Rachel Hujsa

Rachel Hujsa

African Past, American Future: Uplift Ideology in Early 20th Century Opera


Rachel Hujsa


Dr. Laura Dallman


College of the Arts


<P> This paper explores how two African American composers, Scott Joplin (c. 1868-1917) and Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954), advocated for Black Advancement and uplift ideology through their syncretic operas in the early 1900s. <P> Joplin and Freeman were intimately conscious and supportive of national debates for Black Advancement, propelled especially by W.E.B. Du Bois, and both employed rhetorical strategies paradigmatic of the movement. They were both interested in showing White and Black Americans alike that African American music, such as gospel, spiritual, and ragtime, could be held to the same high esteem as Western canon, just as Black academics often endeavored to prove their intellectual prowess to their White counterparts. To this end, Joplin and Freeman combined “Black” music and classical styles in their operas to declare the equality and richness of an integrated sound. <P> The thematic content of these operas, Treemonisha and Voodoo, respectively, interact with the Black Advancement movement’s drive for progress and education as well. They present Black Americans’ struggle for modernity as a conflict between the “superstitious” West African religious customs still ingrained in emancipated communities and Christianity. However, Joplin and Freeman’s works diverge aesthetically and ideologically from this point forward. Joplin’s aesthetic considerations derived chiefly from ragtime, a modern African American musical form, while Freeman took inspiration not only from African ethnic music but Africa itself. Joplin’s form of uplift was found in the education of small Black communities, while Freeman framed his work in a nationalistic and pan-Africanist context. These distinct choices, though crafted with the same aim, help reveal subtle divergences in argumentation within the Black Advancement movement.


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