College Music Professor Reportedly Steps Down After Showing Students ‘Blackface’ Othello
22:37 GMT 09.10.2021 (Updated: 20:40 GMT 19.10.2022)
© Photo : Public DomainLecture hall
© Photo : Public Domain
Sheng was accused of rendering the classroom an “unsafe“ space when he screened the 1965 version of Shakespeare's Othello in class as part of a lesson to “show how the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera.” In the film, Laurence Olivier, a white actor, wore blackface to portray the protagonist Othello.
A renowned University of Michigan professor who has taught at the school since 1995 has been removed from his post after a student complained about him showing the 1965 film Othello starring Oscar-nominated acting legend Laurence Olivier in blackface, US media reported.
Sheng, who has been at the university for 26 years, apologized for making his students feel uncomfortable, and recalled a list of occasions when he had worked with 'people of color' throughout his career in an effort to support diversity.
Students loudly rejected his apology, reportedly demanding that the university fire him. As the administration looks into the matter, Sheng has stepped down from his role for the time being, which students considered 'the bare minimum’ that the professor should do.
According to a report, Olivia Cook, a freshman student, said she thought there was something ”strange” about the film after noticing the blackface portrayal played by Academy Award winner Olivier.
“I was stunned,” Cook told The Michigan Daily.
“In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of people of color in America, I was shocked Sheng would show something like this in something that's supposed to be a safe space.”
Blackface portrayal is considered by many to be akin to a racial caricature.
David Leonard, chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender, and race studies, explained ‘blackface’ in his 2012 Huffington Post essay, "Just Say No To blackface: Neo Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize," as a “part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence.”
“Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes...the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and centuries worth of injustice.”
The movie, which was only shown for two days after receiving backlash from American critics for Oliver’s blackface, later received eight Oscar nominations.
20 September 2021, 03:16 GMT
Addressing his preliminary apology, Sheng reportedly acknowledged that his response could have been better.
“In my formal apology letter to the entire composition division … I merely attempt to say that I don’t discriminate in retrospect, maybe I ought to have apologized for my mistake solely.”
Bright Sheng, who teaches composition at the University of Michigan, was born in Shanghai, China in 1955. He is known to be a widely celebrated musician, pianist, composer and conductor. Sheng has earned many honors for his music and compositions, including a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 2001, and has twice been a runner-up finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.