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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 2 Chapter 21 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 2, Chapter 21 | Summary



Back at the home in New Rochelle, a ragtime musician driving a brand new Model T car arrives looking for Sarah. Mother invites the man in but quickly returns to say that Sarah does not wish to see him. Like clockwork, the man, who is later revealed to be Coalhouse Walker Jr., arrives every Sunday and asks to visit Sarah. Although Sarah continually refuses to see him, Mother warms to the idea of entertaining him—despite Father's objections; "He is well-spoken and conducts himself as a gentleman ... When Mr. Roosevelt was in the White House he gave dinner to Booker T. Washington. Surely we can serve tea to Coalhouse Walker Jr." During Coalhouse's next visit, Father is routinely annoyed but perks up when Coalhouse plays a few ditties on their piano. After Father makes an inadvertently racist statement, Coalhouse leaves, disappointed to still not have seen Sarah. Time passes and eventually, one Sunday, Sarah finally agrees to see Coalhouse. A few short weeks later, the couple is engaged.


Race relations at the turn of the century are on full display in this chapter. Although slavery was abolished in the Untied States more than 50 years earlier, segregation and discrimination are commonplace. Doctorow eases readers into this theme through "gentler" unintentional racism before the outright violent racism of the next few chapters. As soon as Coalhouse Walker enters the scene, segregation is clear as he enters the New Rochelle home through the back door. When Father assumes all "coon music" must include "smiling and cakewalking," he illustrates his racial ignorance. He is describing minstrel music, in which white men don blackface and act out racially demeaning caricatures of African Americans. Some middle-class white Americans (such as Father) who had little contact with black Americans considered these performances the epitome of black culture.

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