Bright Sheng is a much-honored Chinese-American professor of music composition at the University of Michigan. He received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2001, and has twice been a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in music.
When he was a child, Mao’s Red Guards took away his family’s piano — a common practice since Mao thought all Western music was counterrevolutionary. But Sheng went on to become a celebrated pianist and a respected teacher.
But the professor was apparently not hip to cancel culture and its peculiarities. He thought it would be instructive (he is a teacher, after all) to screen one of the best film adaptations of a Shakespeare play. Sir Lawrence Oliver’s Othello is considered a classic, and Olivier is one of the greatest English-language actors in history.
But Olivier chose to play the title character in blackface — controversial even in 1965. Of course, Shakespeare was white and had no better idea of the black or Arab experience than any other white guy in 16th-century Elizabethan England. He wrote of universal truths common to all humanity.
Every time I think of Lawrence Olivier in blackface I die a little inside. pic.twitter.com/2Z7m8YPyZ6
— 🎃🗡🐄 SMoooooky (@CivilianCow) March 6, 2014
Othello was a “Moor.” Historically, “Moors” inhabited the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Malta during the Middle Ages.
In fact, there were no such people as the “Moors.” They didn’t exist as a race or ethnicity. Moors was a derogatory term used by Europeans to describe Muslims they came into contact with during the Middle Ages. Most of the Moors’Europeans met in battle were Arab — not black.
But never explain or teach history to a woke youngster. Even after realizing his error, Professor Sheng was inundated with calls for his termination because of his “insensitivity.”
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, but his students were not appeased. Indeed, they reacted as if they had been traumatized by the experience.
Any student who was “traumatized” by a performance of one of the most compelling characters in literature by one of the best actors who ever lived deserves an “F.”
Sheng’s plaintive cry that he thought that talent was a determining factor in screening the film didn’t take into account the American Red Guards who are gunning for him now. All that’s missing are the kids waving little red books in the air as they march the teacher to the stocks to be publicly humiliated.
Other students signed an open letter calling on Sheng to be removed from his teaching position for failing to “create a safe environment.” Their letter laments that such a thing could have happened, even though 100 percent of professors are required to take diversity training.
One of Sheng’s colleagues, Evan Chambers, another professor of composition, sided with the students and accused Sheng of committing a “racist act.”
“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,” said Chambers. “We need to acknowledge that as a community.”
There’s the objective reality of Sheng’s act that may have exhibited questionable judgment and then there’s the woke reality that makes Sheng’s transgression a hanging offense. These kids — and their professors who have the maturity of children — have no sense of proportion, no sense of empathy, and no understanding beyond the rigid, narrow-minded ideology they slavishly follow.
Reason senior editor Robby Soave observes, “Imagine surviving the Cultural Revolution in communist China in 1955, only to reencounter it on an American university campus in 2021.”