Treemonisha by Scott Joplin

A wonderful opera, it is rarely performed for reasons that escape me. It is a musical masterpiece of the beginning of the 20th century by the great ragtime musician and composer Scott Joplin.

Interestingly, Scott Joplin finished Treemonisha in 1910 and it was first published in 1911. It was never produced during his lifetime. The sole performance was a concert read-through with piano in 1915 at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem, funded by Joplin himself.

Later, Katherine Dunham directed its world premiere in 1970 in Atlanta. From time to time it has been produced since then in small productions around the country. The interesting thing about the date of 1911 is that Joe Turner's Come and Gone is also set in 1911.

Synopsis: "The opera is concerned with the plight of the newly-freed slaves who, because they lack education, fall easy prey to conjurers and superstition. The story takes place after the American Civil War, on a plantation in the South. Treemonisha -- found under a sacred tree as an orphan -- is a young girl who is the only educated person in her black community. She refuses to accept the superstitions of her people. Angry with her denouncements, the conjurers-men who make their living by preying on the superstitions of others-kidnap her. As they are about to thrust her into a wasp's nest, her boyfriend Remus rescues her. She then returns to her people, and they ask her to be their leader. At the end of the opera, she prepares to embark on an educational campaign. The liberation of a people through education and the concept of women's liberation are the crux of Joplin's message. Joplin focuses on the need for education to eradicate prejudice, superstition, and ignorance."
This performance which is available on videotape, is an excellent job from the Houston Grand Opera on PBS Great Performances in 1986. Citation is available on IMDB at http://akas.imdb.com/title/tt0459664/

The cast includes Obba Babatunde as Zodzetrick, Delores Ivory as Monisha and Carmen Balthrop as Treemonisha.

A little bit more on this on the Blues People-The Music blog at:


This is a pretty good link who anybody who needs to know something about Joplin fairly quickly.  There's a lot to know. 

African Americans and WWI

World War I is an important topic in understanding the nexus of blues people aesthetics and the history of African Americans in the 20th Century.  I knew this but couldn't explain how I knew it until I begun to really dig for some way to clearly represent this to an audience of students.

I started with a series of unconnected pieces, clues really: the fact that my great Uncle Cardoza had been a soldier in WWI and been stationed in France, that I had two photographs of him in uniform at the beginning and at the close of the war, as well as many pictures of friends in his regiment.  I also knew that James Reese Europe had led the Regimental Orchestra along with Noble Sissle, and that both of them were highly productive and well documented innovators in jazz and ragtime.  When I say documented, I mean not only written documents but also photographs.  I knew that WEB Du Bois had recommended to African Americans that they fight in WWI, Close Ranks with other Americans despite the unwelcome environment of racism and Jim Crow at home, in the hopes that things would get better after the war.  

But at the same time, I came to the realization that a great deal of negativity continues to radiate around African American participation in WWI, the notion that their contribution was less than dignified, that few of them fought, that others were employed in segregated units doing labor that failed to contribute to any advancement of the race.  

I had bought second hand a series of books by Kelly Miller containing many photographs of black troops from the U.S. and from other places throughout the Diaspora, which I haven't yet  had the time to read.  Then I found Walter Dean Myers lovely little volume written with Bill Miles, the documentarian of the 369th Regiment: The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage.  Although it is a text intended perhaps for a high school or junior high school audience, like much that Myers does, himself a collector of black photographs, it is beautifully done.  I had not even realized that I had never known what a regiment or a platoon was and how important it was to gather these rudiments of military vocabulary to comprehend what had happened to the black soldiers in my great Uncle's unit. 

Via Walter Dean Myers' book, I discovered other references, including The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri and Harlem's Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I by Stephen L. Harris. And so now the thing to do is to put it altogether.  

But I do think the undervaluation of African American cultural contributions in the 20th century begins with the profoundly damaging misreading of how wars have and continue to eviscerate men's bodies and souls. 


World's Fairs

There were several significant intersections of world's fairs and issues of race around the turn of the century.

At the Columbian Exposition in 1893, African American composer Scott Joplin introduced ragtime. His most popular piece, Maple Leaf Rag, is included on the cd of music which comes with the Second Edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. There are two versions of the Maple Leaf Rag on the cd, including a version played by Jelly Roll Morton, with a variation that helps to explain the musical connection between ragtime to jazz.

At the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago there was a Pavillion devoted to the Republic of Haiti. Frederick Douglass, who was then ambassador to Haiti from the United States, maintained his headquarters there with Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the young poet, acting as his assistant. Douglass was by then an enormous celebrity, highly regarded and respected universally in Chicago despite the spread of Jim Crow practices throughout the country.

Also featured at this fair was an exhibition of Aunt Jemima (played by Nancy Green) and her pancakes, as well as something called the Dahomey Village featuring a collection of people from Nigeria living in a rustic setting and presumably engaged in their normal village life. The Dahomey Village was just one of many exhibits demonstrating various primitive cultures from around the world, some of them directly resulting from the imperial exploits of the United States, others vestiges of imperial exploits of other countries. These exhibits however were confined to the Midway Plaisance where the more entertaining exhibits were made available to the public. Often these exhibits were more popular with fairgoers than the great so-called white cities composed of majestic architectural structures that were supposed to be the main events of the fair.

African Americans were given a special day at the fair, as a consequence of the protest of the lack of an African American presence at the Fair. Unfortunately Puck Magazine used this occasion as an opportunity to circulate one of the most famous of images associated with the black presence at the fair with black people gathering the free watermelons that were supposedly distributed.

