Roots and Ragtime

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John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel chronicle the rise, fall, and in-between wanderings of Houstonian booksellers, civil rights activists, reporters, and musicians—in oversized, Texan fashion.

Most people have heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, canonical English poet and laudanum addict. Far fewer know the life and work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor was a black composer, London-born, his mother a white English woman, his father a doctor from Sierra Leone. The father, frustrated by his inability as a black man to rise higher than a subordinate position in an English hospital, left the family when Samuel was young, went to Africa and never returned. Samuel was raised by his mother. His English schoolmates called him Coalie, according to profiles that ran years later in the London press. They would “taunt” the “keenly sensitive” boy, who “suffered extremely” from the abuse. They once set his hair on fire “to see whether it would burn.”

It’s a two part series for the Oxford American; here’s the first, and then the second.


Bryan Washington has written for Puerto Del Sol, Ninth Letter, and Midnight Breakfast, among others; he's also the recipient of a Houstonia Fellowship. He lives around New Orleans. More from this author →