(upbeat jazz music) - [Narrator] Blind, Black, and often a musician.
The blind and Black musician is a longstanding trope that even predates music legends like Ray Charles.
♪ Tell me what I'd say ♪ ♪ Tell me what I'd say ♪ - The first musician that becomes wildly popular under the trend of being blind and Black and being able to play an instrument is a musician named Thomas Wiggins, colloquially known as Blind Tom.
He was born into slavery in Georgia in 1849.
(upbeat blues music) - [Narrator] How did slavery contribute to the blind and Black trope?
And how do Black musicians challenge that narrative today?
- I, of course, don't wanna fall into the trope of the blind musician because the societal trope that was created is very one note.
- [Narrator] Let's get an historian's take on the origins of the trope of the blind Black musician.
(static) - Hi, my name is Danielle Bainbridge and I'm a professor of theater performance studies and African American studies at Northwestern University.
(upbeat piano music) Blind Tom was considered one of the earliest Black celebrities.
He did national tours, he did large concerts.
Folks who were both disabled and enslaved were actually put to work on stage and oftentimes made you actually infinitely more valuable than traditional laborers on plantations because you could gain ticket sales, souvenir programs, souvenir photos, appearances at rich houses, and all of this created lots and lots of revenue and income for the slave owners.
In fact, blind Tom's performances are nearly $100,000 a year, which would be well over $1 million today.
It's unclear if blind Tom actually got to keep any of his profits.
He was always under the custodianship of various members of the Buffoon family and also involved in numerous court cases in order to determine who would gain ownership of him and ultimately ownership of his earnings.
In the wake of blind Tom, in the early 20th century we actually see a trend of African American musicians who are blind, putting blind in front of their name as a marketing ploy.
So we see these country blues or Delta blues artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, the Blind Boys of Alabama use that to promote their career and ultimately to push their career forward.
- Recognizing that Black blind trope and wanting to use it to your advantage by saying, hey, we are a gospel singing group of blind folks, come book us as this novelty act so that you can pay your bills so that you can make a name for yourself.
I can't hate on that.
(static) My name is Lachi, she/her, and I'm a Black woman with cornrows.
I'm a singer songwriter and disability inclusion advocate, and I identify as blind.
There is also the possibility of honestly wanting to celebrate the fact that you're blind.
Wanting to say, I'm blind and do music.
And I want to be put on the same footing as other people who do music in a different way.
- [Narrator] Knowing this history about blind Black musicians, how did Ray Charles turn that trope on its head?
- Ray Charles was actually incredibly unique as a musician because he comes in the wake of all of these musicians who found success marketing themselves as disabled and musicians.
And so he's living in this legacy but he also is rejecting it at the same time.
He was actively aware of this trope of blues musicians and other musicians who used the moniker blind blank.
And he decided that he wasn't going to become Blind Ray Charles, but rather that he wanted to be known squarely as Ray Charles.
- I think the keyword is singer.
I'm a singer.
I mean, I am not a jazz singer or I am not a blues singer.
I am not a country Western singer, or- I am a singer.
- It's interesting that Ray Charles decided against playing the guitar at a very young age because he didn't wanna fall into that blind musician poor pitiful on the corner trope.
- The significance in Ray Charles deciding not to use blindness as his stage name is actually really about agency.
Agency becomes really important, especially as we trace this trajectory of disabled Black performers, because we have to remember that under slavery Black people were not just laborers.
They were capital themselves.
- I think there's an observational bias that all blind folks have this whisper in them of, you know an ability to just be a musician.
26% of Americans have some form of disability.
Honestly, disabled people are expert problem solvers, right?
When you wake up in the morning and it's a huge puzzle to figure out how to get from your bed to the bathroom every morning.
Well, you start to hone that muscle, right?
It's why a lot of us are so driven, so determined and such visionaries, honestly because we have to continue to traverse a society that wasn't really built for us.
I couldn't 100% relate to Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles because I'm a female, and I don't aspire to gospel.
And so that, having to try to break free of the Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles trope actually is something that blind musicians have to deal with.
- [Narrator] So how are musicians challenging those tropes today?
- There are so many contemporary blind artists that I admire.
There's an amazing singer songwriter, her name is Precious Perez.
She does Latin and pop music.
There is a great musician out in London named Andre Lewis who plays every single instrument.
There is a young musician still coming up named Devin Gutierrez based out of Texas.
He plays the piano and is a multi-instrumentalist.
There are a lot of organizations that wanna make the world more inclusive.
There are people that wanna do it through policy.
There are people that wanna do it through technology.
What we wanna do is do it through culture.
I am the founder and president of RAMPD.org recording artists and music professionals with disabilities.
- I hope for the future of music to be accessible.
Not just for folks with disability but for folks across the entire spectrum.
We are everywhere and we need our stories told.
And so I believe that an accessible future in music looks like us telling our stories.
- [Narrator] Thanks for watching Historians Take.
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See you next time.