Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 2 Chapter 23 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 2, Chapter 23 | Summary



As he's leaving the New Rochelle house one afternoon, Coalhouse is stopped by a group of racist volunteer firefighters who seem personally offended that a "Negro" can afford a fancy car. The firemen create a blockade in the road, and Chief Conklin tells Coalhouse that if he wants to pass he'll have to pay a $25 fare. Annoyed but polite, Coalhouse insists that this isn't a toll road and that he would simply like to pass. When the firemen refuse, Coalhouse leaves the car to file a complaint with the police. When he returns the car has been vandalized. The roof is torn, and there's a pile of human excrement in the backseat. When the police arrive, Chief Conklin claims Coalhouse acted crazy and damaged the car himself. When Coalhouse objects, a police officer grows agitated. "If you don't take your automobile and get along out of here, I'm going to charge you with driving off the road, drunkenness, and making an unsightly nuisance." He arrests Coalhouse. Father bails out Coalhouse and does his best to support his defense but no lawyer—black or white—wants to take Coalhouse's case.


It is interesting that Mother mentions Booker T. Washington in her argument with Father in Chapter 21. Washington was a popular black orator who controversially preached that black Americans would achieve equality through humility, education, and service to white society rather than by confronting racism directly. Mother welcomed Coalhouse into her home because she believed he followed those ideas. When faced with direct racism, however, Coalhouse refuses to back down and demands what is rightfully his. Racism on the part of the police and fire departments illustrates that African Americans in America were sorely disenfranchised and underserved. Although constitutionally they were "equal" to white men, this equality clearly wasn't practiced. Despite Father's annoyance that Coalhouse doesn't seem to know his place, Father recognizes injustice when he sees it and bails Coalhouse out of jail.

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