The Oberlin Conservatory of Music issued an apology last weekend after posting a controversial flier that went viral on Facebook and Instagram. The flier advertised a virtual recital in the Conservatory’s “A Celebration of Black Artistry” series, and featured photographs of the event’s all-white performers. Over 2,000 people reacted, shared, and commented their outrage.
The flier was posted on Sunday and deleted that same day, replaced with an apology. In its statement, the Conservatory acknowledged that featuring photos of the white artists on the flier was wrong, but did not comment on its choice to conduct a Black History Month recital that featured the works of Black composers performed by white artists.
“We acknowledge that it was a mistake to post this event out of context, and without pictures of the composers themselves, and we are deeply sorry,” the statement read. “We will continue to be reflective and consider our policies moving forward in order to prevent a post of this nature from happening in the future.”
The apology linked to the Conservatory’s other Black History Month programming, this year’s Racial Equity & Diversity Action Plan, and Oberlin’s Presidential Initiative for Racial Equity and Diversity.
“While these words guide our work always, this is clearly a day on which we misstepped,” the statement read. “We want you to know that we hear you, and we will do better.”
Conservatory alum Joshua Blue, ’16, was not impressed by Oberlin’s response.
“Taking down the original post only made them look more guilty — that’s it,” Blue said. “If I have to hear another institution say, ‘We hear you and we promise to do better,’ I’m like, I quit. I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s empty, it’s hollow, it’s platitudes. I don’t think they should have deleted it. I don’t think the solution is ever to say, ‘Look at the diversity and equity and inclusion we used to do.’ Because if you’re inclusive yesterday and then you say something racist today, I’m not going to be like, ‘Well, at least you were inclusive the other day.’ You’ve got to be constantly active, especially as an institution.”
For Blue, the Conservatory’s statement did not address what he sees as a lack of foresight and thoughtfulness from organizers.
“Personally, I fully don’t accept the Conservatory’s apology, because the poster wasn’t the issue,” Blue said. “If you’re going to celebrate Black artistry, you have to celebrate Black artists as well as composers. If it gets to that point where we’re like, ‘Well, we don’t have the faculty to fill these roles,’ then Oberlin has thousands of alumni that could have done this virtually. … It was lazy programming. They worked with what they had within arms reach, as opposed to doing the work and finding the people to perform it.”
When Blue first saw the post, he took to Twitter to express his frustration. For Blue, the flier signified a much bigger issue: the small number of Black faculty members in the Conservatory. In his post, Blue pointed out that less than 10 percent of the Conservatory’s faculty and staff is Black.
“What example are you setting for not just yourselves, but the entirety of higher education establishments, when you can’t even be bothered to show the same initiatives for diversity and inclusion in the people you have HIRED to teach about it?” Blue’s tweet read. “Diversity is TOP DOWN, it is never the other way around.”
Associate Dean for Academic Support and the Conservatory’s liaison to the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Chris Jenkins introduced the recital series and hosted some of the events.
“It’s important for readers to know that this February, the Conservatory’s programming included six events, with performances and presentations by Black faculty, staff, and invited guests,” Jenkins wrote in a Letter to the Editor on Wednesday. “The concert of works by Black composers on Feb. 28 was a small part of an entire suite of programming and was intended to cap off a full month of amazing presentations by Black artists.”
Jenkins believes that this incident highlights the ways in which Oberlin does not live up to its professed values, but explained that he looks forward to seeing continued progress.
“The truth is that in recent memory — at least during my time at Oberlin, if not previously — the Conservatory has never produced this much programming for Black History Month,” he wrote. “Because we are doing something we haven’t done before, we are likely to make mistakes, which is unfortunately what happened in this case; and we ought to continue to produce at least this much programming for Black History Month so as to continue to improve our institutional culture.”
In the past year, the Conservatory has been in conversation with students and alumni about creating a music education that is more inclusive and diverse. In September, the Oberlin College Black Musicians’ Guild published Action Steps for the Conservatory to Create a Better Community, and this summer ABUSUA issued a new list of demands for Oberlin that included some Conservatory-specific plans. This past June, J Holzen, OC ’20, wrote a letter to the deans and conductors at Oberlin Conservatory about their overwhelmingly white repertoire.
“A search through the Conservatory Audio Archives reveals that since 2010, Oberlin Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra, Sinfonietta, and Contemporary Music Ensemble have performed only seven pieces by five different Black composers,” Holzen wrote. “This paltry representation is unacceptable.”
Serena Creary, OC ’17, was disappointed in the Conservatory’s decision to host an all-white performance as part of its Black History Month Programming. And while she was glad to see the Conservatory highlighting Black composers in this series and in other recitals this past year, she says that the institution still has a long way to go.
“I feel that they really could be promoting the works of their graduates — and not just really famous ones, ones that are doing well, but ones that are up and coming,” she said. “I can’t be, and I’m not, the only Black composer to have graduated from the classical side recently. I’d just like to see more representation, more pride in Oberlin’s own alumni.”
Blue agreed with Creary and called on Oberlin to feature more of its community members.
“Reach out to Oberlin’s alumni network, which has so many Black artists, and other BIMPOC artists, and other LGBTQ artists,” he said. “We’re here, and we want to make Oberlin look good because we come from Oberlin and we love Oberlin, flaws and all.”
For Blue, the final recital in “A Celebration of Black Artistry” was a missed opportunity to celebrate Oberlin’s next generation of Black artists.
“Everything we do as artists should not just be for the joy of art, which is a huge component of it, but it should be for the longevity of art,” Blue said. “You can’t inspire artists if you don’t show them that they too have a spot on the stage and in the recital hall.”