Saturday, June 13, 2020

Should BYU's Name be Changed

Brigham Young's Racism

I recently read an article on changing the name of BYU because Brigham Young was a racist.  The link to the full article is here. It continues on the current thread of dismantling past racist thought by replacing monuments, names of famous places, and in effect, removing racists from places of esteem in human thought.  I think many Americans are going through these struggles right now.  Growing up, I had this huge affinity for Civil War history.  I read about all the battles and was fascinated by the military tactics of people like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.  These books made me even wish the South, and my military tacticians that I saw as heroes, had won the war.  Do you begin to see how the narrative of a person can affect someone?  How it can influence how a child thinks?  How do we justify that a man who rapes and kills should be imprisoned, shunned, or even sentenced to death, yet we continue to honor men who raped, beat, starved, and killed their slaves?  My point of writing is to create better understanding from a historical perspective of why we should or why we should not try to dismantle these old edifices and mantles of human appreciation and remembrance.

The author makes some very valid points and brings up one of Brigham Young's racist statements.  I hope no one will try to argue that there is not a litany of early church leader's statements that not only support slavery, but also racist and prejudice thought.  For most historians this is a given.  These were people who grew up with slavery and their own prejudicial thought.  The sad truth of that age and the one that few really want to face is they lived in a world where the majority of people were racist.  This is manifested clearly in the treatment of blacks and other former slaves when freed.  When the British abolished slavery they paid all the slave owners in the empire 20 million pounds.  A massive sum in that day that created a debt they continued to pay until 2015.  Imagine that, the British paid slave owners until 2015, as did most slave owning countries in their own way, yet nothing was given to these newly freed men.  No recompense for the years of hard labor.  No recompense for hatred, abuse, and death.  No, the men freeing the slaves were often times not much better than the slave owners themselves.  The freeing of the slaves had clear political objectives and in most forms it was not founded in altruism.

This is a clear argument many make to defend these leaders.  The argument is that everyone was racist, and therefore these men were not that bad, and even so, they were still formidable men, who did much in spite of their racism.  There is a certain amount of white washing that then must occur. Once again the goal of the narratives is to hide what these men did to highlight their achievements.  If there is something they said or did that people would not agree with, hide it.  This becomes especially important when it comes to religious leaders.  Men who preached principles of living a good and sinless life.  How do we recreate that good and sinless life in these people that we know were racist?

Modern responses have been to wipe away most of the memory of the bad: hush the racist statements, restrict access to archival records.  One of the new ideas, however, is to also to pump the narrative with specific examples of when that person was seen being good to a person of color or a slave.  The idea is that these specific acts are the truth about the person.  That they only said racist things to be political, or they only kept slaves because it was expected of them. These one or two examples can be deafening.  They give credence to followers that the man they revere was a good man.  Our problem, however, is we cannot really know.

One historian put it in the terms of visiting a ruined palace.  The closer you get to the palace, the more you seem to think you know the truth of what actually happened at the palace.  You can touch the rough stones, you can feel the wind.  You feel as though you were there.  Yet at that very same moment, the moment, you feel you know what happened, you also realize, you weren't there, that it cannot be relived.  In effect, the closer you get to historical fact, the further you think you are from the truth.  Yet, this historian, Thomas King, writes, we must not give up on our search for the truth because the truth is there.

Our response then, which has been to wipe away memory, must give us pause.  I remember very vividly visiting a terror museum in Budapest.  The museum highlighted names, achievements, and faces of men and women who had served the Nazis willingly, and then when the Soviets came, they just "changed coats," and continued their reign of terror under a new leader.  This small museum was the product of a new vein of historical thought.  That these men were not just following orders.

In the aftermath of WWII historical research concluded that the Nazis were just ordinary men, who were following orders.  The conclusion was that anyone would have acted as the Nazis did were they put in that role.  Naturally, there are many reasons why historians did not look deeper into this conclusion until the fall of the USSR, but once it fell, there was a re-invigoration of doubting this conclusion.  This culminated in the book "Ordinary Men,"  which categorically refuted these men were following orders.  These men all had clear unadulterated choices.

So what were Brigham Young's choices?  Was he an outspoken bigot?  Was he a bad man?  And how do we measure it?  Well, go ahead and think of the good and bad events you've heard of Brigham Young once he arrived in Utah.  If you're like me, you can't think of much that you learned in school or church.  He was de facto ruler of Utah his entire life, what did he do in that time?  Maybe you've heard he had many wives?  Even after attending Brigham Young University for my undergraduate in history, I still knew next to nothing about Utah history.    Who were they and how did he treat them?  Many kept journals that are still hidden in the Church's archives.  Did you know he ran a profitable alcohol trade?  Did you know he ordered the indentured servitude of Native Americans, and that because of poor working conditions and over 20 years of servitude this servitude was nothing more than slavery and death sentences for thousands of Native Americans who were forcefully removed from their homes and families?  Did you know he requisitioned land from settling Mormon families, who he prophetically called elsewhere and then used their land to build church property, as was the case in one of my ancestor's settlements in Logan.

At this point, if you're a member of the Church reading this, you've probably decided I'm an anti-Mormon.  Another beautifully crafted label we've created to pitifully demolish valid arguments in the face of faith.  I do not, however, believe most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints base their belief on Brigham Young being a good person.  There are even examples in the Bible of "bad men" being prophets and leaders.  Put another way, Brigham Young does not have to be a good man to be a prophet, and the opposite is also true - just because he is considered to be a prophet, he does not need to be revered.  Most importantly, however, there must be a consensus to re-evaluate whether these white males of the 19th century have a place being role models for our children today.  We need to unashamedly

bring to light these men's sins as well as achievements.  We must unashamedly tell the truth of our past because only then will we come to terms with what divides our nation and what can cure us.

No comments:

Post a Comment