“When the Light Stops Shining, Who’s Going to Still Be Pushing?”

We all saw the post on the Conservatory’s social media on the last night of Black History Month. Beneath a banner that read “A Celebration of Black Artistry” were the faces of five white musicians. The post went on to gain thousands of shares and replies before it was taken down several hours later. 

After deleting the social media post with the flier, the Conservatory issued an apology that failed on multiple counts. First, the Con only acknowledged and took accountability for their most surface-level failing: featuring the photographs of their white musicians instead of the likenesses of the Black composers. Second, the Con dedicated the majority of its statement to virtue signaling rather than taking full accountability. 

Spurred on by the national movement for racial justice and student demands, the Conservatory has pledged to improve as an institution in regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In September, the Oberlin College Black Musicians’ Guild published Action Steps for the Conservatory to Create a Better Community, and this past summer Oberlin’s Black Student Union ABUSUA issued a new list of demands. Both demanded that the Conservatory diversify its repertoire and include more works by Black composers. Last June, J Holzen, OC ’20, found that since 2010, the Oberlin Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra, Sinfonietta, and Contemporary Music Ensemble had performed only seven pieces by five different Black composers. Since this finding, the Conservatory pledged to do better. They committed to diversifying their repertoire, among other comprehensive action steps in “Towards a More Equitable and Diverse Conservatory Education.” The Conservatory referenced this same commitment in its apology, in addition to referencing the Presidential Initiative on Racial Equity and Diversity and the rest of the Conservatory’s Black History Month programming. 

The Conservatory’s commitments and expression of goodwill does not excuse the lack of foresight and thoughtfulness that went into the event, flier, and apology. What should have been a step in the right direction set the Conservatory a couple of paces back. While all members of the Conservatory should perform works by diverse composers, it should go without saying that a Black History Month series meant to celebrate Black artistry should center Black artists. And while the Conservatory has professed its desire to do better, it missed the mark both in its initial programming and in its lackluster response to the Oberlin community. Joshua Blue, OC ’16, has pointed out that the heart of the problem is not simply the lack of representation on the stage, but the lack of representation among Conservatory faculty and staff, which is less than ten percent Black. 

The Conservatory’s flier and subsequent apology launched a flurry of criticism and conversation. There is not much that we can say which hasn’t already been spoken to, and so we hope to highlight the words of our community members who have shared their perspectives on how the Conservatory and Oberlin as a community can do better. 

While the Conservatory’s attempt to defend itself by referencing other programming was in poor taste, it is undeniable that this controversy has overshadowed the voices that ought to have been celebrated. In the broader scope of the month’s programming, a lot of time and care went into organizing moments to uplift Black voices. These spaces deserve the same level of community engagement so that they may be sustained beyond the month of February. 

In an article last month, Arts & Culture Editor L. Joshua Jackson reported on the Conservatory’s month of programming. In this piece, Associate Professor of Horn Jeff Scott said, “I’m more on the side of: What happens when the light isn’t shining anymore? It’s an important moment, but when the light stops shining … who’s going to still be pushing?”

At this moment, the spotlight shines on Oberlin’s shortcomings, and this question is more pertinent than ever. While we must critique our school for its mistakes and lack of accountability, we should spend just as much energy celebrating the successful work of Black students, faculty, and staff, and putting our own efforts toward sustaining these conversations. Reggie Goudeau, a Review columnist and student senator, wrote about this in the conclusion of his op-ed last week. 

“The worst part of all of this is that white people messing up is a cycle which fuels itself,” he wrote. “The administration avoids accountability, and many white Obies criticizing the Conservatory’s deleted flyer get to portray themselves as progressive on the internet. Many of these students are upset with the College’s oversight, but a lot of them never shared a poster, a Zoom link, or even attended an event that Black students labored to create last month.

In a Letter to the Editor on Wednesday, Associate Dean of the Conservatory Chris Jenkins wrote on the Conservatory’s concerted effort at Black History Month programming on a level not seen in recent memory, and on the Black composers whom Sunday’s event was meant to honor. 

“Those composers are William Grant Still, Jeffrey Mumford, and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St. Georges,” he wrote. “I again invite you to read their names and explore their music, because they also have been overshadowed, when we should have centered them from the beginning.” 

Jackson further expounded on this condition of spaces built on whiteness in an op-ed addressing the Conservatory controversy last week, writing, “By not centering the most vulnerable folk, trans women of culture, there is a perpetual subversion of liberation by limiting our vision of what ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversity’ could manifest as.” 

During the Black Queer Nightlife Panel run through the GSFS department, guest speakers also spoke to the vital process of space-making. 

“This very fervent creation of space is very much evidence of world-making practice for and amongst Black trans non-binary, lesbian, gay, and bisexual folk who have lived our lives at the intersections of un-belonging, if you will,” Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University Julian Kevon Glover said in an interview with the Review. “So we’ve responded to that by creating our own place to belong, our own way to celebrate ourselves.”

While the Conservatory’s misguided attempt to celebrate Blackness backfired, many more moments proved successful. Because of the talent and dedication of Oberlin’s Black students, faculty, and staff, February was a month full of food, dance, fashion, and critical conversation. As much as the broader Oberlin community critiques the Conservatory, we must expend even more energy supporting and building better spaces to celebrate Blackness.