Leftwing students call for Michigan to reinstate Bright Sheng

Leftwing students call for Michigan to reinstate Bright Sheng


norman lebrecht

October 20, 2021

The following letter has been published on a Marxist website in support of the composer Bright Sheng, who has been suspended from teaching by the University of Michigan after showing a blackface Othello film in class. We cannot vouch for the size of the signatory group.

The following open letter was written by the International Youth and Students for Social Equality at the University of Michigan to David Gier, the Dean of the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Dear Dean Gier,

The International Youth and Students for Social Equality demands the immediate reinstatement of Bright Sheng, the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, to his position as instructor of undergraduate composition. We further demand that you and the university administration apologize to Professor Sheng and publicly repudiate all slanderous attacks on Sheng for being “racist” or for carrying out a “racist act.”

The University of Michigan launched its attack on Professor Sheng after he screened for his class the acclaimed 1965 film version of Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by Stuart Burge and starring Laurence Olivier. In the race-obsessed environment of contemporary American academia, it has become a crime to have students view one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays as performed by one of the 20th century’s greatest actors. Othello’s tragedy was that he “loved not wisely, but too well.” Apparently, for the University’s race police, Olivier’s fault lay in that he performed not wisely, but too black.

Professor Sheng’s removal followed students’ complaint that Olivier plays Othello, a Moorish general from North Africa in the Venetian army, with black make-up. One of these students subsequently stated to the Michigan Daily that she was “shocked that [Sheng] would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.” Safe from what? The emotional and intellectual complexity of Shakespeare’s drama? Culture? Thought? Once again, the complaints of poorly read, miseducated and disoriented students have been given privileged status.

Shamefully patronizing the students’ reactionary nonsense, you sent a department-wide email stating that “Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.”

After pressuring Sheng to leave his position as instructor, you justified your unconscionable attack on academic freedom by absurdly claiming, with consummate cynicism, that his removal would “allow for a positive learning environment.” Professor Evan Chambers, who advanced his career by taking over the seminar, declared that Sheng’s showing of the film was “in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions.” You then reported the “incident” to the university’s Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.

The actions taken against Professor Sheng, a world-renowned scholar, may well rank as the most shameful episode in the University’s history. It exposes the extent to which the unrelenting promotion of racialist ideologies—fraudulently legitimized with pretentious postmodernist jargon—has created a thoroughly toxic environment on university campuses.

Any serious examination of Shakespeare’s play and the career of one of the 20th century’s greatest actors demolishes the charges of racism leveled against Olivier and the 1965 production. Comparisons to the racist depictions of African Americans in blackface are ignorant. The denunciation of Olivier’s performance is particularly preposterous in that the actor was attempting to take on the timid, semi-racist approaches to the Othello character that had prevailed for a century and a half.

In representing Othello as black, as an African, Olivier was rebuffing various commentators appalled at the thought of the white maiden Desdemona falling in love with a black man. Indeed, Olivier explains in his memoir that the dominant “coffee-colored compromise” had arisen “out of some feeling that the Moor could not be thought a truly noble Moor if he was too black and in too great contrast to the noble whites: a shocking case of pure snobbery.”

Olivier, who was fastidious in his depictions of all the Shakespearean characters he played, was endeavoring to bring out in his performance as Othello the racial conflicts and prejudices that were central to Shakespeare’s play.

Whatever confusions students might have about the performance should have been addressed and clarified in the course itself—that is, by fostering a “positive learning environment.” Instead, the university joined the assault on Professor Sheng.

The consequences of the university’s actions are far-reaching. The campaign against Sheng is aimed at intimidating faculty members and students who oppose the use of race and other elements of identity politics to stifle academic freedom.

In condemning Sheng, moreover, you, and all those participating in this campaign, are playing into the hands of the far right, which is already exploiting the antidemocratic attack for its own reactionary purposes. The fascistic forces around Trump seize on the racialized politics of the Democratic Party, aggressively promoted at the University of Michigan, to dress themselves up as defenders of democratic rights.

Professor Bright Sheng is owed a public apology. The International Youth and Students for Social Equality, which has been active on the campus for many years, calls on the university administration to retract the slanders against Professor Sheng and immediately invite him to return to the classroom from which the distinguished artist should never have been removed.

Yours Sincerely,

The International Youth and Students for Social Equality at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 



  • Aleph says:

    Typical. Circular firing squad on the Left.

    Here: Marxism puts class before race, so all one has to do is to reframe the debate as the struggle between proletarian students against bourgeois professors, and voilà, Sheng is out again!

    Problem solved.


    • Nemo says:

      A rich black woman is more privelledged than a poor white man, you don’t need marxism to make sense of that, “class” – meaning money – is the overriding force of inequality worldwide, keep the aspidistra flying!

    • David A says:

      What are you talking about….if it’s students against bourgeois then they wouldn’t be supporting the professor here??? It’s astonishing just how much people want to see what they want to see, that they don’t even listen (or read) their own words coming out of their mouth to realize they are contradicting themselves entirely!! It truly is baffling to me…..

