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.
Writing of illiterate blacks' needs throughout the South, Booker T. Washington stressed the leadership obligation of the more fortunate few: “Great responsibility rests upon the educated negro of to-day. The great masses look to him for inspiration, for guidance, in plodding their way out of the darkness into the light” (Sowing and Reaping, 1900, 13).
Slowness of Cultural Evolution
In January 1877, roughly a decade after Hampton had opened its doors with its plan to educate former slaves and rebuild the South, Armstrong described the tedious pace of cultural evolution:
We are likely to die without the sight of a Negro civilization. . . . Negro civilization, like all civilization, is of slow growth; it has its periods of action and reaction. Only in the perspective of generations can real progress be seen satisfactorily. Education is a slow working leaven in an immense mass, whose pervasive, directive force cannot be felt generally for many years. We ought to see and we hope to see the foundations of a Negro civilization well laid. It is all well for the workers in this cause to remember that they are commencing, not finishing. (qtd. by Peabody, 123)
Speaking later in the year, Armstrong reiterated his belief that African American progress was a painstaking, halting, but overall forward and magnificent process: “A general forward movement at the South is assured; through action and reaction it will go on slowly, surely, and grandly” (A Paper Read at the Anniversary Meeting of the American Missionary Association Held in Syracuse, N.Y., October 24, 1877, 7).
As Ed Berlin points out, education plays a central role in the opera. Thanks to the public relations efforts of schools like Hampton and Tuskegee, education for blacks became increasingly possible over the years. In Education for Life: Hampton and Its Students, Francis Greenwood Peabody spoke of changes in the white Southern climate brought on by the Hampton-Tuskegee way of thinking: “The South to-day is in a better temper for providing the black man with education than it ever had been; the movement is onward, it is slow but sure” (124). However, as discussed earlier in my blog, most Southern education differed from what many think of as education today. Samuel Chapman Armstrong reminds us that the necessarily slow Hampton and Tuskegee education went beyond book learning: “Habits cannot be reversed like a steam engine. It takes time, and in time it can be done. . . . Bed rock must be gradually erected—it takes centuries. . . . Character does not develop as rapidly as mind” (qtd. by Peabody, 182). Hampton social studies teacher Thomas Jesse Jones explained a way the Hampton curriculum addressed this snail’s pace: “One of the most important truths taught in these social studies is the one just mentioned, namely, that races, like individuals, must grow from one stage to another and that the element of time is necessary to this growth” (Social Studies in the Hampton Curriculum, Hampton Institute Press, 1906, 5).
Hampton graduate Booker T. Washington had learned this lesson and passed on the same views to Tuskegee students. Believing that African Americans “must take their place in the march of progress,” Washington emphasized the need for patience and hard work: “‘All things come to him who waits,’ but the Negro must understand that he must work and wait; not idly rest upon his oars” (The Story of My Life and Work, 169). Progress comes slowly, he tells his people:
“As each man takes up the serious business of life he must do something,--he must labour and wait" (Sowing and Reaping, L. C, Page & Co., 1900, 8). Stressing the need to lay the path for this gradual advancement, he added, “One of the hardest tests of our civilization is this: To what extent does a man or a race look ahead? . . . . A race of people succeed in proportion as they are
able to plan to-day for a century to come” (Sowing and Reaping, 25).
In “A Real Slow Drag,” Joplin choreographs the concept of cultural evolution. Although taught by a local white woman because the area had no school, Treemonisha earns her neighbors’ trust, and they choose her as their guide. Speaking to Tuskegee students, Washington advised adopting the best students “as models” and determining “that you are going to improve from month to month, and from year to year, until you are as good as they are, or better” (Character Building, Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1903, 148). By the end of the opera, Treemonisha has not only metaphorically taught her neighbors to walk, but they have also adopted her as their model and determined to follow her lead.
Salute your partner, do the drag, drag, drag
The dancers make slow forward progress, dragging the left foot as they step forward three times on the right. They stop briefly and drag the right foot as they step backward once. Although the backward motion ends with a single step, any backward motion is at odds with progress. Perhaps Joplin intends the backward step to symbolize the difficult, inconsistent advancement of his race, a sluggish and sometimes halting forward movement punctuated by occasional--or, at least, initial--backsliding.
Washington built similar images of backward and forward motion into his talks with Tuskegee students, occasionally referring to the school, other times to the students:
We must put brains into our work. There must be improvement in every department of this institution every year. It is absolutely impossible for an institution to stand still; it must go forward or backward, grow better or worse each year. An institution grows stronger and more useful each year, or weaker and less useful. (Character Building, 169)
After having elaborated on the need for advancement in academics, character, and work (head, heart, and hand), Washington again referred to forward or backward growth:
If you are not doing this, you are going backward, you are going in the wrong direction. . . . I want you to be more conscientious in your thoughts and in your work, and with regard to your duty toward others. This is growing in the right direction; not doing this is growing in the wrong direction. Nor do I want you to feel that you are to strive for this spirit of growth for this one year alone, or for the time that you are here. I hope that you will continue to grow in the forward direction. (Character Building, 280-281)
Joplin quickly replaces his finale’s backward motion with slow dragging steps, first to the right, then to the left. From that point onward, although he choreographs an occasional brief stop, all motion is forward—slowly forward. At times, the dancers slide, slow drag, dance slowly, prance slowly, or walk slowly.
