A performance of "negro spirituals" by a mostly white vocal ensemble at Western Michigan University has elicited angry accusations of "cultural appropriation" — but the black guest professor who led last Wednesday's performance isn't apologizing, according to the Western Herald, WMU's student newspaper.
What are the details?
John Wesley Wright — who teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland — led the production of "Spirituals: From Ship to Shore," which included songs black slaves sang in the 18th and 19th centuries, the paper said.
Wright said during the performance that the spirituals "don't belong to one race" and had become so entrenched in United States history and culture that they "had no ethnicity" and are "American songs," the Herald reported, which cited "multiple members of the majority white production and audience."
That set off WMU music student Shaylee Faught, who attended the performance and called Wright's comments "ignorant," the paper said.
In fact, Faught posted video of the performance to Twitter — along with her reaction to it. (Content warning: Language):
A second clip shows Faught frowning as the ensemble sings "Wade in the Water":
"So apparently Western Michigan University thinks it's OK for white [people] to sing negro spirituals while the instructor talking 'bout 'these songs don't belong to one race.' They sure as hell DO," she wrote.
Faught sent an email to WMU's dean, the dean of fine arts, the board of trustees, the director of the school of music, and the office for diversity and inclusion venting her outrage, WKZO radio reported.
"While I understand the importance of education, I think there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, and the concert last night seemed very inappropriate," part of her email said, according to the station.
"As a black woman, Negro Spirituals are [a part] of my history and my culture, and it signifies the struggle and hardships my ancestors went through. The way the program last night was portrayed is that it is all fun and games and is merely entertainment," she added, WKZO said.
Faught also asked for a public apology from the school of music, said Wright should never come back to WMU, and insisted that students should be consulted the next time a similar show is planned in order to avoid insensitivities, the station said.
The professor responds
Wright told the Herald that he's not apologizing: "I do not feel the need to have to defend what I'm doing, and I've done this for 30 years and to great response."
He also questioned Faught's motives and wondered if she had been "investigated," the paper said, adding that a mentor of his questioned her mental health.
Wright came to WMU on residency after Ken Prewitt, a WMU voice professor, invited him last year, the Herald reported. Wright arrived in Kalamazoo on Valentine's Day to prepare the choirs for the Feb. 19 show, the paper added.
Prewitt told the Herald that Wright is "one of the premiere people for this kind of presentation" and declined further comment.
More students speak out
According to one of the vocalists, some of the songs performed weren't part of the original program, the paper said.
Kayla Lawson, who is black, told the Herald that Wright added songs like "Wade in the Water" and "Walking Up With My Mind on Freedom" at the last minute: "We prepared all the other stuff but [Wright] randomly pulled that out and had us sing it, and we had no idea that was happening. He just told us to start singing to make a point."
Allison Rousseau also sang in the show and told the paper she had mixed feelings but went ahead with the songs, the paper said: "Our instructor was African-American, and he said it was okay because the songs aren't just [black] culture."
But she added to the Herald that "it was just so conflicting to be a part of that. I'm upset that I didn't say something before because I didn't know how many people felt the same way that I did."
However, another black student who was part of the show told the paper that Wright was on the mark.
"I don't think that much needs to have been done differently," Tre Bryant told the Herald. "Dr. Wright did his due diligence of educating the audience and performers of what they were doing and what the songs meant."
Bryant added to the paper that the spirituals have evolved and have become part of the larger language of music, such as in blues, rock, and jazz — but that everyone should know their origins, which is why Wright called the songs "for everyone."
"We cannot expect people of other races to truly understand what our people had to go through and the songs they sang just to make it through the day if we are not willing to allow them to learn, and that's what this was meant to be," Bryant told the Herald.
But audience member DeUnique Dorris — director of outreach for WMU's Black Student Union — told the paper Wright's comments were ill-conceived given the ethnicity of the singers: "The teacher wasn't acknowledging the history when he's saying it's for everyone. Yeah, it's for everyone to hear, but it takes away the meaning when it's from a mostly white cast."
In fact, the BSU demanded an apology and called the performance appalling and "another example of racial insensitivity allowed on WMU's campus," the Herald said.
WMU's Student Association added, "We stand with Shaylee Faught and the students who experience the insidious nature of cultural appropriation. Their experience is characteristic of a lack of accountability to student concerns. When the director is more concerned with investigating the mental health of a student rather than empathetically responding to concerns of students, it further illustrates that student's voices do not matter. We do not and will not tolerate these inappropriate responses," the paper said.
What did the university have to say?
The school called Wright's comments about Faught "unfortunate," the Herald said, and that "the student's perspective is real and is important, without a doubt."