Thomas Wiggins, a blind and cognitively disabled Black pianist and composer, was born into slavery in 1849 and died in circumstances akin to slavery in 1908. Known as “Blind Tom,” Wiggins began performing from a young age and became one of the most popular American pianists of the nineteenth century—as well as one of the most fiercely debated. He was dubbed idiotic, gifted, monstrous, mechanistic, genius, possessed, sophisticated, primitive, marvelous, magical, uncanny. This incongruous reception provides a window into shifting understandings of the relationship between Blackness and innate musicality. The discourse about Wiggins outlines a crucial phase in the conceptual history of musical talent, which solidified as a privileged social and scientific category by the early twentieth century. Onlookers’ descriptions invoke a set of recurring conceptual metaphors, characterizing talent as a discovery, as a gift, as an embodied trait, and as magic. The illogics within each of these constructions reveal how Wiggins’s performances threatened discourses of talent and their racial underpinnings, exposing chinks in the ideological apparatus that formed during the late nineteenth century and fortified the color line. Wiggins’s case demonstrates that musical ability, like music itself, is not an object or possession but a vast constellation of learned practices that shift over time and circumstance, reflecting the social conditions that cultivate them.
Black Musicality and the Invention of Talent: The Case of Thomas Wiggins
Lindsay J. Wright is an assistant professor in Yale University’s Department of Music. Her research focuses on the interconnection of music performance, pedagogy, and systems of privilege in the United States in the last two centuries. Her current projects consider the life and reception of Thomas Wiggins, race and class in the Suzuki Method of music education, and a monograph on the history of talent shows and American myths of meritocracy.
Lindsay J. Wright; Black Musicality and the Invention of Talent: The Case of Thomas Wiggins. 19th-Century Music 1 July 2023; 47 (1): 33–52. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2023.47.1.33
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