Story at a glance

  • At a recent concert, a mostly white choir of Western Michigan University students and faculty sang “negro spirituals.”
  • A black student posted a video online expressing her disapproval and is asking the college to apologize.
  • University officials have not apologized but say they “take the student's concerns very seriously.”

A viral video of a university choir performance has sparked debate about whether it is appropriate for white people to sing the songs black slaves once used to escape to freedom. 

Shaylee Faught, a black music student at Western Michigan University (WMU), posted the video on Twitter of a concert she attended for class credit. The show, "Spirituals: From Ship to Shore," featured spirituals sung by black slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The instructor was Dr. John Wesley Wright, a guest professor from Salisbury University, where he has previously performed the show.  

Wright, who is black, told Western Herald, WMU's student publication, "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 did not address Faught's claim that Wright said the songs "don't belong to one ethnicity." In an email to the university, Faught said the concert felt inappropriate, according to WKZO

"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 wrote. 

In a statement to WKZO, the University did not offer an apology but said they had received Faught's email and set up a meeting with her. 

“This student's perspective is real and it is important. It is one among many different perspectives,” WMU said in the statement. 

Faught, whose original post had more than 100,000 likes and 32,000 retweets by the morning of Feb. 24, wasn't the only student to express discomfort. 

Kayla Lawson, who is black, and Allison Rousseau told the Western Herald they expressed their discomfort before the show. 

“It was just so conflicting to be a part of that,” Rousseau told the Western Herald. “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.”

WMU's Student Association and Black Student Union have both voiced their support of Faught and are calling for a formal apology. 

"This concert had immense potential to be an educational opportunity; however, thoughtful planning and consideration of certain cultures were lacking," the student union said in their statement. 

Still another singer who performed in the show, Tre Bryant, felt differently. 

“I don’t think that much needs to have been done differently. Dr. Wright did his due diligence of educating the audience and performers of what they were doing, and what the songs meant,” Bryant, who is black, told the Western Herald. 

WMU said in their statement the concert was part of a week-long series on spirituals and their history. 

"The public concert and weeklong series were an opportunity for students of any background to understand a critical part of U.S. history, a part of history that is probably not talked about enough in the general population. This concert, this series, reflected what inclusion is all about," the school said in the statement. 

Published on Feb 24, 2020