University of Michigan professor leaves classroom after blackface incident

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ANN ARBOR, MI – A University of Michigan music professor resigned from one of his classes earlier this month amid outrage that erupted after showing his students a movie featuring a blackface.

Bright Sheng, a prominent composition teacher from China, agreed to stop teaching his fall semester seminar course at the School of Music, Drama and Dance. David Gier, dean of the school, informed the students in the class in an October 1 email of the move, saying it was a mutual decision between him and Sheng.

Controversy surrounds Sheng’s screening of 1965 film Othello September 10 at her undergraduate musical composition seminar class. The film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play stars Laurence Olivier as the main character of the Moorish King and features Olivier in blackface.

The students expressed shock about the performance in Sheng, adding that no cultural context or content disclaimer was given prior to the viewing. This led to Sheng sending an email later on September 10, apologizing for showing “race-insensitive and outdated” images.

In an email to MLive / The Ann Arbor News, he again apologized to the students, faculty and staff in the department.

“From the bottom of my heart I would like to say that I am very sorry for what happened,” he said.

On September 15, Gier sent an email to the SMTD community updating the situation with Sheng, announcing that the incident is being reviewed by the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX office of the ‘university.

“It was hurtful and upsetting for the students in the class, and deeply disappointing for all of us who learned about it,” Gier said in the email. “Professor Sheng’s actions do not match our school’s commitment to anti-racism action, diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The SMTD faculty members, including Sheng, have all received anti-racism training, UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said. Teachers should “actively involve students in discussions about race and racism in their classrooms,” she said.

“The history of music offers lessons that remain important today, including how the blackface minstrel as a part of American popular music was both a product and a means of supporting racist stereotypes,” a- she declared. “However, loaded lessons like these must include appropriate context and must always be presented with care and sensitivity.”

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The details and potential consequences of the ECRT review are unclear at this time, Broekhuizen said, calling it a “personnel issue.” Sheng will continue to teach private music lessons and is expected to teach her winter semester class, she said.

Sheng told the students in his apology email that he understood that he had lost the trust of his students due to the blackface incident. He pointed to past examples of his work with people of color to show that he does not discriminate against “any race.”

“At the world premiere of my opera The Silver River in South Carolina in 2000, I chose an African-American actress (for the lead role), an Asian dancer and a white baritone for the three main characters,” he said. he wrote.

The apology, however, drew more anger from SMTD students and faculty. An open letter of September 23 was signed by 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 postgraduate students and nine faculty and staff, who requested his removal from the seminar course.

More than a week later, Sheng and Gier announced that he would be retiring from the seminar class.

“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 at BIPOC with whom he helped or befriended while throughout his career “, reads the letter. “The letter suggests that it is because of him that many of them have succeeded in their careers.”

Sheng explains his past

Sheng is a world famous composer, conductor and pianist. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, was honored by former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in 1999 at the White House, and has collaborated with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra, and the New York City Ballet Orchestra .

Born in China in 1955, Sheng and his family experienced the Cultural Revolution in the country between 1966-76.

At the start of the revolution, the Red Guards, the paramilitary arm of Chairman Mao Zedong, destroyed Sheng’s piano during the destruction of art and music known as the “Four Olds,” Sheng said. At one point, Sheng was sent out of the country to Tibet (before Chinese rule) to expand his musical education.

Sheng called it “one of the darkest times in Chinese history” and a time he “lived with fear as a child.”

Sheng rebuffed attempts by students and professors to further punish him for what he considers a callous “mistake” regarding the film.

“Of course, facing criticism for my error in judgment as a teacher here has nothing to do with the experience of many Chinese teachers during the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “But it is uncomfortable to live in a time when people can attempt to destroy the careers and reputations of others with public exposure.”

Sheng said he wanted to use this incident as a learning experience and not as something that would undermine his ability to teach in the future.

“I’m not too old to learn and this mistake taught me a lot,” he said. “My passion is to make music and to teach. I believe America is a place where we can work constructively to improve understanding and sensitivity for everyone without the need for public beating. “

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