We are the only advanced country in the world that sees these shootings every few months.
President Obama, October 1, 2015


Another month, another mass shooting. Another day, another 88 deaths from the use of guns (based on 2011 CDC data). President Obama’s speech should make every American pause and think seriously about this and about what makes our country so heartbreakingly different than the other advanced countries?

I am not going to take a look at the details here. I am not interested in discussing different gun control options whether it be universal background checks, outlawing certain types of firearms and ammunition, buy back programs or any of a host of other ideas and proposals. Instead, this is a look at the broad picture, similar to what the President did. Its purpose is to get those who blindly believe that guns are not a problem in the United States and/or that more guns would result in a safer society and less gun deaths to at least momentarily question their position. I realize most of those who believe this will continue to remain willfully blinded by their dogma and love of guns. But, hopefully, a few will stop and think, and in that moment of Huh perhaps realize that our current system and love affair with guns is a problem and not a solution.

Consider the following facts – of all the developed nations and those considered advanced we are the country with the highest number of gun deaths per capita and with the highest number of mass shootings. With the exceptions of Brazil, Russia, Estonia and Mexico we have the highest number of murders through any means of these developed countries.

How can you not look at this fact and not believe that we have a problem in how we view and handle gun ownership?

For those who tout looser gun control laws and more guns – how can you advocate this when the United States has a higher civilian gun ownership rate than any other country (with only 5% of the world’s population our citizens own 35 – 50% of the world’s civilian owned guns)? How can you believe that more of the same will somehow result in a different outcome? In a quote that is generally attributed to Einstein, he defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” .

Yes, I know that many factors play a role in our high number of gun deaths and mass shootings. Factors such as our income inequality, poverty, lack of universal medical care, lack of support for education for all, how we deal with the mentally ill, institutional racism, and our own almost unique American culture that tends to glorify violence and violent solutions to problems and with guns being the means of choice for such solutions.

I read comments from those who almost rabidly support guns and argue against almost all gun control or even research into gun violence proudly claiming how they take guns to theaters, to public venues, to even answer their door. And I wonder that they do not question why they feel the need for this? Why they feel so proud of this, for they are indeed proud of it? Why do they not see this as reflecting a societal failure and feel ashamed of it instead? Why do they continue to promote the aspects of our culture that feed into that perception felt as a need?  Why do they not see that feeling the need to carry a gun is a trait more of those countries where laws and society have broken down, where governments are dysfunctional, or where civil war rages than of those with functioning institutions and an advanced economy.

Many things need to change in order to deal with our national problem of gun violence. Better and more effective gun control on its own will not be enough. However, any changes made that do not include more effective gun control laws and a change in our gun worshiping culture will be ineffective. Even worse, such a failure to pass such laws will be like a canary in a coal mine, a signal that our culture with its predilection for violent solutions and love of all things gun has not changed in the way it must.

The first step towards making these changes though lies in first acknowledging that there is a problem and that changes need to happen.

I thought I would try something a bit different in my blog today. Usually I pronounce my words of wisdom for all who have the wit to understand to receive and be enlightened. Today though I am going to post an observation of mine in regards to religion and various social issues. And then, instead of expounding on the reasons why this observation is true – since I have only the vaguest of ideas on why – I am hoping those who read it will provide some of their own thoughts.

Atheists have a strong tendency to point out all the problems and flaws with different religions and argue that they have held up needed social change. As a result, they usually only see the obstructionist role religion has played in needed social change and overlook the other side.

Religious people though often go the other way and emphasize the positive while downplaying the negative.

My own personal view is that religion has been both positive and negative, has fought against social progress and needed cultural change (not surprising since one of the roles of a religion is to foster and support the current society as a sort of glue) but has also often been the sharp end of the stick in regards to creating and promoting social progress and needed cultural change. For example:

  • – Much is made of how religion controlled the state in times past (although often it was the other way around, and even more often both controlling the other in a partnership). However, religion also had a leading role in the development and promotion of the idea and reality of separation of church and state and is a vital component of our current secular government and societies. I detailed a part of this history in my blog “The Religious Root Leading to the Separation of Church and State”.
  • – The church and religion have a long history of providing aide to the poor and sick. The development of hospitals came from our religious history, for example. This link and this one provide some information on this.
  • – The abolition of slavery was led by Christians and churches. As was the Civil Rights movement. And Christian beliefs morphed in such a way that they provided not only comfort to the slaves in the years before the Civil War, but also caused them to fight back in various ways against their oppressors. For example, whenever a religious revival swept through an area there would be more slave unrest and uprisings.

