Exploring What It Means to Be Black Through the Footsteps of Ragtime’s Coalhouse Walker Jr.

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Exploring What It Means to Be Black Through the Footsteps of Ragtime’s Coalhouse Walker Jr. essay
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E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime dives into the complex lifestyles of various characters that represent the identities and attitudes of America during the early twentieth century. Coalhouse Walker Jr. is one of the main characters presented in the novel, an African American male whose story becomes intertwined with that of the New Rochelle family because of his relationship Sarah, a black woman the family takes in. Coalhouse’s story in New Rochelle quickly reveals the struggles and complexities that African Americans have to endure at that time and has expanded to the twenty-first century. Coalhouse Walker’s character constantly challenges the stereotypes that affect black Americans while also broadening the scope of what it means to be black in America.

The way E.L. Doctorow introduces Coalhouse Walker Jr. sets the tone of his character and the way the reader perceives him. Doctorow writes that Coalhouse was a “colored man” that was “respectful”, yet “there was something disturbingly resolute and self-important in the way he asked her [Mother] if he could please speak with Sarah” (Doctorow 155). Furthermore, Doctorow notes that Coalhouse’s Model T Ford showed as the “brightwork gleamed” (Doctorow 155) while driving through New Rochelle. As an African American male, particularly during this period, he appears to have a pleasant demeanor, and as the owner of a Model T Ford, he has reached wealth and success. However, the language E.L. Doctorow uses in the description reveals intimidation in the way his white counterparts perceive Coalhouse. Coalhouse’s demeanor is described as being “disturbingly resolute” (Doctorow 155-156) which means that he exhibited an attitude that was firm and extremely determined. The fact that Coalhouse was determined appears to mean that as a black male he has confidence in himself and what he has achieved in his life so far. However, his confidence is “disturbing” (Doctorow 155) to Mother which alludes to the fact that Coalhouse was not acting as black people should act. Over the past centuries in America, black people have felt compelled to show their status in society by clothing themselves in traditional American aesthetic or code-switching to fit in with those associated with money. Due to the nature of the treatment of black people who try to unapologetically embrace their culture in America, assimilating themselves into the “cultured” white male American majority is the only outlet for acceptance. Coalhouse’s character is exactly doing just that: he is trying to appeal to the white New Rochelle family by acting as “white” as he can even though he is black. Coalhouse’s demeanor and attitude are daunting to the New Rochelle family because he is not behaving according to the African American stereotype during that time.

E.L. Doctorow complicates Coalhouse Walker’s character even further: “It occurred to Father one day that Coalhouse Walker Jr. didn’t know he was a Negro. The more he thought about this, the more true it seemed” (Doctorow 162). Father’s perception of Coalhouse is more overt in this passage because he realized that “Walker didn’t act or talk like a colored man” and Coalhouse was able to “transform the customary deferences practiced by his race so that they reflected to his own dignity rather than the recipient's” (Doctorow 162). Walker’s assimilation to white American culture is evident to those around him, but instead of being protected from the evils of systemic racism and prejudice, it only alienates him even more from white society. The New Rochelle family, except Mother’s Younger Brother, becomes confused with how to interact or handle Coalhouse Walker Jr. because he is an anomaly in the white, wealthy American society they live in.

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Coalhouse Walker Jr. has an idea of how he should be treated as a human being. However, that idea does not match with the perspectives surrounding black people in an upper-class, white society such as New Rochelle. After the incident occurred in which local white volunteer firemen vandalized Walker's car, Coalhouse quickly demands fair treatment for his vehicle to be restored to its original condition. Doctorow writes that it “did not occur” to Coalhouse that he should have “ingratiate himself in the fashion of his race” when approaching the white firemen (Doctorow 176). Coalhouse does not consider giving in to the white men and behaving to a standard that is acceptable of black people during the early twentieth century. Rather Coalhouse chooses to stand-up for his rights as an American human being and spends his money that he was saving up for his wedding with Sarah on securing a lawyer to defend him in court. Coalhouse will sacrifice everything to prove that he is worthy of equal treatment which is why he goes against white institutionalized oppression and what is expected of him as a black male to prove a point about the state of black people in America. Walker’s fiery behavior and determined demeanor are deemed as “damnable nigger pride” (Doctorow 211) by Father. Although Doctorow could make the case that Coalhouse is merely fighting for what he deserves as an American citizen who is black and underrepresented, his desire for human rights will continuously be off-putting to white American citizens such as Father.

The African American community has always experienced a divide in how black people should behave in America. In any diverse group or community, there are not just two ways to think, but there are two prominent ideas that present themselves when choosing how to discuss race and identity: the politics of respectability or fully embracing black culture. Respectability politics encompasses a set of behaviors that a member of an oppressed identity group would resort to in order to try to achieve equality (Harris). An example of respectability politics in Ragtime is Coalhouse’s adaptation to white, upper-class culture, so that he can be seen differently than what his skin color may perceive him as by others. Coalhouse believes that dressing a certain way, talking a certain way, and behaving a certain way will help him gain respect from his white counterparts. However, as Ragtime progresses and Doctorow introduces the situation involving the vandalism of Coalhouse’s car by prejudice firemen, it shows that it does not matter if Coalhouse is affluent or dresses presentable because he will always be black. Racism and institutionalized oppression will still plague Coalhouse’s life no matter how much he tries to adapt to white society.

Doctorow introduces a vital section of Ragtime when Booker T. Washington comes to Coalhouse in an attempt to “reason” with him about radicalism and militancy. This pivotal moment reveals a great deal about the state of black people in America and mimics crucial moments of the opinions of black people. It seems that whenever a black person commits a crime, or injustice is served to a black person, prominent African American leaders always have something to say about the occurrence, whether it is positive or negative. Doctorow describes Washington as “the most famous Negro in the country” whose agenda to benefit the black community included being “against all Negro agitation on questions of political and social equality” (Doctorow 279). Washington essentially founded the Tuskegee Institute not only to push “vocational training for colored people”, but to find an alternative for black success in hopes of the “Negro’s advancement with the help of his white neighbor” which he calls for in Up From Slavery (Doctorow 279). The way Doctorow frames Washington’s ideas of “self-realization” (Doctorow 279), and pacifism is what some black people may consider a “race traitor”. Booker T. Washington wanted African Americans to substitute their desire and fight for equality for economic and educational gain and prosperity. Washington felt that truly assimilating oneself into the white community and forgetting about making political stands against white institutions would be the most rational thing for blacks to do in America. In Washington’s speech to persuade Coalhouse to step away from the political protest, he remarks, “I have had to persuade the white man that he need not fear us or murder us, because we wanted only to improve ourselves and peaceably join him in enjoyment of the fruits of American democracy” (Doctorow 281). Washington is trying to convince Walker that black people need to appeal to white society by completely changing themselves and what they are fighting for. Booker T. Washington is essentially holding black people accountable for trying to end their prejudice and oppression in white institutions and throughout America.

The conversation between Coalhouse and Washington exposes somewhat of a dark side of respectability politics. Both figures represent two different perspectives of an argument concerning the civil rights of black people in America. Doctorow explains that Washington feels that “every incident of faulted Negro character has cost me a piece of my life” which includes “every Negro in prison, every shiftless no-good gambling and fornicating colored man” that are now his enemies (Doctorow 281). Booker also tries to interrogate Coalhouse by asking him rhetorical questions about the impact of his radical actions on the black community: “What will you misguided criminal recklessness cost me! What will it cost my students laboring to learn a trade by which they can earn their livelihood and still white criticism!” (Doctorow 281). Washington is going to every length of persuasion when talking to Coalhouse, so that he can abandon his political movement and groom him into becoming what Washington himself is, a puppet for white American society. Furthermore, Booker tries to attribute his success in white America as a sign of racism dying which is only perpetuating the oppressed system that compelled him to create Tuskegee Institute in the first place. Doctorow unintentionally creates irony around the fact that Booker T. Washington is not mindful of the racist institution of slavery that he came from in the deep South which is what Coalhouse is distinctly fighting for. Washington’s overall speech towards Coalhouse does not show that he cares about the wellbeing of his race, yet he cares more about gaining economic wealth and power.

Coalhouse’s response to Washington’s complaint of him is extremely contrary to demeanor and tone. After thanking Washington for coming to talk to him and telling him of his admiration towards him, Coalhouse says merely that “therefore, possibly, we might both be servants of out color who insist on the truth of our manhood and the respect it demands”, causing Washington to “lose consciousness” (Doctorow 282). This overall statement proves that Coalhouse believes that his behavior and political opinions are essential to the global fight against black injustice. One is forced to examine the entire situation that sparked the riot and realize that Coalhouse believes that what he is doing is right and just. Coalhouse is not looking for economic prosperity and education that Washington tries to persuade him towards. He was already equipped with those things, and they did nothing to protect him from the hatred of white Americans, but caused him to be ridiculed even more. Coalhouse realizes that having education and money is the end all, be all to make it in American society, but he continues to challenge the norm of black Americans. He chooses to ignore the persuasion of Booker T. Washington, a figure with influence and prominence during the twentieth century, to resist the system to try to acquire what he feels he deserves and what is right.

Being able to sacrifice himself and willing to die for his political protest is precisely what sets Coalhouse Walker Jr. apart from other black people of the early twentieth century. Doctorow can present a character that is complexed and nuanced in the way he can manifest into the perspectives of different black people, but also creates a lane of his own that shows that he is not like every other stereotypical black person. Coalhouse complicates the stereotypes and norms of African Americans: he subscribes to aspects of respectability politics because he wants to show off the fruits of his labor or he could be classified as a fiery black man when he takes part in radical acts and militancy. However, Coalhouse is not an angry black man, instead of one who is fighting for a political cause in the best way that he feels he can especially after he tried to go the legal route and be calm to find justice. Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a representation of a group of black people who take their matter of oppression into their own hands, and although it may not end well for them, it can set the precedent of what is to be expected and come in the future.

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Expert Review
This essay provides a thorough analysis of the character Coalhouse Walker Jr. in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and effectively explores the complexities and struggles faced by African Americans during the early twentieth century. The writer demonstrates a deep understanding of the novel and its themes, and effectively supports their arguments with evidence from the text. The essay is well-structured and flows logically, with each paragraph building upon the previous one. The writer also effectively incorporates quotes from the novel to support their analysis. Overall, this is an excellent essay that showcases strong analytical skills and a deep engagement with the text.
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What can be improved
The essay could benefit from a stronger introduction that provides a clear thesis statement and previews the main points that will be discussed. Additionally, the conclusion could be expanded to provide a more comprehensive summary of the essay's main arguments and to tie them together more effectively.
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Exploring What It Means to Be Black Through the Footsteps of Ragtime’s Coalhouse Walker Jr. (2020, December 24). WritingBros. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/exploring-what-it-means-to-be-black-through-the-footsteps-of-ragtimes-coalhouse-walker-jr/
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