How a ‘slavery’ uproar at Juilliard School threatens the future of artistic expression

Pictured – Left: Juilliard Professor Michael McElroy who taught a class with material taken from the TV Series “Roots”, which triggered some hysterics into meltdown – Right: A Historical Production at Juilliard

The New York Post:

Turn on CNN or open The New York Times, and you may encounter someone explaining how exhausting it is to be a black person. The idea that systemic racism is leaving blacks scarred and spent has been embraced across mainstream America, articulated by corporate CEOs and university presidents. 

The latest performative assertion of black oppression is playing out at the Juilliard School in New York City. The controversy has significance beyond the school. 

This year, NYU theater professor Michael McElroy, who is black, taught a three-day “Roots to Rep” drama workshop. The workshop would combine history, research and music to explore the journey of black people in this country, McElroy explained, with a specific emphasis on the way “the Negro spiritual . . . is the foundation of so many musical genres today.” 

McElroy asked students to prepare for the workshop by writing a paragraph about a key event in the history of black enslavement. The president of Juilliard’s Black Student Union, Marion Grey, saw this requirement as identity-threatening, but she kept her objections to herself, she told American Theater, in order to test whether the school would “protect” her in the face of such a racial assault. 

On the workshop’s first day, McElroy offered a trigger warning that the forthcoming audio exercise contained the “N-word.” Students could leave the Zoom session anytime they wanted, McElroy said. The lesson began with an auditory recreation of the African slave trade. A march through the jungle was followed by a slave auction, with the auctioneer extolling a “fine black pearl” who would raise her owner “a fine litter of pickaninnies.” 

During this soundscape, the black students were texting each other about how “utterly broken” they were by the exercise, according to Grey, while white students and faculty, as well as a few black students, participated in the workshop without protest. Afterward, the white students recounted how moving the experience had been. 

Grey then Zoomed an impassioned remonstrance about cultural appropriation and trauma. “I was like, ‘There are wounds here, and you don’t get to just explore someone’s history and culture with them — that is earned, you don’t just get that,’ ” she told the class, according to American Theater. 

McElroy had offered this workshop numerous times before without provoking a similar meltdown. The slave-auction dialogue was taken from the widely aired miniseries “Roots.” The historical record contains no indication that “Roots” generated trauma when it was released in 1977. 

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