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Bienen graduate student says he may fail class after ‘racially insensitive’ incident

Cat Zakrzewski, Campus Editor

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A Bienen graduate student is claiming his professor plans to fail him for refusing to perform a song with lyrics written by Walt Whitman, a poet he described as a “self-documented racist.”

Timothy McNair, a first-year graduate student on a full scholarship for voice and opera, said he first reached out to Bienen Prof. Donald Nally on May 11, when he wrote an email explaining why he does not want to participate in an end-of-the-year concert June 8.

“After receiving the new music for Chorale and observing the ‘Song of Democracy,’ poetry by Walt Whitman—I refuse to perform this piece under any circumstances,” McNair wrote to Nally, according to an email exchange McNair shared with The Daily. “Walt Whitman was a self-documented racist who is known for having called freed Blacks ‘baboons’ and his writings which saw them as a threat to White Democracy.”

In a statement, University spokesman Al Cubbage said NU does not comment on “academic issues regarding individual students” due to federal regulations.

“However, the University’s expectation of all students is that they complete work assigned by their professors,” Cubbage said.

Although Whitman supported the Union during the Civil War, he envisioned a white American union “without any vision for freed Blacks” and called blacks “unfit for voting,” McNair said in an email to The Daily.

In the same email to The Daily, McNair called Nally’s subsequent response a “racially insensitive and disregardful act.” Three days after his initial email, McNair said his professor responded, stating all students must learn and perform “the assigned repertoire,” which includes “Song of Democracy.”

“Failure to learn and sing any of these works will result in a grade of F for the Spring Term,” Nally responded, according to the email exchange McNair shared with The Daily.

McNair’s complaint comes amid heightened tensions over race relations on campus, something he alluded to in his email to The Daily. The most recent incident McNair pointed to was NU maintenance worker Michael Collins’ saying he found a black teddy bear hanging from his desk.

After sharing the email exchange with The Daily, McNair did not respond to requests for further comment.

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About the Writer
Cat Zakrzewski, In Focus Editor

Cat Zakrzewski is the In Focus editor of The Daily and a Medill junior. Her past positions include assistant summer editor, Campus editor, Holiday Guide...