There are other areas where religions also led the way in providing much needed progress and change – including science.

However, in one very recent movement, and one relatively recent movement, instead of seeing this dichotomy in the role of religion, I have seen much more uniformity in religion opposing both movements. These movements are the feminist movement and the gay rights movements. The church and religion have not played as prominent a role in the promotion of either of these two human rights movements as they have in past ones. Yes, some individual religious people and churches have supported these causes, but they are even more of an exception (until recently) than were the churches that supported past progressive movements.

And I don’t fully know why this difference exists between these causes and those of the past.

So, rather than speculate and research further, I will instead let those readers who wish to comment on this. Consider it my lazy way to do research on this topic.

Now, there is no pressure to respond. After all, even if no one responds what am I going to do? Send hit men out? Refuse to let ungrateful and lazy readers read this blob by sending it only to myself from henceforth?

Instead, I will probably whine to my wife and sulk a bit. Perhaps have a good cry at the realization that I am not as popular and thought provoking as I had believed myself to be.

Now, respond!


In this blog I will focus on what should be done to strengthen the bonds between our law enforcement agencies and the community, especially the black community.

First – All Lives Matter is not helpful.

Too many people take offense at the slogan “Black Lives Matter”. They view it as saying that only black lives matter, but that is not the truth. Instead, it is saying that black lives matter TOO.


Blacks are very well aware that they are jailed more often than whites, that their sentences for the same exact offense is longer than a whites, that a black person who kills a white person is much more likely to get the death penalty than is a white person who kills a black. In short, they are aware of the inequities of the system. Black Lives Matter is a cry for equal treatment. Their lives matter too.

Which makes the All Lives Matter meme nothing more than a way to ignore the fact that blacks are not treated equally. By trying to treat Black Lives Matter as a cry for blacks wanting special treatment instead of being the cry for equal treatment that it is, people can ignore the racism and bias that contributes to the problems within the black community, and to the injustices still being perpetuated on so many blacks. This link provides further explanation of this.

Bottom line, the first step is to recognize how our society with its institutionalized and unconscious biases has helped to create this mistrust and problem. Without that, nothing changes.

Another part of the solution is the black community working to improve their own culture and community. What gets ignored though by most whites, especially those who are conservative, is that blacks already are working on this. My blog “On the Irritating Wrongness of the Black on Black Violence Counter-argument” goes over some of this.

Along with this is the white community, especially conservatives, recognizing their efforts instead of ignoring them and saying that the blacks should be working to improve their community. Not recognizing this and pretending or being ignorant of it is an insult to those blacks who are improving their culture.

A bigger problem than mobilizing blacks to improve their own community (since that is already happening) is the white conservatives’ almost purposeful lack of awareness of the role that institutional racism and unconscious bias plays in these problems. Without that sort of awareness, the mistrust that exists will not disappear and the inequalities and injustices committed by our justice system will continue.

The Police and Justice system overall needs to become more aware of their institutional racism and work on ways to change their organization, procedures, and policies in order to overcome them. Body cameras for police are a good start. However, it is not enough. Communicating quickly, openly, and honestly with the community when bad things happen is essential. Creating an outside panel to review shootings, especially of unarmed civilians would be a good move. Creating, reviewing and improving upon policies on when to use deadly force and on how to best to de-escalate tense situations.

Also, allowing the black community and others to drive with and spend time with on duty police so that they can better understand the pressures and challenges faced by police.

Finally, becoming aware and working to overcome the unconscious biases that still plague our society – from jobs to education to our judicial system. There are several ideas for how to accomplish this that are possible, some of which have been shown to be effective. For example, within our judicial system it has been shown that bringing up and going over how unconscious biases work and can influence decisions with jurors helps to offset such biases’ effects.

Building trust between a community and the police is a necessity for a safe and peaceful society. I believe we had one large movement in the 1950s and 60s, the civil rights movement, which overcame the more obvious forms of racism such as Jim Crow laws. It was a time of great unrest, as most such large advances are. It is now time to take on the less obvious but still destructive forms of institutional and unconscious racism and bias. I hope that the unrest that we are experiencing now is the sign that we are finally doing so.