  • Bone says:

    Yeah, the racist Trump supporters are at it again alright.
    Wait what?

  • Aleph says:

    By the by, who so generously endowed the Bernstein chair and named it not after himself? I assume it’s not the Bernstein family, not aware of any links between the UMich and Lenny, but presumably the Bernstein estate had to consent to the use of his name….

  • X says:

    Finally a voice of reason!

    Nice and eloquent writing – gives a bit of hope in our times of madness, when freedom becomes oppression and a new witch hunt against western civilisation and history has started.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for racial equality, but this has nothing to do with racism, this is just an American perversion of it which is sweeping across the globe.

  • MacroV says:

    I don’t know who these people are. Marxist or not, it’s a good argument. Heck, if it came from Tucker Carlson I’d still give it props.

  • Dillon says:

    Who do these kids think they are? Cosplaying their board of directors fantasies?
    Shouldn’t they be studying or practicing their instruments?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Who would have thought that marxists could come-up with a very insightful, well-documented and intelligent reaction? They are right.

    The number of adherents of this group is immaterial: as long as there are three of them, to constitute a group, that would be enough. It is the context of the letter which is crucial and it is a very good letter, burning with truth.

    • V. Lind says:

      It also shows something that has not previously emerged in this controversy — scholarship. In going to Olivier’s own comments on his decisions regarding how he portrayed Othello, the students have smashed all the ‘unsafe’ nonsense the wobbly jellies felt by seeing an actor in make-up. And demonstrated something the jellies probably have no comprehension of — looking things up. Research. Investigation. Context.

      It is an excellent letter and a model of how to fight this rubbish.

      What is the “Marxist website”?

  • Carlos says:

    If you’re going to print the statement in full, you should also link to (or at least mention) the “Marxist website” in question: the World Socialist Web Site, wsws.org.

  • S.B. says:

    I represent those from the “right” (well, not far right) and I think this piece is wonderful. Good job, guys!

    • V. Lind says:

      Thank you. As a Spectator reader, I am not used to people evaluating an argument on its merits if it comes from the “wrong source. As someone from the “left” (well, not far left) I read The Spec and Spiked and check out other conservative sources in order to see how others look at issues that interest me. It has caused me to change my mind on issues from time to time, and to remain politically non-aligned.

      And I do not think that “woke-ism” is aligned strictly to right or left — it is a product of dumbing down and child-centric upbringings, with damage compounded by technology (the notion in too many students that the book is dead, and everything can be learned online — these are people who google a word for its definition but would have no clue how to use a dictionary).

  • In it’s efforts to subserviate race to class, the Soviet Union spent a great deal of time attempting to suppress Jewish identity.

  • Peter says:

    I’m pleased to think that most of the students who got Mr. Sheng fired, at the age of 34 will live with their parents and get paid $800 a month for delivering Foodora.

    Mind you, I have nothing, absolutely nothing against people staying with their parents or working for Foodora – particularly not the latter.

    But when this is what you get after paying $100.000 for a liberal arts education, I will do nothing but laugh in their faces.

  • Anonymous says:

    Ok. It’s taken me awhile to think about how to write this, but I’m going to even though it’s late. Question: did Sussman go too far? Answer: yes and no. Going after a professor for showing a blackface video curtails academic freedom. However, that’s only part of a much bigger issue, and I suppose you’d just have to go to the University of Michigan School Of Music, Theater, and Dance to understand it. UM SMTD employed a serial pedophile, Stephen Shipps, for thirty years who besides raping quite a few of his underage students and still engaging in hunting for more by 2018 also did all kinds of extremely unethical things to professors who were trying to speak out against him and students who he regarded as a “threat” to himself. Now he’s going right where he belongs—to federal prison. And Sussman broke that story. As with all of the old guard at Michigan, Sheng was complicit in this. Along with the rest of the staff he lied by omission, cheated, stole, and betrayed their education. That’s not right, people. And you know what? Maybe this is what needs to happen right now to open up the discussion about how some of the SMTD professors have savaged their students. Students are NOT safe at that institution and if Sheng has to take a step back from teaching some seminar, so be it. I’m guessing quite a bit of vicious unethical and even illegal behavior is going to be exposed in the open meetings they’re going to have now. It’s laughable that left wing students would think that what’s gone on under the surface at SMTD for generations is somehow OK. That said, Sheng was nowhere near the worst offender, some of whom are still there. In a way I feel sorry for him, since he has to take on the burden for all of them. Still, considering the careerist pigs that benefited from student rape, educational harassment against women and all kinds of other unethical misconduct perpetrated against students, I think that the Dean is saying, “OK, things that make students feel unwelcome (or unsafe) is no longer acceptable.” Start looking at the grey areas and you might look at things differently instead of just reacting to the pillorying of these students, who have to deal with going to a school whose legacy is frankly godawful.