When University of Michigan professor Bright Sheng was a young boy in China, the Maoist Cultural Revolution nearly destroyed his ability to hone his musical talents. After revolutionaries had seized his piano as a bourgeois relic, he was sent to Qinghai Province, near Tibet. There he was able to study in a regional theater as a pianist and percussionist until 1978, when Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power reopened China’s colleges. Sheng was one of the first students to enroll in the new university system, where he studied composition in the Shanghai Conservatory before moving to New York City to earn several musical degrees. He has since become one of the world’s most-celebrated composers, winning the MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2001 and twice finishing as a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
For over 40 years, academia has served as a place of solace and learning for Sheng — that is, until the University of Michigan reopened its doors this fall.
On September 10, Sheng wanted to demonstrate to his composition seminar how composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted William Shakespeare’s Othello into an opera. To this end, he hosted a screening of the 1965 film version of the play, starring Laurence Olivier. The title character is described as a Moor — part of a civilization of black Muslims in North Africa — and has traditionally been played by a black actor in stage productions. Yet in this instance, the white Olivier wore blackface.
Some of Sheng’s students were distraught by the depiction; immediately after it ended, Sheng sent out an apology to the class, calling the film “racially insensitive and outdated.” On September 15, David Gier, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (SMTD), sent a department-wide email explaining that Sheng’s actions were not in line with the anti-racist commitments of the university. The next day, Sheng also sent an email to the department in which he apologized for the screening — noting, among other things, his experience casting actors of color in his operas.
That, however, only further inflamed the situation. Following Sheng’s second email, a collection of 42 undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in SMTD sent an open letter to Gier on September 23, accusing the professor of creating an unsafe environment for students in his class: “The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of [the minority actors he worked with] have achieved success in their careers.”
By October 2, Sheng had stepped down from teaching the class.
That Sheng’s students were unsettled by Olivier’s makeup is understandable; that this was the professor’s punishment for deciding to show the film, however, is not.
If we are to believe contemporary critics of Olivier’s performance, his acting choice is inextricably linked to the racist minstrel shows of the 19th century. In his performance, he adopted several characteristics of the shows’ stereotypes of black people, including a wig of ethnic-looking hair, thickened and reddened lips, and the habit of rolling his eyes into his head so that the whites of his eyes contrasted with the darkness of his makeup. These features were used to create gross and absurd caricatures. They were despicable then, as they are now — and ought never to be approved by a just and civil society.
Still, we must recognize that they are part of our history and choose to reckon with them. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that culturally insensitive — even wicked — features can sometimes be present within works that are worthwhile to study, such as a masterpiece like Othello.
Sheng’s critics have not been consistent in pronouncing what exactly his transgression was. Was his crime showing the film at all, or was it that he neglected to warn his students about Olivier’s blackface? Had he given his students this so-called trigger warning, would that have made Olivier’s performance any less racially insensitive? Would he have been forgiven had he not sent the second apology? These questions deserve answers, especially when they are integral to whether a man will keep his job teaching or not. Yet all those who have called for Sheng’s stepping down have merely resorted to the usual woke buzzwords. Those who say that Sheng’s conduct has led to an “unsafe” environment ought to be more clear. Many may feel their stomachs churn upon viewing Olivier’s performance, but no one can reasonably argue that it threatens viewers’ physical safety.
The controversy surrounding Sheng is part of a debate over the fundamental purpose of higher education. In the classical model, it has been to challenge students’ worldviews with the goal of making them more erudite thinkers. In this mold, a professor exposing students to material that might make them feel uncomfortable would not only be acceptable but a requisite part of a course syllabus. Now, however, colleges and universities merely seek to coddle students’ emotions, treating young people of voting age as children. In this framework, our academic institutions must be expositors of left-wing racial theory, which sees any critical engagement with historical instances of blackface as perpetuating a system of racism.
In 1960s China, any professor who pushed back against Maoist Communism was ousted from the profession — or worse. Today, academics who contradict the established leftist orthodoxy are increasingly prohibited from teaching their students. Learning is a process that necessarily includes discomfort. The only way for us to become better scholars is to put all our views, values, and emotions into a crucible — one that allows all opinions and attitudes to be refined by the fire.
Something to Consider
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