Scott Joplin and Uplift: How Treemonisha Uplifted the Black Community

By: Gabrielle Weeden, Marissa Thompson, Lindsay Williams, Jazael E

Who is Scott Joplin?

Scott Joplin was born in the late 1860’s somewhere near the border of Texas (records are not quite sure). His father was a former slave and worked as a laborer on a farm while Scott was young. His mother worked in a white-owned home, which is where Scott gained access to a piano and taught himself the rudiments of music. When Scott was a teenager, he was discovered by Julius Weiss, who was a German-born music teacher. Mr. Weiss instructed Scott by teaching him about more European art forms, including opera. While men have an advantage in nearly everything, including the world of music, black men were not and still are not included. Today, Scott Joplin is most known for his work as a ragtime composer–this can say a lot about a composer (especially a black one) as ragtime is considered inferior to classical music. Although “Treemonisha” does not directly mention uplift, Joplin’s work in a “high art” genre in itself uplifts the entire black community. Similarly, Joplin worked to reverse the negative stigma surrounding ragtime. Despite Joplin’s work to elevate the community around him–race and genre, the same– “high art” musicians disregarded his earlier works. Ironically, the same people that ignored his work popularized his ragtime opera, “Treemonisha.”

Joplin and Community Involvement

Outside of his musical career, Joplin worked to improve society. He wanted to free his people from poverty, ignorance, and superstition. His decision to compose an opera is one of the many examples of him tackling socio-economic issues. He did so to highlight the elitism within the genre. His popular opera, “Treemonisha,” includes positive images of African-American culture and encourages education in our community. While “Treemonisha” encourages education, it also shows how formal education could lead to a black person being seen as a threat. Outside of composing “Treemonisha,” Joplin also studied music at Sedalia’s George R. Smith College for Negros. Aside from his studies, Joplin would lend his time as a mentor to other black students who were ragtime musicians. Joplin used his platform to encourage other people in his community to enroll in school.

Treemonisha 3 (Final Dance)

Additional Works by Joplin

One of the core ideals of uplift is the desire to improve the status of race through education and social responsibility. While Joplin’s choice to compose the opera “Treemonisha” is one example, Joplin has addressed this core ideal and sociopolitical issues in many of his other works. Joplin displays this ideal through his opera, A Guest of Honor, which has been speculated to have addressed African American sociopolitical issues. Joplin also addresses sociopolitical issues in his work, School of Ragtime. The treatise addresses these ideals and sociopolitical issues by repeatedly highlighting the legitimacy of ragtime itself, which was important as ragtime was initially only famous within the Black community. Joplin’s work was able to bring attention to the sociopolitical issues of the time and bring legitimacy to the genre of ragtime.

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