The Music History and Theory Study Group Present:

Lindsay Wright

University of Chicago

The Talented Tenth: Music and Uplift, 1860-1930

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Logan 801

My dissertation, “Discourses of Musical Talent in American History, Pedagogy, and Popular Culture,” explores the concept of musical talent in American society. Of the four main chapters, the first examines influential historical moments in which this concept emerged and offers theoretical foundations for the remaining chapters. The final three chapters offer case studies, each of which demonstrates a context in which social constructions like “giftedness” and “talent” emerge from, obscure, and perpetuate differential access to power and privilege.

For this workshop, I’ll discuss the first part of Chapter Two. This chapter investigates discourses of musical talent in relation to shifting African American racial uplift strategies from 1870 to 1920. The chapter begins by examining the case of renowned pianist and former slave “Blind Tom” Wiggins, who was rumored to repeat any piece of music after a single hearing. The reception of Blind Tom’s multi-decade career highlights changing discourses of talent—from assumptions of divine inspiration, to medicalized and racialized understandings of the black performer as a “human phonograph” without creative abilities, to claims that Blind Tom proved that musical talent, described as the lone gift of African Americans, was disconnected from all other intellectual capacities. Furthermore, this chapter uncovers and analyzes connections between receptions of African American performers and the history of educational testing movements, the emergence of disability and extraordinary ability as social categories, and changing strategies of uplift amongst the black elite—or the “talented tenth,” as conceived by W.E.B. Du Bois. Ultimately, this chapter demonstrates how categorizations based on race, disability, and talent did not emerge independently during this era, but were co-constituted and remain fundamentally linked in contemporary musical, educational, and cultural discourses. 

Persons who believe they may require accommodations to participate fully in this event should contact the coordinator, Bradley Spiers at, in advance.

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