Now, although the number of law enforcement officers killed has not increased, the tensions between the police and the public in general and the black community in particular has increased. The public is very aware of when police kill unarmed citizens, and most especially aware of it when that unarmed citizen is black. In general, I think this is good because it provides an impetus for some needed change. And change is an uncomfortable process. And a chancy one too.

Many conservative groups try to blame this all on the black community – they do not work at educating themselves, their family groups are a shambles, etc. That is part of the problem, but only part, something that becomes apparent when you ask why so many black communities are experiencing these problems. Is it because they are black and so are not able to form communities that function as well as whites do? Cannot persevere in their education, cannot form good and loving families, and cannot make good economic decisions as whites can?

Unless you want to say yes to those questions, and I really, really hope you do not, then there must be a cause for the current state of many black communities. And without knowing that cause, the efforts of blacks to correct and improve their community will be limited at best.

This is something I have already dealt with somewhat in a previous blog, “Of Ferguson and Charleston, Of Confederate Flags and N—–…and Conservatives. Or Kum Ba Yah Bullshit”.

There are two related causes of the current state of many black communities. The first is historical. Black culture today is not the result of a virgin birth or something that appeared fully formed from the foam but instead had many different influences and forces shaping it.

Its base was formed from the brutality that was slavery and then modified by the chains of Jim Crow laws, laws which lasted well into the 1960s (and well within the memory of many still living today). It was shaped by the actions of groups such as the KKK, which at the turn of the 20th century numbered in the millions and had a strong political presence. It was formed in reaction to the numerous lynchings that occurred instead of justice, and to the riots against blacks that at times even destroyed whole black communities.

Black communities were formed and shaped in reaction to the racist policies and programs of the government. Practices such as redlining which from 1934 – 1962 kept blacks from getting any of the 120 billion dollars handed out by the government for home loans. This in turn forced segregation by forcing blacks to live in ghettos, unable to afford the better housing and land. This then rippled through time and affects today’s black communities since blacks, unlike the whites who could and did receive these loans, did not have the property that they could pass on to their children and use as a basis for creating wealth for themselves and their family.

One of the ripples of this policy was education. Schools are funded by property taxes. Since the majority of blacks could not afford to live in good homes and could not get the loans to attain good homes, they did not have the tax base to create good schools. Combine this with the effects of segregation and you have the basis for the educational disparities we see today. Which then, in turn, lead to fewer opportunities for better jobs. A fine example of the effects of institutional racism.

Or consider the way blacks are portrayed in the media – TV, radio, newspapers, magazines. White skin and standards are held up as beautiful, blacks are not. Blacks are shown as criminals much more often than they are in reality, while whites are shown as criminals much less than they are in real life. While this has improved over time, it is still present even today.

Today, while we have gotten rid of most of the more overt signs and accruements of racism, there are the unconscious biases and prejudices, ones people do not even realize they are acting on. These unconscious biases and prejudices are the reasons why a resume with a white sounding name on it is more likely to get an interview than the same resume is with a black person’s name on it. Or why whites will complain more readily about the noise a black group is making than they will of a white group. Or why whites are more threatened by a black person than a white, which has interesting effects in the courtroom when white jurors are deciding on how threatened a police officer or civilian should have felt. And the list goes on.

To tie this in more directly to the current tensions between police and black communities, blacks know that they have been the victim of more stops and harassment from police than whites have. Driving while black has a great deal of truth to it. In fact, take a look at the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson’s Police Department practices for an example of this.

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities. Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.

A consequence of these practices is that blacks, who are usually poor, cannot afford the fines and fees and so served jail time instead. A domino effect of that jail time is that getting a good job after having been jailed is much more difficult. This then contributes to unemployment, underemployment, and continued black poverty.

Let me be clear here. Most police departments are not as bad as Ferguson. Too many are though. And some are worse. And even in the better ones there is the unconscious bias effecting decisions and actions that lead to the appearance and the reality that blacks are not treated equally under our legal system.

With this sort of mistrust how else should the black community respond to reports of unarmed blacks being killed by white police officers?
Adding to this is the fact that for many years police were able to get away with very questionable actions in regards to the use of violence to subdue subjects. Today, with the ubiquitous camera phones, some of those practices are seeing the light of day, and are creating their own effects and waves. All of this has created a climate of distrust between much of the public, especially the blacks, and the police.

So what should be done to correct this, to create and strengthen the trust between law enforcement and community that is such a necessary part of any functional society? That is what I will be discussing in my next blog on this subject.