Also, although Douglass visited the Dahomey Village and was well treated by the occupants, he did make statements in the press saying that their exhibit was designed to humiliate African Americans, primarily because of the relative nudity of the Africans.

There is also a story that Bert Williams and David Walker and other African American entertainers stood in for African performers until they could arrive. Once they arrived, African American performers were fascinated by the music and dance of the Africans. The result was a Broadway musical called In Dahomey written by Williams and Walker, which was a major success in 1901.

My main source for materials on African Americans and the Columbian Exposition has been "All the World is Here! The Black Presence at the White Cityby Christopher Robert Reed, Indiana University Press 2000.

Ida B. Wells, together with her husband and Frederick Douglass, wrote and circulated a pamphlet on racism, including lynchings, in the United States.*
Wells, Ida B. "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition: The Afro-American's Contribution to Columbian Literature." Originally published 1893. Reprint ed., edited by Robert W. Rydell. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999. ISBN 0-252-06784-3.More later.



The Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893

Approaching the turn-of-the-century, there were many world's fairs taking place throughout Europe and the United States.  There were also fairs in the Pacific, Asia and even Africa.  Worlds fairs or expositions were a major form of popular culture dominated by the interests of the wealthy and the bourgeosie, and conceived as family entertainment.  

Much of these fairs were officially devoted to exhibitions of architecture, art, film and photography, as well as industrial and technological advances.  They included sometimes massive displays of commodities and/or raw materials gathered from successful often imperialist or colonialist military campaigns leading to the opening of new markets combined with various technological breakthroughs.  What makes these events difficult to imagine or recollect today is because we really don't have anything like them.  Probably the most similar would be the formation of a successful mall on the weekend or a car or technology fair.  

The issue of the fairs for our study relates to photography and visual art in which people of color often appeared.  Artists and photographers made images of peoples of color that was sometimes included in the exhibitions.  Frances Benjamin Johnston took pictures of black students and faculty at Hampton Institute, Tuskegee and public schools in Washington D.C. some of which were included in Du Bois's Negro Exhibit featured at the Paris Exposition.  Some of the photographers Du Bois included were black.  There was at least one black photo historian and photographer Deborah Willis has been able to identify in her book on the subject and in her remarks concerning the collection of the exhibited photographs and documents deposited at the Library of Congress.  

The fairs continue in interest throughout the turn-of-the-century beginning with the Columbian Exposition in 1893 where Frederick Douglass, who was then ambassador to Haiti was permanently stationed in the Haitian Pavillion.  Paul Lawrence Dunbar served as his young assistant.  George Walker and Bert Williams were among the American performers who substituted for the Africans who had not yet arrived to populate the Dahomey Village.  Once the members of this incorporated village had arrived, Walker and Williams stayed around to observe the music and the dance, prompting them to construct the highly successful show In Dahomey, which toured Europe and had a successful run on Broadway. 

Human exhibitions were also a major part of what took place at these fairs.  These were exhibitions in which people were presented engaged in typical activities usually from someplace recently the object of military conquest. For instance there were displays of Native American villages, Asian cities and a "Dahomey Village."  In St. Louis there was a display of a group of Pygmies.  Sometimes these displays were incorporated as regular traveling units and they would go from fair to fair for hire.  

Two years after the Columbian Exposition in 1895 at the much more racially segregated Atlanta Cotton Exposition, a "Negro Department" with its own building was featured. Booker T. Washington made his famous Address compromising the political and intellectual aspirations of African Americans at this very same fair. 

Du Bois's Negro Exhibition--1900 Paris Exposition

This link will take you to a selection of photographs from the Negro Exhibition as composed by W.E.B. Du Bois (the author of Souls of Black Folk) and installed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris of 1900. The entire collection of photographs are publicly available online at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

These photographs are composed of a variety of image types. They include portraits of graduating classes at black colleges, individual three-quarter portraits, images of run-down black communities, successful black businesses, buildings of black colleges, black businesses and black churches. Not much is known about most of the photographers who took the pictures or the people in the photographs but Deborah Willis has related that which is known at the website at the Library of Congress. And I am sure there will be more information forthcoming as people learn of these images from 1900.  For instance, there is one photograph of the offices of Pauline Hopkin's The Colored American.

These photographs were composed and exhibited just three years before DuBois published Souls of Black Folk.  Part of the response of some of the leading citizens of the black community to Jim Crow segregation and genocide was to build a separate set of resources and communities in which every effort was made to provide equal facilities especially for the young people of these communities, particularly given the obvious implications of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court Decisions, known to many as "the separate but equal" decision. 

The photographs gathered by Du Bois and exhibited in Paris document that effort.   Nonetheless, the tragedy of this period is that the "separate but equal" approach only resulted in more inequality at every conceivable level.  Du Bois suggests in The Souls of Black Folk, citizens protect their rights through the use of the ballot. Without the ballot any minority population is defenseless and will incur outright hostility rather than support.  Or at least this seems to be the way it went. 

Another aspect of interest from a racial standpoint were the many entertainment features of the fairs, often located in their own section called the Midway at the Columbian Exposition and the Pike at the St. Louis Fair of 1904.  Also, President McKinley was murdered at the 1901 Buffalo Fair.

1904 St. Louis World's Fair.  Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston.  The Midway was called the Pike in St. Louis.

Native American Rider at Pan-American Exhibition, Buffalo 1901.  
The Crowd at the St. Louis Fair.  Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston.


Negro Exhibition at the Paris Exposition 1900

Photograph taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston of a class in telephone electronics at Hampton Institute, including in the Negro Exhibition in Paris.