WMU student demands school apologize for white people singing 'negro spirituals'

At Western-Michigan University, a student is calling out a choir performance for singing African-American spirituals.

She says that the event was “cultural appropriation.”

An African-American student at Western Michigan University called out her school’s mostly white choir for what she calls cultural appropriation.

Shaylee Faught, a music major, attended a choir performance, called, “Spirituals: From Ship to Shore,” at Western Michigan University for class credit on February 19. The performance was put together and produced by John Wesley Wright, an African-American professor of music at Salisbury University in Maryland. On February 20, Faught posted a Snapchat video of her disapproving facial expressions during the event on Twitter, with the Snapchat caption reading, “Y’all don’t know how mad I am.” 

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“So apparently Western Michigan University thinks it’s ok for WHITE peoples to sing negro spirituals while the instructor talking bout ‘these songs don’t belong to one race.’ They sure as hell DO,” read the video caption.

Faught’s tweet has over 2 million views and was retweeted 32,000  times. 

Other users commented on the tweet, expressing the same disgust for the recital. 

One user, M. Rasheed, commented, “They WANT us to hate them.” 

Another user wrote that “white ppl are culture vultures.” 

Faught also posted the videos on her Instagram page on February 21, commenting: “As a BLACK female sitting there having white people stand in the aisles singing about slavery and segregation made me UNCONFORTABLE [sic] to say the least.” 

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“This isn’t entertainment. It’s our history and the cultural appropriation was NOT there. And to make it worse, the instructor was BLACK. and he had the audacity to say that spirituals ‘belong to everybody they don’t belong to one race’,” Faught went on. Faught continued, saying that she had written a letter to the dean, as well as other university officials. 

On February 22, Faught posted pictures of the letter she sent to the dean of Western-Michigan University on Instagram, as well. 

In the letter, Faught said that she was “very disappointed,” and that it was inappropriate for non-black students, “ESPECIALLY without them really understanding what it all means.” 

Furthermore, she asserted that “Negro Spirituals need to be reserved for people of African descent.” 

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Faught asked that music instructor John Wesley Wright, himself an African-American, not be invited back to campus and that the Western Michigan University School of Music make a public apology. She also wrote that the next time the school decided to use a cultural theme for a program, they should consult members of that ethnic group to ensure that the program is not offensive. 

Western Michigan University made a statement to the Western Herald, saying, “As a member of the audience, a student in attendance was concerned about what she experienced. She made those concerns known on social media and sent an email to WMU leadership. We take these student’s concerns very seriously.”

Wright also spoke with the Western Herald, expressing surprise at the claims. “I have only been experiencing people who come up to me and ask to hug me and that they were thrilled to have the experience...Kalamazoo is majority white right? So I don’t know how else to respond to that,” said Wright.

”I found the concert offensive because people singing sacred songs out of their culture is inappropriate,” Fought told Campus Reform. “For the fact of the matter that no matter how much you learn about it you will never feel it like we feel it and you will never truly connect with it. The manner in which the concert was presented was as if everything was for fun and entertainment and a joke and I simply did not see it that way.”

”Western just needs to do a better job of practicing cultural appropriation and there needs to be more mindfulness about controversial topics such as culture in the future,” she added. 

Danielle Cumming, an associate for Wright, told Campus Reform in an email, “the term cultural appropriation doesn’t apply if the artist [is] working within his or her own culture. Dr. Wright is African American, and African and African American music are his areas of research. It would be very difficult if not impossible to make an argument that he should or cannot teach this material.”

”Similarly, students participating in his class would not be guilty of appropriating African and African American culture - rather they’re learning about it. My understanding is that a student was upset to see white students participate in African American traditions, even under the guidance of an African American teacher. This is a unique response,” Cumming added.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @carolinefshaver