I started to think about this blog upon hearing of the shooting death of Deputy Darren H. Goforth while he was refueling his patrol car.

Let me first unequivocally condemn the shooting and killing of any law enforcement officer. All such killings are not only a tragedy to those family and friends who know them but also harm the necessary trust that must exist between the public and the police in order for law enforcement to work most effectively.

I am often accused of treating police killings lightly and of always taking the side of the violent blacks when a white policeman shoots an unarmed black person, or when the black community starts to protest or riot. The reason for this is that I usually try to understand the reasons why the shootings and violence occurred. This is too often taken as excusing and somehow justifying the violent behavior. It is not. It is, instead, an attempt to find the root cause of the unrest of much of the black community and the distrust that exists between the black community and our justice system, including the police. To me, this sort of understanding is a necessity if we are ever to move on to a more equal society, one that does not have the unrest that ours does now.

Since I will be doing that here again I thought it necessary to be as explicit as possible about my views. Past experience though indicates that such distinctions will be overlooked again in order to keep with a simple narrative that promotes and protects biases and views. But still……


Among the conservatives and some other groups there is a belief that there is an epidemic of cops being hunted and killed due to the publicity police killings of unarmed blacks and the resulting increased tensions between the black community and police. Groups such as Black Lives Matter and others are being blamed for creating the atmosphere that fosters these incidents. Some even blame President Obama for this. However, is this perception true? And is this perception really the root cause of the problem?

My answer is no.

First, there is no epidemic of police killings. According to the FBI database, felonious killings of law enforcement officers for 2015 is well within the normal number of such killings. Going back and looking at the number of police killings for each year since 2005 we find:

2005 – 55 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2006 – 48 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2007 – 57 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2008 – 41 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2009 – 48 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2010 – 56 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2011 – 72 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2012 – 49 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2013 – 27 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.
2014 – 51 felonious killings of law enforcement officers.

So far this year, 2015, including Deputy Goforth and Illinois police Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, the number of law enforcement officers shot and killed stands at 24. This CNN report provides some details on each of these murders of law enforcement officers this year.

Looking at this, first note there is no above average increase in the number of what the FBI call felonious deaths of law enforcement officers. In fact, going at the current rate the number of law enforcement felonious deaths will be less than last years.

I also note that the numbers stay, overall, remarkably consistent, hovering around the 50s each year with one high year of 72 deaths in 2011 and a low year of 27 deaths in 2013.

In reading a bit about how the officers died this year from the CNN article I again do not see any evidence of a mass killing of police officers brought on by people hunting down police officers.

In short the data do not support the idea of an increase in police deaths due to tensions between the black community and the police. There is none.

What has happened though is that these highly publicized (and rightly so) tensions have provided a framework for people to quickly fit some of the police murders into in order to quickly and easily explain them. There have been a couple of incidents where the killer used these tensions as a reason for shooting a police officer, and it might be true in those instances. However, they still might have gone out to kill a police officer even without these tension and used another excuse for doing so instead. What is certain though is that there is no effort to go out and kill police officers, or at least nothing that has shown up as an increase in the number of law enforcement officers killed.

But if this simplistic narrative does not hold up then what is happening? Actually, many things. There is not just one cause behind all of this, there rarely is for any social issue. But let me focus right now on the one getting a great deal of attention, the black community and police. Which I will do in my next blog.

PRELIMINARY NOTE: I am not saying that most police are racist bigots. I am not saying that most police are the problem. I am saying though that there is institutional racism within enough of our societal organizations, including the police, to be a major issue. I am saying that enough of our police officers are affected and influenced by this racism that it is a problem. And I am saying that ignoring this problem is almost the worst thing that can be done.

In the many discussions I have either taken part in or observed regarding police violence and blacks, encapsulated now by the Black Lives Matter movement, there is one argument that consistently comes up as a way to avoid acknowledging that there is a true problem with police violence and that it has a racial component to it; an argument in the form of a question – why no one is talking about black on black violence? Or it’s variant, why aren’t more blacks concerned and working on black on black violence.


The asking of this question is meant to deny by distraction any problems that exist with police brutality based on race, or, at the very least, minimize it. Basically it is arguing that any problem that exists (and the proponents of this argument are doubtful one really exists) between blacks and police is overwhelmed by the crushing problem of black on black violence and why aren’t all you worthless good for nothing protesters who are being lead around the nose by agitators and thugs dealing with the real problem instead of this fluff problem.

