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  • Uplift, Gender, and Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha
  • Rachel Lumsden (bio)

In May 1911 the well-known ragtime composer Scott Joplin filed a copyright application for his only surviving opera, Treemonisha. Unable to find a publisher (the work was rejected by at least three companies, several of which had previously championed his ragtime works), Joplin chose to publish the score to the opera himself and began to offer it for sale shortly before receiving copyright.1 Joplin wrote both the music and libretto to Treemonisha, a three-act opera that contains an overture, orchestral interludes, and dance numbers. Joplin also composed a lengthy written preface to the opera that not only outlines in detail the backgrounds of the main characters and the setting of the work, but also describes his use of a recurring leitmotiv to represent “the happiness of the people when they feel free from the conjurors and their spells of superstition” (Joplin [1911] 1971, 3). The opera centers on the efforts of a young, educated, African-American woman (Treemonisha) to enlighten her rural community, highlighting Treemonisha’s conflicts with the evil conjuror Zodzetrick; by its conclusion, Treemonisha has been [End Page 41] captured by Zodzetrick, rescued by her friend Remus, and selected leader of her community.

Although opera certainly has its share of heroines, Joplin’s fascinating decision to feature an educated African-American woman—one who does not fall hopelessly in love, die, or go insane by the end of the opera, but instead is chosen to lead her community—deserves serious scholarly consideration. Scholars have increasingly come to recognize the significance of Treemonisha within the American operatic canon, and research such as that of Berlin (1991/1994), de Lerma (1990), and Sears (2012) has substantially broadened our understanding of the opera and its reception.2 Still, little attention has been paid to the actual musical content of this profoundly important work (with the exception of a single chapter in Latham 2008, which contains broad, long-range analyses using a Schenkerian perspective). Even more surprisingly, no scholarship has focused on the complicated relationship between Joplin’s depiction of Treemonisha and prevailing discourses about black womanhood at the turn of the twentieth century. These issues are particularly pertinent for developing a nuanced understanding of the complex ways in which both race and gender are constructed in Treemonisha; recent work such as André, Bryan, and Saylor (2012) has emphasized the necessity for scholars to consider “blackness” not as a rigid, uniform category, but instead as a multivectored field informed by other intersectional considerations, such as gender, class, nation, and sexuality.3 This article examines how the character of Treemonisha intersects with contemporaneous ideologies of African-American womanhood, arguing that Joplin’s depiction of Treemonisha illustrates some of the core fractures, debates, and contradictions surrounding racial uplift and gender during this era. After a preliminary discussion of some of the differences of opinion regarding gender and uplift at the turn of the century, the next section of this article focuses on how Treemonisha is characterized in the plot and libretto; the final portion of this article expands on these ideas by also considering two specific musical issues: diminished seventh chords and the flat submediant. [End Page 42]

Ideologies of Racial Uplift and Gender

The period during which Joplin composed Treemonisha has often been characterized as an “age of Washington and Du Bois,” a time in which black male intellectuals proposed and debated racial uplift, an ideology that sought the “improvement of the race” through education, self-help, service, and the moral and material progress of African Americans. Disputes among black male leaders often eclipsed the contributions of African-American women, yet as scholars such as Hazel Carby (1987), Paula Giddings (2006), and Patricia Hill Collins (2009) have noted, black women were far from silent in this era. Carby has described this period as a veritable “ferment of black female intellectual activity” (1987, 96). Space does not permit me to explore the wealth of black women’s efforts during these decades in full detail, but it is important to recognize how black women’s contributions provide important insights into the complex ways in which their work intersects with racial uplift, ultimately...