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Ragtime Musician Scott Joplin—A Rough Road To Travel In Many Respects

Below is the profile of Ragtime musician Scott Joplin (above) from the book Who’s Who In The 20th Century. This book was published by Oxford University Press. Mr. Joplin lived 1868-1917. 

“Born in Texarkana, Texas, Jopin won several local piano contests before turning his attention exclusively to the syncopated piano style known as ragtime. A strong influence on the stride piano style of Fats Waller,ragtime became a precursor of Jazz. The first two pieces called rags were written in 1897-98: two of Joplin’sbest known, “Original Rags” and “Maple Leaf Rag” were written in 1899. The latter was so successful that a publishing company was formed on the strength of it, and a million copies of the sheet music were soon sold, Ragtime became nationally popular and for a time Joplin achieved his ambition of wealth and fame…However, he he aspired to create a more serious school of ragtime composition although the style does not sustain extended forms. He also wrote two operas…and started an opera company based on ragtime. None of these ventures succeed…These failures , the ravages of syphilis and the declining interest in ragtime combined to lead to his early death in a mental house. He wrote about fifty piano rags, of which many are subtle and stylish compositions as well as delightful period pieces.”

Black people of high creativity long had a very rough road to travel in America. Please click here for Texas Liberal posts on the great actor Ira Aldridge and the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar.

For Mr. Joplin, beyond the barriers his skin color presented, he was also hindered by the artistic limits of his music. You don’t have to know much about either ragtime or opera, to wonder about an opera made from rag music.  

My guess is that Mr. Joplin did the best he could against the obstacles he faced. 

Here is more information about Mr. Joplin. 

Here is more information about Ragtime music.

August 16, 2008 Posted by | Books, History | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Three Books About Being Black In America In 1900

I’ve recently read, or am in the process of reading, three books about being Black in America in the years leading up to and following 1900.

A book I’ve finished is Sport Of The Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar. (Drawing above.) This is a novel. It is the story of a black family in New York City at the beginning of the last century. It is bleak.

Sport was published in 1902.

The book is short and reads like the history of a time and place. It is worth the reading.  

Here is information about Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Here is an excerpt from this profile—  “Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet. Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, he was the son of ex-slaves and classmate to Orville Wright of aviation fame.  Although he lived to be only 33 years old, Dunbar was prolific, writing short stories, novels, librettos, plays, songs and essays as well as the poetry for which he became well known. He was popular with black and white readers of his day, and his works are celebrated today by scholars and school children alike. His style encompasses two distinct voices — the standard English of the classical poet and the evocative dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America. He was gifted in poetry — the way that Mark Twain was in prose — in using dialect to convey character. ” 

I’ve also been reading Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey Ward. This is a life of Jack Johnson. Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion.  

Here is a review of Unforgivable Blackness.

It was published in 2004.

From an ESPN article about Johnson—

“He transformed himself from the docks of Galveston, Texas, to early 20th-century glitterati. He had his own jazz band, owned a Chicago nightclub, acted on stage, drove flashy yellow sports cars, reputedly walked his pet leopard while sipping champagne, flaunted gold teeth that went with his gold-handled walking stick and boasted of his conquests of whites — both in and out of the ring.

Johnson was also a fugitive for seven years, having been accused of violating a white slavery act with a woman who would become his third wife. ”

I’m about a third of the way through this book. I feel it could be shorter. Once you get the idea that white champions were reluctant to fight Mr. Johnson, you don’t need to read about every detail of that resistance.

Still, the book is holding my interest well enough and I enjoyed learning about Mr. Johnson’s youth in Galveston.

Everybody should should visit Galveston, Texas.  

The last title is The Souls Of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois.

Souls was written in 1903.

Here is a little bit about Mr. Du Bois—

“William Edward Burghardt DuBois, to his admirers, was by spirited devotion and scholarly dedication, an attacker of injustice and a defender of freedom. A harbinger of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, he died in self-imposed exile in his home away from home with his ancestors of a glorious past—Africa.

Labeled as a “radical,” he was ignored by those who hoped that his massive contributions would be buried along side of him. But, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man.”

