This post was written by Jai Cross, Autumn Johnson, Alexis Poe, Robin Robinson and Jaleah Wiggins. 

Treemonisha is an opera by Ragtime composer, Scott Joplin. Joplin was inspired to write Treemonisha by his second wife, Freddie Alexander. He wished to highlight the biography of the woman he loved. Alexander was educated, well read and an advocate for women’s rights and African-American culture. Women during this time period were often silenced. So Treemonisha offered an African-American woman’s voice on important issues of the time. Even today, Treemonisha can serve as an early advocate for women and African-American rights.

Treemonisha’s Role within the African-American Community

  • She is “the only educated person of our race for many long miles far away from this place, chosen as the community’s official leader.
  • Treemonisha was told, “You must lead for you are wise, and we will surely rise.”
  • Joplin provides an alternative perspective of African-American women in leadership positions by breaking through stereotypes and arbitrary gender roles for women.
  • Sexual purity, “no mention of a romantic relationship between her and any other male character in the opera”
  • Contrasts the racist depictions of the over-sexualization of African-American women that is commonly seen in media.
  • Women typically ruled over moral issues and “feminine” spheres such as the home—not the public, political realm.

Treemonisha's Womanhood

  • Woman were subjugated  to “serving” their husbands and taking care of the kids as well as household duties (cooking, cleaning, and laundry). Treemonisha does not fit this role; she is sexually pure “no mention of a romantic relationship between her and any other male character in the opera.”
  • Treemonisha’s womanhood contrasts the racist depictions of the African-American women that is commonly seen in media.
  • Scott Joplin’s choice to make Treemonisha sexually pure was used to divert the black woman stereotype that suggests that black women are hyper-sexual (i.e.having many kids and a husband).
  • Joplin’s choice to do that still perpetuates the narrative that womanhood and sexuality are determined by men. Her expression of sexuality is scrutinized on both ends of the spectrum.

Emphasis on Education

  • Treemonisha helps show the importance of education for both African-American men and women. She was shown as an educated Black woman, which was different as many black women were uneducated at the time.
  • There is a literal difference in dialect: Treemonisha used proper language while the other Black used broken and grammatically incorrect language. 
  • Treemonisha often referred to her community as “ignorant.” Treemonisha saying this reinforces the white gaze of what it means to speak “proper” English. 
  • Critics described her as an early advocate for the advancement of  African-Americans through education.

This opera supports the idea that music is a form of storytelling. Treemonisha is used to tell a complex story with in-depth meaning. Treemonisha was not the ideal hero. At the time of Treemonisha it was 1911 and African-Americans were still dealing with voting rights as well as Jim Crow laws. An African-American hero, especially a woman was a way to empower Black women. Proper women weren’t seen leaders within the political or public area, they were usually involved in feminist movements. Treemonisha challenged these ideologies by presenting a black woman who was educated and vocal about women and Africa- American issues.


Lumsden,Rachel, Uplift, Gender and Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2015, pp.41-68

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