This is argument is tactically akin to the statement “All lives matter”  made in response to the slogan that “Black Lives Matter”.  A statement which downplays and ignores the problems that the Black Lives Matter slogan are meant to highlight. There already is an excellent explanation of why “all lives matter” is such a bad response, and so, other than providing the link, I won’t go into that more here.

But what about the question of black on black violence? The problem with this question lies in the two very questionable assumptions it makes.

First, it assumes that one cannot be against both and working to solve both problems at the same time. A rather ridiculous assumption when held up for examination.

The other assumption is that this question assumes that blacks are not working to address this issue. They are. Here are a few articles detailing some of the actions that have been taken and are still being taken.

I like this article from Slate magazine because it also points out many other problems with this question – for example, the crime rate of black on black violence has been declining.

First, a little context: In the last 20 years, we’ve seen a sharp drop in homicide among blacks, from a victimization rate of 39.4 homicides per 100,000 in 1991 to a rate of roughly 20 homicides per 100,000 in 2008. Likewise, the offending rate for blacks has dropped from 51.1 offenders per 100,000 in 1991 to 24.7 offenders per 100,000 in 2008.

It also points out many of the protests and actions that have been taken by the black community to deal with this issue.

In the last four years, blacks have held community protests against violence in Chicago; New York; Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh; Saginaw, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana. Indeed, there’s a whole catalog of movies, albums, and sermons from a generation of directors, musicians, and religious leaders, each urging peace and order. You may not have noticed black protests against crime and violence, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t happened. Black Americans—like everyone else—are concerned with what happens in their communities, and at a certain point, pundits who insist otherwise are either lying or willfully ignorant.

I also like that it addresses the important difference between black on black violence and violence by police against blacks.

To that point, it’s worth noting the extent to which “what about black-on-black crime” is an evasion, an attempt to avoid the fundamental difference between being killed by a citizen and being killed by an agent of law….

Regardless of cause or concern, a community doesn’t forfeit fair treatment because it has crime. That was true then when the scourge was lynching, and it’s true now that the scourge is unjust police violence. Say what you will about “black-on-black crime,” just don’t pretend it has anything to do with unfair killings at the hands of the state.

I would add that being killed by another citizen does not as quickly or surely jeopardize and damage the bonds of trust that must exist for our societal institutions to exist and function. However, the unjustified killings and violence and arrests by police against a race does jeopardize those essential bonds. Which is why it is so important that they be addressed.


This article from Atlantic provides some nice examples of the protests and work being done in regards to black on black violence (even has Al Sharpton participating in one such event).

Here is an article from Reason magazine telling of some of the actions of high profile members of the black community in regards to black on black violence.

“What about black-on-black violence?” demanded Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum, who is white. “Where is Al Sharpton on that? Where is the president on that?”
Funny you should ask. Sharpton made a publicized trip to Chicago in November to focus attention on the city’s chronic violence. Last year, Michelle Obama attended the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old black honor student who was shot, allegedly by a black gang member.
The first lady later returned to Chicago to converse with students at a school that is nearly 100 percent African-American. “In choosing Harper High School for the visit, the White House noted that 29 current or former students there had been shot in the last year, eight of them fatally,” reported the Chicago Tribune.
The president also traveled to Chicago, meeting with kids involved in a mentoring program for at-risk adolescent boys, bemoaning gun violence and telling a crowd on the South Side, “Our streets will only be as safe as our schools are strong and our families are sound

And this is about the 30th National Preventing Crime in the Black Community Conference being held this year in Florida.

And this is just some of what is being done. This is not a problem that is being ignored, despite what those who want to ignore the other side of the issue, police violence, wish.

And now that I am thinking about it, there is a third assumption to this question, that the violence is due to blacks being blacks.

This racist assumption ignores the fact that poverty, lack of education, as well as opportunities being limited by institutional racism and by too many blacks being arrested and sent to jail and prison (more so than whites for the same crimes) and other factors other than just being black have a large role to play. These issues, while needing to be overcome by the black community, are also partly the result of racist societal forces and actions in the past and a more quiet one in action today, and must be addressed too in order for true justice to exist.
If you read the polls and look at what is being done by the black community, they are well aware of the problems within their community, including black on black violence. And they are working on correcting them. This use of questions as a means to distract from the role that racism and institutional racism still play in creating and maintaining their problems is to be willfully blind to the realities of our country and does a further injustice to the black community.

