Oppose right-wing racialist attack on composer Bright Sheng at the University of Michigan

The Students and Young Internationalists for Social Equality (EJIES) at the University of Michigan denounce the racial smear campaign against renowned composer, conductor and pianist Bright Sheng. The assertion of a group of students and professors that he committed a “racist act” by showing a film version of Othello with Laurence Olivier is as misinformed as it is false. All serious and democratic students should refuse to be intimidated and stand up for Sheng.

Bright Sheng. (Photo: brightsheng.com)

On Friday, David Gier, the dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Drama and Dance (SMTD), announced that Sheng would stop teaching his undergraduate music composition course this semester, but that ‘he would remain a member of the teaching staff. The move came a month after Sheng screened for the class the 1965 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by longtime theater and television personality Stuart Burge, in which the great actor shakespearean Laurence Olivier plays Othello with black makeup.

Sheng, born in China and holder of the Distinguished University Leonard Bernstein Chair in Composition, is a world-renowned composer who has taught at the University of Michigan since 1995. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a MacArthur “genius” scholarship recipient. in 2001. The Foundation described him as “an innovative composer whose skilful orchestrations link East and West, lyrical and dissonant styles, and historical and contemporary themes to create compositions that resonate with each other. to audiences around the world ”.

The “crime” for which Sheng was forced to drop his course was only made possible by the racialist frenzy that gripped college campuses and the media. No honest or impartial person can find anything offensive about Olivier’s performance or the film as a whole.

Sheng was “denounced”, according to the Michigan Daily, by one of his freshmen, Olivia Cook, who noticed that Olivier was playing Othello with black makeup. “I was amazed,” said Olivia Cook. “At a school that preaches diversity and makes sure they understand the history of people of color in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) was showing something like this in a place that is supposed to be a safe space. . “

Cook, who obviously knows nothing about the play, its history or Olivier’s career and intentions in his 1965 performance, has so far been fully supported by the university in the baseless claim that Sheng’s showing of the film and the film itself were “racist.”

After the September 10 class and the manipulated uproar that followed, Sheng apologized to the students and canceled an Othello project planned for the class. According to the report, SMTD Dean Gier and several faculty members were quick to accept the claim that Sheng’s showing of the film was a “racist act.”

In a statement to Michigan Daily, composition teacher Evan Chambers – who replaces Sheng in the course – wrote: “Showing the film now, especially without any real context, without advice on content, and without emphasizing its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, whatever the professor’s intentions. ” Chambers presents absolutely no evidence to support such an outrageous claim. It seems the public should just take his word for it. Gier reported the “incident” to the college’s Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX office.

Sheng then issued a department-wide official apology on September 16. The letter expressed his opposition to racism and highlighted his numerous collaborations with artists of different races, genders and ethnicities to demonstrate that he “never considered himself discriminatory in any way”.

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Oppose right-wing racialist attack on composer Bright Sheng at the University of Michigan

Hank Gilbert