Making Of An Outrage

The first I heard of the “incident” was a student’s twit that sounded concerning.

3 weeks ago, my prof. played a blackface video without any warning or discussion. In the weeks since, my university has struggled to respond. (The prof. has tenured.) I write this piece because it’s beyond time for this story to be in the public sphere.

The student wrote of his shock and disgust, feigning numbness due to his lack of shock given the pervasive racism of his university. That school was the University of Michigan. The professor who showed this “blackface video” was Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, a highly accomplished composer, conductor and pianist, whose music has been featured by prestigious groups including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra and a survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

But the film? It was Sir Laurence Olivier playing Shakespeare’s Othello.

On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface.

“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

Even worse, this trauma happened without warning.

According to Cook, the students were given no warning or contextualization prior to the viewing.

And, of course, if the students feign outrage, so too must the academics who desperately desire their adoration.

In an email to The Daily, Evan Chambers, professor of composition, wrote about the importance of properly preparing students for possible instances of racism in film.

“To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions,” Chambers wrote. “We need to acknowledge that as a community.”

Another professor, Kristin Kuster, sought to make sure that Sheng, who had received many awards and honors before, never got another for this “racist act.”

Sheng apologized, as is obligatory in Ann Arbor, to no avail. Elie Mystal once explained that there is no excuse, ever, for blackface, Gov. Ralph Northam notwithstanding. But Sheng’s crime wasn’t wearing blackface, but showing an iconic Shakespearean actor in an iconic movie wearing blackface while playing a Moor.

As the Michigan Daily took pains to note, one New York Times reviewer in 1966 found Olivier’s makeup offensive at the time. It makes no mention of the thousand other reviews of the movie, lauded as perhaps the greatest performance of Othello on film. The sort of film one might show in a college class in anticipation of Giuseppe Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play into an opera.

Sheng’s apology, however, failed to assuage the outrage.

On Sept. 16, Sheng sent out a formal apology to the department. He wrote that after doing more research into the issue, he realized the true extent to which racism impacts American culture, adding that he failed to recognize the racist connotation of blackface makeup.

“In a classroom, I am a teacher representing the university and I should have thought of this more diligently and fundamentally; I apologize that this action was offensive and has made you angry,” Sheng wrote. “It also has made me lost (sic) your trust.”

However, the apology has been another source of controversy among students. Students have taken particular issue with the section of the letter where Sheng lists multiple examples of how he has worked with people of color in the past.

The ever-vigilant frosh Cook was unimpressed.

Cook told The Daily she felt the letter was shallow. By listing out all of his contributions to people of color, he failed to understand the gravity of his actions, Cook said.

“He could have taken responsibility for his actions and realized that this was harmful to some of his students that are within his class,” Cook said. “Instead, he tried to make excuses. Instead of just apologizing for it, he tried to downplay the fact that the entire situation happened in the first place.”

And the empathetic grad students tried to help the deeply traumatized undergrads.

“It was sort of a protective reaction from the grad students, like ‘what can we do to help the undergraduates? What do they need?’” the graduate student said. “Clearly they’re not going to be in a room with (Sheng) anytime soon.”

“I feel like the thing that we all actually needed (was) a true and honest and genuine understanding that he did something wrong, not just (him) trying to defend himself,” the graduate student said. “I feel like there’s still a lack of trust there because none of us think he is actually sorry.”

All because Sheng played Othello starring Laurence Olivier for his class, the minor detail that Sammy Sussman neglected to include in his twit of outrage because the entirety of this “racist” incident was so utterly absurd. However will these students survive the trauma they’ve manufactured?

29 thoughts on “Making Of An Outrage

  1. Lee Keller King

    Perhaps the students would like the good professor to undergo a struggle session so that he might engage in self-criticism? Mao would likely be proud of his intellectual descendants.

    My question is, what are these children (including, sadly, my own daughter, who graduated from the University of Texas) going to do when they have to go out into the real world? But despair is a sin.

      1. Guitardave

        Yeah, right.
        Evidence supplied by a sick, lying, and (thankfully dying) controlled media, that for all practical purposes, appears to want it’s audience to be either depressed and miserable, or on the verge of committing acts of violence.

        Real world?…I think you forgot the un in front of real…please refer to the second song in the next post.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          Would you rather social media take that “controlled” media’s place instead? If you want depressing you don’t have to look far in any direction. Facebook is a mistake.

          1. Guitardave

            That’s a bit leading as I did not specify which ‘medias’…but as to your question, no.
            The control exercised by the social media platforms is so obvious it hardly needs to be mentioned. They have to use blatant censorship to accomplish the control. ( An amazingly current example is the embedded tic-tok vid your Pop put up today. It appears that, unlike this morning, I now have to go to YT and sign in to watch it. I guess bigooglebro needs to protect those ‘impressionable yutes’ reading SJ.)
            The legacy medias control is much easier to miss…you can’t see what they don’t show you. I’m sure you already know this.
            And while we’re at it, FYI, I don’t have much trust for most of the alt media either, as those are controlled by their own biases and agendas.