This same article from Reason magazine, in addition to providing support to the truth that blacks are working to overcome and decrease black on black violence (and with success), also highlights what I have just wrote:

There’s another, bigger problem with the preoccupation with “black-on-black crime.” The term suggests race is the only important factor. Most crimes are committed by males, but we don’t refer to “male-on-male crime.” Whites in the South are substantially more prone to homicide than those in New England, but no one laments “Southerner-on-Southerner crime.” Why does crime involving people of African descent deserve its own special category?

The phrase stems from a desire to excuse whites from any role in changing the conditions that breed disorder and delinquency in poor black areas. It carries the message that blacks are to blame for the crime that afflicts them—and that only they can eliminate it. Whites are spared any responsibility in the cause or the cure.

Excluding them from complicity is harder to do when the killer is white and the killed is black, as in the shooting in Ferguson. Raising “black-on-black crime” right now is not a sincere attempt to improve the lot of African-Americans. It’s a way to change the subject and a way to blame them.

If we really wish to solve the problems of racism, to provide equal opportunity to all regardless of race, religion, or gender, and to provide equal justice to all citizens then both issues have to be addressed – the problems within the black community and the problems with our society’s institutions, including law enforcement. Blacks seem to be well aware of the problems within their community and are working to improve them. If only the same could now be said of the conservative whites of this country.

When one thinks of musicians, especially the ragtime and jazz musicians, one thinks of emotions and hard living. Drinking, drugs, sex – turning experience into music. The common stereotype of a musician is not one of reason, not a champion of those arrayed against the forces of superstition. Which only goes to show, once again, how stereotypes can not only distort reality but obscure it. A case in point – Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime.


For those, hopefully very few, people who do not know who Scott Joplin is, he was a black composer of ragtime music who , although dying young at 49 in 1917, managed to help make ragtime a national hit during his lifetime. His Maple Leaf Rag was ragtime’s first national hit, and the piece for which he was most famous. However, today most are probably more familiar with his work The Entertainer as it was the theme song of the Paul Newman and Robert Redford 1973 Academy Award winning film The Sting.

Part of Joplin’s life does fit the stereotype in that he did play in brothels (that and churches being about the only venues where black pianists of the time could perform consistently), and he did die of syphilis. However, most of his life did not fit the stereotypes expected. For example, he received most of his musical education from a German Jewish music professor who not taught Joplin music and but also exposed him to folk and classical music.

Another aspect of his life that does not fit neatly into stereotypes we have of musicians is that he promoted a skeptical attitude towards superstition and the supernatural. This is something I did not discover until reading an article in the July/August 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer titled “Treemonisha: Scott Joplin’s Skeptical Black Opera”.

The basic plot is outlined succinctly by the Wikipedia entry about Treemonisha;

Treemonisha takes place in a former slave plantation in an isolated forest between Joplin’s childhood town Texarkana and the Red River in Arkansas in September 1884. The plot centers on an 18-year-old woman Treemonisha who is taught to read by a white woman, and then leads her community against the influence of conjurers who prey on ignorance and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps’ nest when her friend Remus rescues her. The community realizes the value of education and the liability of their ignorance before choosing her as their teacher and leader.

For those interested, a more depth synopsis is provided in this article from The Guide to Musical Theater. 

The Skeptical Inquirer article provides some of the lyrics of this opera. For example, here is where Treemonisha admonishes a conjuror who had been selling her community good luck charms that supposedly will “keep away enemies, bring good luck, drive away the blues”:

You have lived without working for many years
All by our tricks of conjury
You have caused superstition and many sad tears.
You should stop, you are doing great injury.

A refrain that applies just as well to our day as to then.

In addition to a skeptical attitude towards superstition, especially when money is involved, and in the harm done even in seemingly small superstitious practices such as buying good luck charms, Treemonisha also promotes the value of education and the importance of doing right instead of wrong, even to the extent of forgiving the conjuror. And, for good measure, it shows a woman taking a position of leadership within that community despite the argument being made during this opera that men would not follow a woman. It should be noted here that Scott Joplin’s second wife, Freddie Alexander, was well educated and was an early feminist as well as a promoter of black culture. And quite possibly also the inspiration for his composing Treemonisha.

All in all, a very good job by not only an accomplished ragtime musician, but an accomplished musician and skeptic, one that plays against the stereotypes we have of musicians and of that age.
And for those interested in what Treemonisha sounds  and looks like, here is a link to a performance of one of its pieces.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 149 other followers