future mirrors the Hampton-Tuskegee ideology—a way of thinking repeatedly driven home to the schools’ students, to potential Northern benefactors, and to white Southern neighbors, a way of thinking adopted by many other African American schools throughout the former slave states, including Sedalia's George R. Smith College, which Joplin had attended.
With Parson Altalk’s failure to address his parishioners’ earthly needs, such as overcoming superstition and dealing with the conjurors, Treemonisha’s neighbors need a leader, someone capable of guiding them forward. Long before introducing his failed leader, Joplin had set the scene for his true leader’s arrival. In the opera’s preface, he explained that whites had left the plantation after the Civil War, leaving it to be run by Ned, a trustworthy servant. Living in dense ignorance, symbolized by the dense forest surrounding the plantation, the freedmen were left “with no one to guide them as they struggled to adapt to unaccustomed freedom. Childless Ned and Monisha prayed for an infant who could grow up educated and able to “teach the people around them to aspire to something better and higher than superstition and conjuring.”
In the opera’s opening number, Treemonisha reprimands the conjuror Zodzetrick for having “caused superstition and many sad tears,” and viewers and listeners recognize her potential to realize Ned and Monisha’s dream. Indeed, before the opera’s opening, Treemonisha had achieved small scale teaching success. She had taught Remus to read, enabling him to chide Zodzetrick, not only by arguing that the conjuror cannot fool the level-headed Treemonisha, but that he can no longer fool Remus:
To read and write she has taught me, and I am very grateful,
Although education might initially come from whites, Joplin shows that a black with basic education could become the educator, as did Booker T. Washington and so many graduates of schools such as Hampton and Tuskegee. Speaking of Tuskegee, Samuel Chapman Armstrong had once written, "It is a proof that the Negro can raise the Negro" (Qtd. by Washington in The Story of My Live and Work, J. L. Nichols & Co., 1901, 372). Washington attributed much of this success to his people's desire to learn from their teachers as he had learned from Armstrong: "Often hungry and in rags, making sacrifices of which you little dream, the Negro youth has been determined to annihilate his mental darkness. With all the disadvantages the Negro, according to official records, has blotted out 55.5 per cent of his illiteracy since he became a free man" ("Negro Education Not a Failure," Booker T. Washington Papers. Univ. if IL Press, 1972, II: 431).
My August 16, 2017 post (A New Look at TREEMONISHA) points out striking similarities between Booker T. Washington’s writing and Scott Joplin’s Preface to Treemonisha. Both men speak of superstition’s survival on remote plantations from which whites have moved away after the war, thus leaving ignorant blacks without anyone to guide them. Similarly, my November 14, 2017 post (“You Can’t Fool Treemonisha”: The Hampton-Tuskegee Ideology, Part 1) focuses on Joplin’s use of literacy as a remedy for superstition and on his character Remus’ mention of Treemonisha’s “level head,” again pointing out parallels between Joplin's thinking and Washington's, which had been molded by Samuel Chapman Armstrong's. All of these points raise the possibility that Joplin intended Treemonisha as his second tribute to Booker T. Washington, following the loss of his first opera, A Guest of Honor. The similarities do not end there. A close look at Hampton and Tuskegee’s shared three-part mission reveals further connections with the opera and leads to a reinterpretation of Joplin’s Parson Alltalk.
In the first blog entry of my Treemonisha series, I quoted strikingly similar passages from Joplin’s Preface to his opera and one of Booker T. Washington’s important letters, pointing out that a nearly identical passage appeared in another of Washington’s letters. Both men wrote of whites abandoning their plantations, leaving ignorant former slaves to fend for themselves with no one to guide them.
I cannot say whether Washington’s words inspired Joplin’s opera or whether Joplin intentionally paraphrased them in his Preface, but overwhelming evidence from fiction and non-fiction sources, from Joplin’s lifetime and ours, demonstrates that Joplin was tackling two important social handicaps of the post-Civil War era—the ignorance and the superstition of the freedmen. Generations of subservience to white masters, who used illiteracy to keep their slaves dependent, left them to cope with their new freedom in whatever ways they could. Because of superstitions largely carried over from African countries that most of them had never seen and because of their related fears, no doubt compounded by years of victimization, freedmen and even their descendants were too often willing to pay conjurors what little money they had to ensure their safety from harm.
Although the past seven blog entries have focused on specific hoodoo superstitions that Joplin carefully incorporated into the opera, it’s time to further examine parallels between the opera and Booker T. Washington’s thinking. Because Washington graduated from Hampton Institute, which shaped his beliefs, I will include Hampton and its founder.
In 1880, a Little Rock newspaper reported the desecration of a recent grave, consisting of exhumation and the cutting off of three fingers for use in a hoodoo luck bag. The article opened with a prediction that such acts would soon end:
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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