Out of the number of colorful and driven characters of Ragtime, the one who stood out to me most was Coalhouse Walker. The first thing that caught me about him was his collected demeanor. At a time when to be black was to be instantly dismissible as a lesser being and unfit to understand the manners of white society, he quickly distinguishes himself in this regard. His pleasantries and steadfastness in his second wooing of Sarah endear him greatly to me. I don’t agree with every decision he makes, but they make for what I believe is the most compelling and thought provoking storyline in the book.
Coalhouse starts off as a suitor to the young wash woman, Sarah. The relationship between Sarah and Coalhouse that we find ourselves in the middle of is somewhat mysterious. However, a situation that involves burying a baby alive is rarely a good one. (69) So their relationship starts off, from our point of view, as a rocky one. Through perseverance and unknown words, he manages to win her affections in the end. (164)
Coalhouse’s manners, diction and musical talents which set him apart from others of his race in the eyes of the Family, help in the courtship process. His amazing music coming to them from a badly tuned piano is probably a fitting metaphor for how the family, or more specifically, Father, viewed Coalhouse.
To me, Coalhouse’s defining character trait was his pride. The act of vandalizing his car was enough to get him to completely lose sight of his other goals. (177) He forgoes his finance and child in favor of justice. While this is a justified choice, he times he lived in were not sympathetic to the plights of a colored person and he should have been aware of this. He could have bitten the bullet and simply left with a wife and son, been happy. But he couldn’t. It was a matter of unyielding pride and principle. If he had been white and, perhaps a business owner, he could have walked away with everything.
An interesting note on the character is that he himself doesn’t once state that he is particularly sophisticated for a man of color. He simply is the way he is. It is a sad element of the times that this needs to be made a point of at all. He doesn’t acknowledge the fact that as a colored person, he might not be subject to the same rights and dignities as a white person. In fact, Father at one point ponders the possibility that “…Coalhouse Walker didn’t know he was a Negro”(162). It is also this fact that causes him such trouble throughout the book. It is not clear whether this is naivety or sheer moral determination on his part, but it is important nonetheless.
When Coalhouse is confronted by the firemen who harass him, he tries to reasonably talk his way out, as somebody would a parking ticket. (175) This fails and when he goes off to try to get the police involved, he is ignored and returns to see his car cruelly defaced and pushed into a swamp. (177) When he tries again to get the aid of police, he is the one taken away for disturbing the peace. It is even implied that the police officer was enraged by Coalhouse’s politeness on top of his simple insistence on justice. (178)
It’s these acts of outright prejudice that triggers the rest of the story and Coalhouse’s character arc. He doesn’t seem to consider that the law might take his claims any less than seriously for his race. Every time he makes an effort, he is told to forget the case. When he goes far out of his way to find a black attorney to fight for him, he finds himself looked down upon once again for his doggedness.(184)
When Father is told that his presence would likely be enough to get the charges against Coalhouse dropped, it is made clear that that is not an option. (184) Coalhouse needs to pursue the case as far as he can in retribution for the slight. He continually demands, that the car be repaired and an apology be issued. He refuses to even look at the car until this happens. (180) It’s this…