            Though I’ve personally never used FB, I know more than a few musicians, bands, and small businesses that increased their gigs and profits using it.
            I do agree that almost everything the company has done with the control they rightfully have over their platform is rife with mistakes.

            PK, as a guy that spent waaay too many years of my life angry and depressed, please believe me when I say, beauty and joy is not far away either. Look away form the screens. Take a walk in the woods or a stretch of uninhabited beach.
            Our mother earth is still an amazingly beautiful place, and she don’t give a flying fuck about our silly and tragic self imposed human problems.
            Still your mind and listen. She will speak to you.
            That navel-gazing Buddha dude was only half correct when he said, ‘life is suffering’.
            Depression is half of a natural process. There is an other side.

  2. KP

    Oh dear God!! This is the nation that is going up against China?? We might as well all start learning Cantonese now..

    Boss, I think you might need to preface these sorts of posts with some sort of trigger warning, or it could become a permanent face palm for those with common sense. They pretend to be outraged, he pretends to apologise…

  3. Paleo

    I’m hoping against hope that Cook somehow survives this. We just never make progress on this stuff, despite the fact that when this movie came out people like Cook wouldn’t have been allowed to attend many American universities.

    In fairness, I was 7 or 8 when this movie came out and wasn’t familiar with it, so I googled. Olivier looks ridiculous made up like that. His appearance is almost a distraction to the acting.

  4. Bryan Burroughs

    I’m starting to think that colleges need to hand out pacifiers and diaper cream at freshmen orientation. The idea that these self-entitled brats would demand that a survivor or the Cultural Revolution censor art and engage in self-flagellation is so stunningly myopic that it defies belief. I suspect the whole affair was far more traumatizing and triggering for Sheng than for any of those feigning indignation.

  5. Hunting Guy

    It won’t stop until a college administrator says, “Grow up or go live your mommies basement.”

    I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    I wonder how Eisenhower would have handled this if it occurred while he was president of Columbia.

    1. szr

      Based on Eisenhower’s brief tenure as president of Columbia, he would be too busy furthering his political career to notice the incident. Unless the he thought it was in his political interest to either promote or condemn Prof. Sheng, and then he wouldn’t shut up about it.

  6. Dan

    At what point will one of the targets of this faux outrage stand up to it and say, “F you, you aren’t traumatized, be an adult, I did nothing wrong”? Because (1) that’s the only play with any hope of survival, and (2) it’s also the right thing to do (with perhaps some tweaks to the “F you” part of the message).

    There is no forgiveness from the woke. As much as they talk about reconciliation, there is no reconciliation. No apology will ever be accepted. So why bother?

    1. Hunting Guy

      Looking at sending my grandkids to Hillsdale.

      The military academies are no longer an option.

  7. RTM

    I saw a similar student mind-set when I filled in a few times teaching a colleague’s law school class. My take away was “god help us all.” I saw it again in several baby lawyers’ version litigation. Times have changed. And not for the better in my view.

  8. Drew Conlin

    Being I am from and live in Ann Arbor; I have professor friends.
    Mr. Greenfield if you would permit me to share what one of my friends shared in an email. If it violates rules of SJ I apologize in advance. It’s much better than anything I could ever come up with.

    “If I were representing the prof, I’d say that Sussman plainly has at worst xenophobic dislike of Chinese immigrants at best an insensitivity to the difficulties of cultural translation. the other thing that occurs to me is the appalling ignorance of Sussman about that famous/infamous performance by Olivier, the context, Olivier’s position in theater, the nature of Othello in its inception, etc etc.

    by the by, these concerns do not keep me from enjoying either Shakespeare’s play or Verdi’s opera or Orson Wells version etc etc. “

  9. Sol Wisenberg

    Okay, I’m obviously way behind the curve on all of this. I guess nobody teaches Faulkner any more in our universities? Or Huckleberry Finn? How about Last of the Mohicans and The Merchant of Venice? Or do they just accompany the syllabus with multiple trigger warnings?

    1. Rengit

      If you’re a professor teaching lit, you want to have productive classroom discussions. If any discussion of the book is going to get completely derailed into discussions of racism, stereotyping, etc, and/or if the discussion is going to be totally one-sided because anyone arguing another side could get investigated by the university bias response team, then as a professor you just won’t assign the book.

  10. Hal

    In other news, students walked out of their “History of Western Civilization” class complaining that it was “Euro-centric, misogynistic, and glorified the accomplishments of white men”… or, in other words, was historically accurate.

  11. Scott J Spencer

    I work in higher ed. It is my anecdotal experience that there is a very vocal minority group that makes the news and makes us all look really “bad”. It is not helpful that we all have Inclusion and Diversity offices that in many ways feel like the new version of the Spanish Inquisition.

