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Eighth annual Mandel Lecture in the Humanities Series

Dr. Daphne Brooks discussed protest music in America and the struggle for Black freedom at the eighth annual Mandel Lectures in the Humanities Series at Brandeis University. Brooks spoke on the work and legacy of two former slaves and how their music impacted future artists.   

“By following the creative, the experimental, and the intellectual intimacies of our 19th century forebears, Wiggins and Sheppard … [unsettle and undo] the very economy of the protest music tradition,” said Brooks. 

Thomas Wiggins, also known as “Blind Tom,” was a 19th century piano prodigy whose music and legacy brings up new questions about how slaves documented their subjugation, according to Brooks, especially since Wiggins did not have any writings of his own. Ella Sheppard, who was also a slave, had a remarkable influence that extended well beyond her lifetime, similar to Wiggins, Brooks explains, saying that the talents and contributions of Thomas Wiggins and Ella Sheppard are not to be overlooked. 

Brooks highlights Wiggins’s “extraordinary sensory power” that propelled him to success and recognition, adding that his existence as a Black and disabled man in white supremacist spaces challenged public norms and assumptions about Black and disabled people. His contributions left the public asking, “How is it possible for him to execute the work of Beethoven?” said Brooks. 

“Sheppard gave the first ensemble of Jubilee Singers a blueprint for a signature vocal performance and built the framework for its elegant and enchanting meticulously crafted vocal style,” said Brooks. 

Brooks explains that in addition to her vocal style, Sheppard was a genius of musical arrangement and was able to listen to her own people. “Sheppard’s decision with her fellow singers to turn to the repertoire of Black vernacular sustenance, and to arrange the songs anew, was an act of radical transfiguration,” said Brooks.  

The influence of Wiggins and Sheppard is undeniable, according to Brooks. Both musicians influenced many other performers, most notably the singer Aretha Franklin. Franklin was a Grammy Winner and was dubbed the “Queen of Soul,” according to her biography

“Aretha consolidates these aesthetic actions in the new era of civil rights property,” said Brooks. Franklin was able to use elements and themes from Wiggins’s and Sheppard’s work and infuse them into her own, bringing new life to her music. 

Brooks highlighted the importance of acknowledging the work of Sheppard and Wiggins, saying, “The remaking of our shared humanity, the ethical instantiate of our communal purpose and possibility … is like a wreath of soul, what keeps us alive,” said Brooks.  

This lecture was titled, “Invisible Music: The Sonic Idea of Black Revolution from Captivity to Reconstruction,” and was a part of the Mandel Lecture Series, which was started in honor of the creation of the Mandel Center for the Humanities at Brandeis. The webinar was aimed at highlighting the interdisciplinary mission of the humanities at Brandeis. Brooks is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Music at Yale University.

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