'Perhaps by an Act of Will ...'

If you have a long car-trip in your future, do yourself a favor and cop E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime on audiobook, read by Doctorow himself. The trouble with audiobooks, for me, is getting past the voice in my head and adjusting to the reader. But when it's the author himself, it gets a little easier. 


My trip was to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, land of my ancestors, to attend a rather lush event held by a friend. It was rather wild looking out on the adjoining river, the beautiful green, eating cupcakes, and remembering that my forbears had once picked tobacco in that same region (though not on that land proper, to be sure.) Southerners live with that feeling constantly. But for people like me, products of the migration, it only comes on special occasions.

I drove back from the Eastern Shore, with family in tow, to watch the Mayweather fight with some of my Baltimore fam, and then back up to New York early the next morning. In other words, it was a family filled weekend. Ragtime made an awesome soundtrack for the journey. I've come to think of the book as a work of history, not academic history, but history in the sense of trying to make you feel the era which it chronicles.

That aside, two passages keep coming back to me:

Father stood on a slight rise at the edge of the tall grass. On a dried mud flat fifty yards away Younger Brother bent down and prepared his demonstration. He had arranged with Father that the first combustion would be that of the standard firecracker and the second of the cherry bomb design. He suddenly stood up, held one arm aloft and backed away a few paces. Father heard the faint pop of the firecracker after he saw a wisp of smoke erased by the wind. Younger Brother now moved forward again, bent down and backed away, this time more quickly. 

He held up two arms. An explosion then occurred like a bomb. Sea gulls were suddenly wheeling through the air and Father felt the after-concussion as a ringing in his ears. He was quite alarmed. When Younger Brother rejoined him, his face was flushed and his eyes glistened. Father suggested that perhaps the charge was too powerful and might do injury. I don't want to produce something that would put a child's eye out, Father said. 

Younger Brother said nothing but walked back to his proving ground and lit another cherry bomb, this time standing up a bare pace or two from the fuse. He stood as if in a shower bath, his face upturned to the water. He held out his arms. The bomb exploded. Again he bent down and again held out his arms. The bomb exploded. The birds turned in widening circles, soaring out over the Sound, swooping over whitecaps and hovering on the wind.

I can't tell if I love that section because of the writing or because of what it foreshadows. Younger Brother is the most compelling, and probably fully realized, character in the book. (Houdini is pretty good, as is the Little Boy, and Emma Goldman, and...)

And then there's this section, just before Coalhouse goes Robert Charles:

Here, given subsequent events, it is important to mention what little is known about Coalhouse Walker Jr. Apparently he was a native of St. Louis, Missouri. As a young man he had known and admired Scott Joplin and other St. Louis musicians and had paid for his piano studies with money he earned as a stevedore. There is no information about his parentage. At one point a woman in St. Louis claimed to be his divorced wife but that was never proved. 

There were never located any of his school records in St. Louis and it still is not known how he acquired his vocabulary and his manner of speaking. Perhaps by an act of will.

I was saying on twitter, the other day, that that last line just sums up the African-American experience, for me. I immediately thought of Nas.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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