The curtain falls on a prolonged “slow - o - o - o…………….” By choosing this final word, Joplin artfully encapsulates the slowness of progress, perhaps simultaneously trying to convey that the closing moment is not the end at all—that this march of progress is slowly continues out of sight and hearing, that it is commencing, not finishing.
Joy and Optimism of Natural Law
Although most of “A Real Slow Drag” embodies the slowness of cultural change as envisioned by educators such as Armstrong and Washington, Joplin’s finale is not without its exuberant moments. After the opening slow drags forward, backward, and sideways, the dancers break into a march, performing “the dude walk.” The precise meaning of that step may be lost to time, but the term "dude walk" brings to mind the strutting steps of a cakewalk. The accompanying lyric is certainly joyous:
Marching onward, marching onward,
While some would have regarded the plodding pace of change as a negative, Armstrong, Washington, and their disciples (seemingly including Joplin) did not view it as such. To the contrary, they regarded cultural evolution, even over generations and centuries, as a natural law of society—and, thus, regarded it with optimism. Social studies teacher Thomas Jesse Jones revealed how the Hampton curriculum put a positive, optimistic spin on what easily could have been a frustrating or enraging period for its students:
The historical study of races, revealing the youth, maturity, and old age of many nations, gives the pupil a new notion of race development. His interpretation of this trying period of time through which his race is passing becomes more hopeful. Instead of regarding the difficulties of his race as the oppression of a weaker by the stronger, he interprets them as the natural difficulties which almost every race had been compelled to overcome in its upward movement. Each social study contributes to this picture of the evolution of races. (Social Studies in the Hampton Curriculum, 5)
In an article published in The Southern Workman, Armstrong provided a case in point:
The Negro in many cases is a man with a grievance and a man in that condition is of no use to himself and little to the world. As soon as he becomes acquainted with the early history of other nations he finds that he is not alone. He can see in following the story of another primitive people for a thousand years that the oppression of a people is the natural preparation for higher things; that the yoke which he has borne last has been borne in turn by all races. The history of the Jews is a simple and profound study of civilization, a study which, more than any other, can free the Negro from his sense of isolation. (“The Negro and the Bible,” The Southern Workman, XXIV: 9, Sept. 1895, 146)
Once accepting that they were not alone, blacks could begin to believe in a brighter future—one that their revered white mentor promised them lay ahead. Freed from a sense of isolation and victimization, they could dream of a better life, and with those dreams came hope. With their new mindset, Armstrong believed they could accomplish almost anything:
By faith only can we be assured, and this faith rests upon our absolute certainty of the capacity of these people for improvement, and our conviction that their progress is only a question of time and effort. The hope for the Negro is in his own hopefulness. (qtd. by Peabody, 206)
Much like Armstrong and Jones, Washington argued that African Americans would someday point back with pride to their difficult history, comparing their success to the success of the Jews who transformed themselves from a long-suffering race into a successful, accepted one through their “unity, pride, and love of race” (The Future of the American Negro, 1902, 182-183). When speaking directly to Tuskegee students, Washington delivered his most heartfelt lessons on optimism in the face of adversity:
We want to send each one of you out from here, not as a negative force, but as a strong, positive, helpful force in the world. You will not accomplish the task which we expect of you if you go with a moody, discouraged, fault-finding disposition. To do the most that lies in you, you must go with a heart and head full of hope and faith in the world, believing that there is work for you to do, believing that you are the person to accomplish that work, and the one who is going to accomplish it. (Character Building, 9)
Need for the Proper Demeanor
One means of “proper development” involved cultivating a refined demeanor. As Ed Berlin points out, Joplin chose Standard English for Treemonisha, who had been educated by a white woman, and for Remus, who had learned from Treemonisha; in contrast, he used black dialect for his other characters, all of whom lacked any education (King of Ragtime, 259). Joplin’s deference to whites, “his dignified manner and extreme reticence,” and the description of him as “a gentleman” all convey the impression of a man who had benefited from education, cared about the impression he made on others, and strove to succeed life (See King of Ragtime, 2nd ed., 92-93, 156, and 301 for Berlin’s comments and sources).
