Michigan Students Accuse Celebrated Music Professor of Racism for Screening Othello
Bright Sheng is a 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. Nevertheless, he grew up to become a widely celebrated musician: He received a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2001, and has twice been a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in music.
His undergraduate students should certainly count themselves lucky to be able to learn from him. Instead, they are demanding the university fire him for rendering the classroom an unsafe space. The administration is looking into the matter, and Sheng has stepped down from teaching the class for the time being. He has apologized profusely for making his students feel wronged, though many have loudly rejected his apology.
What was Sheng’s transgression? He screened the 1965 version of Shakespeare’s Othello in class as part of a lesson about how the play was adapted for the opera. This version stars Laurence Olivier, a white actor, who wore blackface to portray the protagonist Othello, a Moor. The choice was controversial even at the time, and today, the portrayal is considered by many to be akin to a racial caricature.
It’s not clear whether Sheng, who was born and raised in China, understood blackface’s specifically American legacy, and why such a portrayal is considered offensive. But he swiftly apologized for screening this version of the film.
“I thought (that) in most cases, the casting principle was based on the music quality of the singers,” Sheng told The Michigan Daily. “Of course, time (sic) has changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film. It was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.”
His apology ought to have been more than sufficient, bu
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