Jeffrey Renard Allen’s book Song of the Shank is an imagined life of a real person, the 19th-century musical prodigy Thomas Wiggins. It’s a slow-going book, not to be read at a gallop; much of it is stream of conscious, and there are times when it is not clear whose consciousness is streaming.
What makes the book important are the underlying metaphors Mr. Allen engages that depict the different kinds of slavery and imprisonment in which people can be held, mentally, physically, spiritually.
Why should we care about a long-ago musical prodigy? Well, Thomas was African-American, and that alone might make him stand out. In addition, he was born to a slave couple. If that’s not enough to whet the appetite, Thomas was blind and severely autistic.
Thomas’s parents, Charity and Domingo, were slaves belonging to a Georgia man named Wiley Jones. Tom was born in 1848, blind and with severe developmental disabilities. According to Ms. O’Connell, Jones did not want to support a useless body and planned to sell the family off one by one. The chances of Tom’s being bought were slim to none, and there was a great likelihood that he would die of neglect.
Tom’s mother asked a neighboring slave owner, General James Bethune, to buy the whole family; on the day of the auction, he did this and life changed for the Wiggins family as well as for the Bethunes.
Without sight, Tom’s senses focused on sound. He had an ability to imitate any sound he heard. He would sneak into the Bethunes’ house and bang on the piano, fascinated by the different notes. He spent a lot of time in the woods, learning nature’s music. General Bethune eventually saw the musical potential of this odd child and brought him into his home to learn to play the piano as well as to learn manners and deportment.
Under the General’s management, Blind Tom, as he became known, performed throughout the state from the age of about 6. When he was eight, traveling showman Perry Oliver became his manager. By advertising his charge as little better than a beast, Oliver was able to boost audiences’ reactions to Tom’s mastery at the piano.
Oliver introduced Tom to many experiences and might seem like the perfect manager if we forget who Tom was and where he came from. Oliver brought Tom to Washington, DC, during the time when the country was in its first spasms of break-up after Abraham Lincoln’s nomination to the Presidency. Hearing the voices in Congress debating abolition and secession, Tom’s mimic abilities allowed him to repeat on stage what he had heard, to audiences’ great delight. After hearing Stephen Douglas at a rally, Tom not only brought his speech to life on stage, but also the cheers and heckling of the audience. Oliver scheduled Tom to perform at benefit concerts for the Confederate cause, and Tom became the first African-American to perform in the White House when President Buchanan invited him there.
After the Civil War began, Tom started composing; at the age of 15 he produced “The Battle of Manassas” (Bull Run), reproducing perfectly the sounds of marching feet, drum and fife, and muskets’ and cannons’ roar. It became famous, and the South believed it was an anthem in the rebel cause.
Tom eventually became a world-renowned phenomenon; Mark Twain and Willa Cather were fans. As might be expected, though, he was still a slave. When not performing, he was locked in hotel rooms. The vast amounts of money his concerts took in were never seen by him or his family, from whom he was entirely estranged. General Bethune’s son had taken over as guardian, and he lived sumptuously on Tom’s earnings. When he died, neither his wife Eliza nor Tom were left anything. Eliza found Charity and brought her to New York to engage in a legal battle for Bethune Jr.’s money; they won the suit, but Eliza dismissed Charity back to the South and she never saw Tom again.
Tom died at the age of 60 from a stroke and was buried in Brooklyn in an unmarked grave. Reportedly a Bethune daughter had his body disinterred and reburied in Georgia, but this has been disputed. There are two plaques for Thomas Wiggins, one in Brooklyn at Evergreen Cemetery and one in Columbus, Georgia.
Song of the Shank goes underneath all of these facts to present a different way to look at Tom’s life, as well as Charity’s and even Eliza’s. Tom as a toddler was accident prone, and Mr. Allen’s book suggests that these were not really accidents. How did Tom become dunked upside down in a barrel of water, nearly drowning? Were the bruises on his arms and legs a natural result of childhood tumbling or willfully inflicted? Was Tom really born blind, or in his autistic obsessive behavior scratch his own eyeballs to a point where severe infection set in? (I have worked with an autistic man who would bite his own hand to the point of having permanent teeth marks on it; when told “no,” he would beat his face and head.) This self-mutilation suggests that Tom did not want to see the reality of his life, his slavery, and deliberately took away the sense of sight so that he could put all his hope into the sounds of music.
Mr. Allen’s book also suggests that, because Tom did not know what being born black meant, and because he lived with the Bethunes, he became imprisoned in the evil of racism himself. He could tell “niggers” by touch and smell, and disdained them. When reunited with his mother, who despite now being free is in her own prison of guilt about letting Tom be taken away from her, his first instinct is to reject her. He hasn’t the concept of “mother” or “family” any more than he has of right and wrong. As he ages, he becomes overweight, selfish, and demanding, pampered yet locked into rooms.
The novel also introduces free blacks and now-free slaves. One Dr. Wire, the pastor and head of a Home for African Orphans on an island off New York, feels guilt that he has never suffered the way the freed slaves on the island have. How does he pastor to them when he has not experienced what they have been through? How does he pastor to the black soldiers who, after the Civil War, have encamped on Central Park because their service has now been forgotten and unrewarded?
And what about those freed slaves? How does someone who for most of their lives has done and said and often thought only what they were told to become their own person, a free person? What do you do with this freedom when you are looked down upon even by Northern Negroes? How do you begin to understand the wider world – American issues relating to Russia and China and England and France – when you never knew these places existed? How to comprehend it all?
Song of the Shank asks many, many difficult questions. Do we need to ask ourselves, let alone answer, such questions in the 21st century? Yes, says a reviewer in The New York Times. It is our history, and we have still not come to terms with it. We now living, white and black, are imprisoned by our history, and we won’t leave that prison until we look the ramifications of slavery squarely in the face. Books such as Song of the Shank can help us do that.