Bright Sheng is professor of composition at the University of Michigan. He was born in China in 1955; when he was a child, the Red Guards took away his family piano. Nonetheless, he grew up to be a very famous musician: He received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2001, and was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
His undergraduates should certainly consider themselves lucky to be able to learn from him. Instead, they ask the university to fire him for making the classroom a dangerous space. The administration is investigating the matter and Sheng has stopped teaching the class for the time being. He apologized profusely for making his students feel aggrieved, although many strongly rejected his apology.
What was Sheng’s transgression? He screened the 1965 version of Shakespeare Othello in class as part of a course on the adaptation of the play to opera. This version stars Laurence Olivier, a white actor, who wore a blackface to play the protagonist Othello, a Moor. The choice was controversial even then, and today the portrayal is considered by many to be akin to a racial caricature.
It is not clear whether Sheng, who was born and raised in China, understood the uniquely American heritage of blackface, and why such portrayal is considered offensive. But he quickly apologized for showing this version of the film.
“I thought (that) in most cases the principle of casting was based on the musical quality of the singers,” Sheng Recount Michigan Daily. “Of course the weather (sic) has changed, and I made a mistake showing this movie. It was callous of me, and I’m so sorry.”
His apologies should have been Following enough, but his students were not appeased. Indeed, they reacted as if they had been traumatized by the experience.
“In such a school that preaches diversity and makes sure they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) showed something like that in something that is supposed to be a safe space, “the student told the Daily.
Other students signed an open letter calling on Sheng to be dismissed from his teaching duties for failing to “create a safe environment.” Their letter regrets that such a thing could have happened, even though 100% of teachers are required to undergo diversity training.
One of Sheng’s colleagues, Evan Chambers, another composition teacher, sided with the students and accused Sheng of committing a “racist act.”
“Showing the film now, especially without substantial framing, content review and emphasis on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions,” Chambers said. “We have to recognize this as a community.”
Sheng readily admitted that showing the film was a mistake, but bristled at being called racist. In his apology, he noted that he has repeatedly chosen people of color for leading roles in his work and “never thought (to himself) that he was discriminating against any race.” .
But his protests that he is not racist only further enraged the students.
“Professor Sheng responded to these events by writing an inflammatory letter of apology to the students of the department in which he chose to defend himself by listing all the people in BIPOC that he helped or with whom he linked up. friendship throughout his career, ”wrote a group of concerned members. students, including eight undergraduates, 15 graduate students, and nine staff and faculty, according to the Daily. “The letter suggests that it is because of him that many of them have succeeded in their careers.”
Graduating students also told the Daily that they contacted undergraduates to make sure they felt supported and safe. “What can we do to help undergraduates? What do they need? said one. “Clearly they won’t be in a room with (Sheng) anytime soon.”
I am including a large number of quotes from this student newspaper article to make it clear that it was not just one or two furious outliers: a significant number of students, alumni, and fellow students. Sheng denounced him as a racist. And the administration is taking the matter seriously: the music department issued a statement saying that “Sheng’s actions do not match our school’s commitment to anti-racism, diversity, fairness and inclusion “. The university’s Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX office received a complaint about the incident.
The University of Michigan is a public institution where students and faculty deserve freedom of speech and expression. It is a violation of the university’s cherished academic freedom principles to punish Sheng for the choices he makes in the classroom. The showing of a film of a racist nature in an educational setting is neither a racist act nor an endorsement of racism. At this point it is Sheng who owes an apology from the university community at large for having falsely slandered him.
Imagine surviving the Cultural Revolution in communist China in 1955, only to find it on an American college campus in 2021.