    Recently my college had an incident where our Inclusion and Diversity office sent out a poorly worded email (no surprise) regarding mandatory use of pronouns and preferred names. One of our more conservative students forwarded the email to Fox News or something. This gave some lovely Texas citizens the impetus to leave angry voicemail messages suggesting things to do with out pronouns. Whole thing ended up as a mess and now some of the student body wants the conservative student banned from campus because they “don’t feel safe”.

    My student workers (all in the dance department, and very aware and supportive of pronouns and preferred names) were all annoyed by the attempt to get the kid banned from campus because they felt it was his right to say what he wanted to say even if they disagreed.

    My younger in laws, all tweens through late 20’s, are generally blue collar types and run the gamut from true believers in Trump the person to hard core lefties that think Bernie is a god and unions are the only thing standing between humanity and chaos. I would not lump any of them into the current crop of snowflakes that cannot take criticism and don’t take offense at things like the subject of this post.

    I guess what I am saying is that I am less skeptical of the overall future of humanity than it would seem I should be based on these stories. Yes, these stories are frustrating, annoying, and counterproductive to actual issues. But, I also think that overall they are the minority…..flame on. I am sure I am missing something.

    1. SHG Post author

      No flame, but a question is raised: I, too, suspect that the unduly passionate make up a small percentage of students, but they wield disproportionate power and manage to get admins and, sometimes, academics to play by their rules. Why don’t other students step up to say no, to call bullshit, to back basic liberal principles?

      I get it, they don’t want to be the next to be burned at the stake, but it’s hard to complain that the minority makes everybody look bad when the majority acquiesces, if not enables, the minority to be the campus voice.

      1. Scott J Spencer

        Not sure of an answer that is anything but anecdotal, hypothetical, or just based on what my brain tells me…

        But I will give it a shot.

        1: I have not worked at Ivy League or “elite” schools. The students that come through the schools I have worked at are primarily here to get the degree so they can move on to the next stage, make some money, and live life. They don’t have the time or inclination to pay attention this silliness.

        2: I will agree that there is some fear of being burned at the stake, but I also think that the majority of students don’t see the big deal about a lot of this stuff, They don’t care about what pronoun you want to use, what name you want. They don’t give a hoot about your gender. They are here to learn (or at least get straight A’s because of grade inflation) and the other stuff is a distraction. I think this mindset would change on an individual basis if something were to happen to them but otherwise they stay out of the way and stay in their lane.

        3: Faculty though, I will probably never understand what is going on in their heads. 25 years of being a registrar and I can barely understand what they are trying to do administratively, I will never understand the way they think about things otherwise. They don’t understand irony and believe me when I say they, in general, believe their shit doesn’t stink. We are lucky that most students know how to jump through the required hoops to get where they want to go.

        4: Lastly, administration at my level and below suck it up because we need to get paid. We don’t have union protection, we don’t have contracts. We do what we do or we get fired. It’s pretty mercenary, but none of us have no desire to work in the real world. Sure, might make me spineless, but I also want to be employed.

        Higher level administration are paid nicely. Suck it up, let the inmates run the asylum and keep clocking those $200k to $400k paychecks and more if you are a president.

        1. SHG Post author

          … but I also think that the majority of students don’t see the big deal about a lot of this stuff, They don’t care about what pronoun you want to use, what name you want. They don’t give a hoot about your gender.

          Perhaps then the majority are substantially closer to the minority’s ideological perspective than you think. And the problem isn’t that the minority give the majority a bad name, but the majority are in sufficient agreement with the minority to let their name be dragged through the mud without caring enough to anything about it.

  12. Scott J Spencer

    I will concede that I could be wrong. It’s always possible and generally par for the course.

    As one of the mantra’s of the bar is….”words matter”, let me try some other words…..

    They may very well be ideologically the same, but I think there is less fervor among the majority. There is a bit of a live and let live mindset. They understand that some people are conservative and some people are liberal. While they may not agree with the right, they seem to accept the right exists.

    I will agree that they don’t understand that actions taken or not taken now, will have implications in the future they cannot even begin to understand.

    Anyway, have a good weekend!

    1. SHG Post author

      Not sure they’re the same, but not sufficiently different to make it worthwhile to disagree. From what I’ve seen on campus, even the more conservative students tend to accept a good deal of progressive ideology as their “norm.”

      Have a good weekend too.

  13. Charlie Joe

    I looked through the Twitter feed a few hours ago and it was interesting. Sammy has apparently now deleted his Twitter account in the last few hours. Might be the smartest thing he has done in a while.

    1. SHG Post author

      It apparently didn’t go as well as he expected. The most curious thing was that this kid had a blue checkmark. I wonder why, given that twitter has been turning down judges lately but feels a college student of no particular note needs the recognition.

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