Booker T. Washington repeatedly stressed the need for cultivating such habits:
One of the greatest temptations young people have, who live on the lower side of life, is to engage in profane, vulgar, and boisterous conversation. The nature of a person’s conversation largely determines what he is. Young people especially should seek to converse with persons whose conversation, whose thought, is pure and refined. The influence of unhealthy conversation is so great that nothing can counteract the harm it does a person’s character. If a young person finds himself associated with a person of either sex who has no regard for healthy thinking and pure expression, he should rid himself of the association. If he does not do so, he will eventually fall to the level of his companion. (Sowing and Reaping, 15)
Assuming Joplin wanted to accomplish more than rhyme, he may have intended to incorporate this polite, dignified manner into his opera when he follows “Walk slowly” with “talk lowly,” providing instructions for dancers to whisper to their partners while walking. As they do the slow drag toward a new and better life, even the illiterate laborers exhibit refinement under their new leader's guidance.
Avoidance of Politics
Nowhere in Treemonisha does Joplin suggest political action as a means of advancement. Through education, good character, and hard work, Southern schools such as Hampton and Tuskegee believed blacks could achieve eventual equality, not through political power. Seeing illiterate, inexperienced freedmen taken advantage of by corrupt politicians from both parties or entering the political arena themselves without the requisite knowledge and skills to function on the job, Armstrong and Washington sought ways to deal with the South’s socio-political climate. In a fund-raising letter, Armstrong wrote, “The eight hundred thousand illiterate negro voters are a serious political fact. Safety demands their enlightenment. . . Help us to furnish the teachers and we will make the people” (Letter “To the Friends of the Hampton Institute,” Cabin and Plantation Songs As Sung by Hampton Students, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1877). Speaking at Hampton, W. S. Scarborough, Wilberforce Professor of Classics, later elaborated on the problem posed by uneducated blacks in government:
The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle, rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house. (223-224)
Although Washington’s Southern upbringing and Hampton education molded his thinking, just as Tuskegee’s need for funding forced him to keep white benefactors on his side, many educated blacks condemned his accommodationist stance. Rather than offer only a means of achieving economic parity, they felt he should work for social equality. W. E. B. DuBois, for instance, accused Washington of "hypocritical compromise," charging that Washington taught the young black to “flatter and be pleasant, endure petty insults with a smile, shut his eyes to wrong" (Souls of Black Folks. Milford, NY: Kraus-Thomson Org., 1985, 203; 204). “The spirit of his teaching is illustrated in a rag-time song. ‘Mr. Coon, You’re All Right in Your Place,'" charged attorney Edward H. Morris (“Interview,” The Inter Ocean, July 28, 1903, BTW Papers, VII: 227).
In 1899, Washington averred, “The education and preparation for citizenship of nearly eight millions of people is a tremendous task, and every lover of humanity should count it a privilege to help in the solution of a problem for which our whole country is responsible” ("The Case of the Negro." Atlantic Monthly, November 1899, 587). A half-century later, Lottie Joplin was quoted as saying of Scott, “He wanted to be a real leader. He wanted to free his people from poverty, ignorance, and superstition, just like the heroine of his ragtime opera, Treemonisha” (Kay C. Thompson, “Lottie Joplin,” Record Changer, Oct. 1949, 8).
Washington encouraged blacks by saying, “A person who goes at an undertaking with the feeling that he cannot succeed is likely to fail. On the other hand, the individual who goes at an undertaking, feeling that he can succeed, is the individual who in nine times out of ten does” (The Future of the American Negro, 104-105)—encouraging words for someone like Joplin who wanted to succeed and to see his opera succeed.
Somewhere along the line, Joplin had internalized the Hampton-Tuskegee ideology. Exactly where and how is uncertain, but as an African American growing up in the South, this way of thinking would have surrounded him.
Thanks in part to musical parents, to education, and to the various people, such as German music teacher Julius Weiss, who had recognized and nurtured or encouraged his talent, Joplin was able to dream bigger dreams not only as a musician and music teacher, but also as an advocate of literacy-- dreams not just to buy a ticket to the opera house, but to be the creative force behind the production.
Similar to Washington’s teachings, Joplin’s libretto should not have offended white audiences. His blacks remain agricultural workers; there is no racial conflict, no talk of voting or political power, only a rural story with hard-working blacks and superstitions that audiences had already laughed at on phonograph records and the vaudeville stage.
Washington, who used education as a weapon against superstition, had pronounced, “There is no luck; it is all labour and patience” (Sowing and Reaping, 9). Scott Joplin set this belief to music in Treemonisha, driving home the need for patience in “A Real Slow Drag.” He had performed the labor. He had worked diligently and patiently for years. Yet he failed to mount his production. Although white New York failed to embrace a black opera composer and librettist, preferring instead to see the race choose between hoeing fields or waiting tables, or perhaps between pounding out ragtime tunes in a cutting contest or cakewalking and singing coon songs, Scott Joplin took the Hampton-Tuskegee ideology to heart and used his skills to compose an allegorical lesson about cultural evolution. According to Booker T. Washington, Scott Joplin’s odds of success should have been 9 to 1. Ultimately, we can only wish the King of Ragtime had more luck.
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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