I wasn’t yet married to my husband when I found out his favorite kind of music to play was ragtime.
Eventually I could afford to buy Dan a piano (he used to play whenever we were near a piano. In hotel lobbies, in piano stores, at friends’ homes. He missed it desperately. ) He had a synthesizer, but it’s not the same. I bought him a piano with the first paycheck from my translating job. It was … Those of you who have read the third Furniture Refinishing Mysteries know EXACTLY what it looked like. It was old, it needed new felts, and there was a mouse nest in it. BUT it had a solid soundboard. I French-polished the outside, he took apart and rebuilt the inside. I think it cost us $150, and it held us till we bought the current player piano for $500 26 years ago. We don’t buy more expensive because it’s a nice little piano and we’re broke. Eventually I want to get him his baby grand. Not this year.
Anyway, he got some of his old music books back from his parents’ house, and he bought some new ones and – forgive me, I almost grew up in another planet – I realized Scott Joplin was black.
I didn’t think anything of it, of course, I just thought “oh, I didn’t know that.”
Anyway, if you come by our house, of a Sunday afternoon, you’re likely to hear Dan rocking the house with Ragtime. (If it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon you’ll find me on the sofa nearby, crocheting.)
So I was vaguely amused when I read a mystery called The Rag Time Kid. It’s a great mystery, don’t get me wrong. It captures rather awful times without beating you over the head with them, being maudlin or preaching. The racial tension inherent in the end of the civil war is portrayed clearly and without all this “preaching to our ancestors” which I despise. And it really is very good. One of the things about it is the … I don’t know how to put it… different rhythms in the speech of the black characters. You can see a distinctive culture, originating with people who were born slaves, and their kids who were free. Scott Joplin is one of those characters, partly built from eye witnesses who knew him.
He was, of course, European trained, and his “new style” fused the best of both cultures. (Not that slave culture didn’t have European influences. Someone discovered in the blues certain musical traces of Portuguese music. At least that’s what I read. I think they’re wrong. I think it was Irish music. There are startling similarities. But Scott Joplin was CLASSICALLY trained.)
Much was made of the fact Mr. Joplin was “very dark” something that mattered a lot in those times. The Ragtime Kid’s main character is a young white man who loves Ragtime. He’s routinely upbraided by white racists for “Playing that N*gger Music.”
I branched out from the book, as of course, I do, by reading up on the time, and apparently racists really objected to white people taking any part of black culture. Their fear, you see, is that it would corrupt white youth. That savage (mostly rooted in European traditions) music played by people with a permanent tan.
It was nonsense of course, as from the beginning some of the best performers were white kids who became struck with the music. And weren’t racists and didn’t care what someone so wholly unconnected to their art had to say about their way of expressing their passion.
Mr. Joplin, to his credit was as delightfully unconcerned with the color of the people who wanted to play his music as he was with the color of the skin of the man who taught him music (German.) I confess I felt a great sympathy with that character because he was so REAL and so much like my music-struck husband. (Writing Real is, I think, my next series for Mad Genius Club.)
Geniuses are like that. Their passion and what is in their heads is far more important than the prejudices of the world. Which is why geniuses can accomplish things above and beyond the normal run of humans. (Not do, not always, but they CAN.)
The bright old things at New Republic, those ossified remains of the great progressive revolution that never came, aren’t geniuses. In fact, they might be the ANTITHESIS of geniuses. They are the blinkered racists asking why we need that n*gger music, only because they suffer from the prejudices and narrow mindedness of their upbringing, they are anti-white racists. They don’t understand why we need any of those honkies writing.
What the color of the author’s skin has to do with what they write is beyond me. No, we don’t need another stereotypical “the angst of white suburban life” novel. But then we don’t need another stereotypical “The rage down at the hood” black novel. And we don’t need another “I can tan so everyone hates me and thinks I’m a wet back Latino novel.” (To quote younger kid “At least the myths about black people are that they’re well endowed and gifted in sports and music. The myths people bring up when seeing me are that I’m lazy and an excellent swimmer. And I can’t even swim.”)
We don’t need any stereotypical novels, in fact. I confess I never saw the point of mainstream, though I’m not promising to NEVER write some. However I presume there is genius in those (and the rest make good beach filler reading. I read an awful lot of them, abandoned behind by American tourists in Portuguese hotel lobbies. To save on weight back, of course. The kind ones didn’t put them in trash but on top of it.) And that a genius will transcend the setting and the stereotypes.
So even as I say “We don’t need.” I have to admit “maybe we need.” “Maybe it would rock my world.” Maybe. I’m open minded enough and imaginative enough not to dictate to other people what they can and can’t create.
The other reason I don’t dictate is because – Hey, New Republic, don’t look now – we have indie. Which means your opinions are not only racist and idiotic, and proof that you are a sclerotic elite who has never had a new idea, but also irrelevant. White people, black people and for all I care blue polka dotted people will write whatever they want, and find their audience or not according to talent and luck. You, dear New Republic, are a very old fossil. Someday people will look at issues in a museum and wonder why we even. BUT other people – creative people, some of them geniuses – will still be writing whatever the heck they want.
According to the State department I’m Latina. I feel in love with Shakespeare (at first in Portuguese) at around eleven. I’ve written more novels in Tudor England than in the modern world. I make my living in the English language which I learned at fourteen.
And my (at least on sight) very white husband loves ragtime, writes characters of all colors, and reads Roman History.
You go on, you “daring minds” you, making all kinds of proscriptions about what people can and can’t write, and what people should write or play or draw, based on the strict color lines of the old racists.
We, real creatives, will go on ignoring you. And laughing while we do so.
The Hoyt household has been proudly appropriating culture and creating new stuff from the bits and pieces since 1985. It’s a tradition I hope the kids will continue.