I’ve only reached up to chapter three in Souls. In chapter three, Du Bois is going to discuss Booker T. Washington and others.

The famous line from the book—“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”–is the first sentence and the last sentence of chapter two.

Du Bois says this ongoing issue is a “phase” of the same issue that was the cause of the Civil War.

Isn’t a bottom line of our 2008 campaign the question of will America elect a Black man named Barack Obama President?

The “race question” goes on and on.

At least so far.

Chapter two is in full a history of the Civil War years and Reconstruction efforts up until 1872.

Du Bois talks about the way the Freedman’s Bureau was doomed to fail from the start in the effort to help Black Americans gain some measure of equality after the Civil War.

I look forward to making it past chapter two and writing more blog posts on this great work of our American history. 

May 9, 2008 Posted by | Books, Galveston, History | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar & White Liberals—The Line Between Good And Evil

 

Recently I read the Paul Laurence Dunbar novel The Sport of the Gods. This short book, published in 1901 as Mr. Dunbar was dying of tuberculosis, is about a black family that has moved from the South to Harlem. As you might suppose, it is a bleak tale. 

Mr. Dunbar, who died at age 34 in 1906, was once termed by Booker T. Washington as the “Poet Laureate” of the Negro Race.    

Mr. Dunbar was known as a “dialect poet.” He added black “dialect” to his poems. This was not “proper” English. Mr. Dunbar did this to gain acceptance as a poet. Mr. Dunbar did not always want to write in that form, but found it difficult to find equal praise for his poems in standard English.

This is what happens when your work is defined by people, who, whatever they might claim, do not at heart care about you as a human being and do not care about your aspirations in life.

Sometimes in life you have to work very hard to find your audience. 

Click here to read and hear Mr. Dunbar’s poetry in various forms. This link is provided by the University of Dayton. Dayton, Ohio was the hometown of the poet.     

In Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow–The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore by Eleanor Alexander, Mr. Dunbar is shown as an abusive man towards his wife, the poet Alice Ruth Moore. Ms. Alexander is a professor at Georgia Tech.

This book was reviewed in The New York Times in 2002 by Professor Paula Giddings who teaches at Smith College.  

From the review—“… Dunbar, whose alcoholism was compounded by what appears to have been a bipolar disorder that eeirly mirrored the society around him. The result was effusive expressions of sentiment, melancholia or violent outbursts—all of which found their way to Alice….Dunbar’s drinking and ranting got worse and even spilled over to public acts of humiliation and violence. In January 1902, four years before his death…he beat Alice within an inch of her life. She left him and, ignoring his ardent entreaties for reconciliation, never saw him again.”

As I read The Sport of the Gods, I often recalled the book review I had read five years earlier. Whatever the stresses in his life, and they were terrible stresses I’m certain, what could justify Mr. Dunbar beating up a woman? 

Are the literary merits of The Sport of the Gods and other works by Mr. Dunbar obscured or diminished by the way Mr. Dunbar behaved? 

While reading the book I also thought about how racial conditions played a large part in the anger of Mr. Dunbar went largely unaddressed for all the years of the New Deal and beyond. This was many years after Mr. Dunbar’s death. These conditions went on and on and still go on in many respects in our cities.

Here is information from the Library of Congress about racial discrimination in New Deal programs.

Most of the white liberals I would have likely voted for had I lived in that time where content enough to look the other way at the aparthied of the American South. FDR wanted Southern votes. So did Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy. ( Which is not to say that Mr. Truman or Mr. Kennedy did not make some gains in this area.)

Do these facts diminish the liberal accomplishments of the New Deal era and its aftermath?

Personally, I’d say yes. People’s lives were wasted living in an unfair country while people who claimed to care about fairness and justice did nothing or next-to-nothing.     

And while Mr. Dunbar’s work stands on its own, I can’t deny I was aware as I read Sport that Mr. Dunbar was guilty of the some of the same abuse he was writing about.

That said, we must never lose sight of the humanity and the frailty that is at the core of each individual in the world. I’ve yet to meet a person with totally clean hands.   

December 6, 2007 Posted by | Books, Poetry, Political History, Relationships | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment