I worked as a small cog on Ford’s Theater’s production of Ragtime. If you read this between March 15 and May 20 and Ford’s is within a day’s journey for you, I highly encourage y’all to see it. It’s flipping good.
Ragtime is a show about the intersections of privilege, race, and immigration status at the turn of the 20th century. All of its themes resonate today, indeed, the entire theater practically rattles with the thrum of a show that speaks directly to the world as it exists today in almost comically explicit terms. When the black mourners at a funeral cry out “What is wrong with this country?” after the unjust death of a black woman at the hands of white men it’s hard not to be struck by how precisely a show written in the 1990’s based on a novel from the 1970’s pierces our guts late in the 2010's. The past isn’t even past.
But of all the scenes in the play that just crash into my conscience, it is the penultimate scene that makes me think most urgently of the state of America today. If you care about spoilers and stuff, which you should not, but if you do . . . that’s about to happen.
In broad strokes, Coalhouse Walker, Jr is a black piano player whose lover is beaten to death in a small town in New York as Coalhouse seeks justice for the destruction of his Model T at the hands of racist firemen. He vows revenge for the killing and burns the firehouse down, killing several firemen in the process. This leads to crisis, naturally. A rich family in that town had sheltered Coalhouse’s woman and their child and they are thrust, very much against their will, into the midst of his revenge. At the very end of the story, Coalhouse has holed up in the Morgan library, threatening to blow it and himself up. He has been surrounded by the police, but Booker T Washington, that pillar of respectability politics (and all the complexity of that term, not all of which is positive), has convinced him to end the siege, theoretically for the safety of his men. Booker T. Washington even has the temerity to promise Coalhouse a fair trial (which no one should believe, it’s the lone false note of the show). The husband of the woman who cared for Coalhouse’s lover and his child remains with him in the Morgan library, a temporary hostage before Coalhouse gives himself up. Coalhouse asks Father (that’s all the character gets for a name) “Are they going to kill me?” And Father, who has flashed his share of entitled racism during the play, says “Of course not. They’re decent men. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here.”
That’s the record scratch moment for me in 2017. Because, unless you live under a fucking rock, you know gorram well that a black man who killed white men will be shot dead waaaaay before he sees the inside of a cell (and definitely not vice-versa), never mind a courtroom, in the early days of the 20th century (also known as right effing now). And no black man alive in that time would have any illusions about that either. So when Coalhouse asks Father whether they are going to kill him, it is not because Coalhouse is wondering about about it for himself; he knows they are going to kill him. But it helps him take the measure of Father. Father, clueless, casually racist Father, the “complacent man” who has never considered the height of the perch of his privilege, who believes without effort in the inherent decentness and earnestness of white men, even those white men who very much do not extend any form of the benefit of the doubt to anyone with skin darker than theirs, means as well as such a person can. So when Coalhouse walks out into the waiting ambush, it’s as if to say to Father: “I will show you how decent these men are.”
Father is set in his ways, of course, and the play is at an end. We learn next that Father dies on the Lusitania, so we never know whether Coalhouse’s death prompted any sincere soul searching in him, but Father is like a fictional character, so who really cares about him? The question is now firmly about you and I out here in the audience: Do we finally see that what passes for decency among us privileged white folk is often a moral optical illusion created by a culture that makes it impossible for us to see indecency right in front of us?
This is by far the most urgent moral question being asked of Americans today now that Donald Trump is President and people are discovering that they don’t need their dog whistles as much anymore. Steve King, a Congressman from Iowa, recently praised Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who, and I am not making this up, wants to close every mosque in the Netherlands and kick every Muslim out among other heinous things, for protecting and preserving civilization (I will not link to King’s reprehensible remarks). It is the starkest display of white nationalism (aka RACISM) outside of the Ku Klux Klan (David Duke did not hesitate to praise Steve King for his, ahem, honesty). No one in the Republican party leadership openly rebuked Steve King. Paul Ryan hoped that he misspoke. Jeff Sessions questioned whether discrimination against women and LGBTQ people really exists or is all that serious a problem during his confirmation hearings. Republicans voted for him because he was such a decent guy as a colleague. ICE and CBP folk generally think of themselves as decent when they detain Americans with Islamic names or request ID from people coming off a domestic flight or arrest a father in front of his children after dropping them off at school or detain someone with a work visa under a program they don’t really agree with. Almost all villains think they are doing the right thing. “Decent” men are capable of extraordinary cruelty and brutality. “Decent” men commit atrocities.
Every white person in America, whatever your personal politics, needs to reckon with their privilege and the continuing damage the structures that enable that privilege are doing to society, especially under the guise of law and order. It’s pretty easy for me to type that, of course. It’s taken me years to even scratch the surface. If you’re looking for a place to start, you can start with the case for reparations or watch 13th or I Am Not Your Negro. Follow Wesley Lowery at the Washington Post, German Lopez at Vox, Ta-Nehisi Coates at wherever he is writing, Michael Eric Dyson, Roxane Gay, Vann Newkirk, and Brittany Packnett. Read W.E.B. DuBois, Maya Angelou, August Wilson, and this dude, you may not have heard of him, who wrote something from jail. Real racial change will come when enough white people see that their conceptions of law and order have been shaped by centuries of racial animus and who decide to seek to improve the quality of their mercy instead of accepting the brutality of the status quo. Ragtime is not a fictional story of the past: it is the story of now, right now .You can be like Father, clueless and only responsive to people he’s actually met himself, casually cruel to those less fortunate than himself. Or you can help figure out how to prevent Coalhouse’ lover from ever being murdered in the first place.