This is the second part of scene 2 from the performance piece I have written. To start at the beginning, click here. To start at the top of scene 2, click here.
Allan: From all accounts, my grandfather was a great man: kind, giving, a devoted husband and father, a loyal friend. However, I also know that my grandfather was very much a man of his time, a man that grew up in Georgia and northern Florida in the mid-twentieth century. That is basically to say that he was pretty racist. I don’t really know the extent, but I certainly remember growing up hearing the terms “nigger-rigged” and the rhyme “Eeny-Meanie-Miney-Mo” including the hauntingly violent image of “catch[ing] a nigger by the toe.” And for the most part, there’s a simple narrative you come to learn in the South—even the arguably pseudo-South of Northern Florida—that lets you reconcile yourself to this messy racial family history: “they’re from an earlier generation, they didn’t know better.” But something about that is not enough; I still struggle with what exactly I am supposed to do with this strain of mortal imperfection that disrupts the vision of familial sainthood. To be honest, I much prefer whitewashing the memory of my grandfather’s racist convictions—it’s just more pleasant to remember the nicer, more uplifting qualities of the man, of which there were plenty. I mean really, don’t most of us want in some way to redeem our ancestors or loved ones as we try to make narratives of their past? How many eulogies tend to erase flaws, errors in the past, ironically in honor of memory? And I know I am not alone in this. How do you deal with your progenitors own falls from grace? What’s your story of Garden when you are a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve? You don’t have to actually answer; that was pretty rhetorical. We’re not getting that participatory in the performance today. At least, not yet.
Growing up in the South provided me some sense of how to address my messy racial family history, but you know for some haunting reason, something I just can’t quite put my finger on, this logic does not quite work when you throw Mormonism into the mix.
[Projection: YouTube Clip of“I Believe” from The Book of Mormon, stanza that includes the line “And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people.”]
Allan: Oh yeah, that’s the reason. And let’s be honest, that’s a funny ass joke. I laugh every time I hear it. For those of you that do not know, despite the fact that Joseph Smith ordained a black man to the priesthood while Mormons were living in Illinois in the 1840s, for some reason and at some point that is historically unclear, while in Utah the LDS Church banned the ordination of black men. There was never a decree or a revelation indicating this was policy but it was the practice and when ordination was requested, the requests were denied. And that ban lasted from the nineteenth century through the twentieth up until 1978. This priesthood ban is increasingly significant when you consider that priesthood ordination works differently in Mormonism than most other Christian faiths. Rather than priesthood being conveyed on those that have attended a seminary or lead a congregation in a ministerial role, in the LDS Church, all men over the age of 12 are ordained to the priesthood. It is a general and universal vision of the power of God being delivered into the hands of all men. Now, obviously, there is a whole issue of gender to consider in relation to this universal vision of priesthood authority and power in the church, but for now it is worth saying as is consistent with most extensions of Western European institutions of religious or social organization, “universal” in Mormonism has often meant “white” and “male.”
[Enter A, B, C, D, E, and F for choreographed movement inspired by the gestures and physicality of ordination and ministration of various Mormon ordinances: baptism, sacrament, blessings, ordinations, temple endownments and sealings. Music: “Summer 78”from Good Bye Lenin! soundtrack. This will happen concurrently with next part of the monologue, though I’m not sure where things will end.]
Allan: So while black men and women could be baptized into and confirmed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, men could not be ordained like their male counterparts, which meant they could not serve in most ecclesiastical or leadership positions at local, regional, or general levels; could not represent the church by serving missions; perform baptisms, bless or pass the sacrament, ordain others, provide blessings of healing or comfort; or most significantly, participate in any temple rituals for themselves or as proxies because you have to hold the priesthood to enter the temple. This temple ban also prevented the participation of black women in such rituals despite the fact that their white female counterparts are also ineligible for priesthood ordination but do participate in temple rituals. In the 1950s and 1960s, some prominent church leaders discussed how they asked for revelation to change the policies; others taught it was the order of heaven and that it would never change.
And then in 1978, it did. Now taken in a broader cultural context of US American religious—particularly Christian—history, Mormonism’s ban of priesthood ordination based on race is sadly representative of the rule rather than the exception. That’s not to excuse what was undeniable a racist practice, but just a means to indicate Mormonism was by no means special. For example, Southern Baptist Conventions addressed similar changes around the same time. Both religious communities were a just bit late to the Civil Rights Dance. But I must confess there are other elements going into why that joke in that song in that musical is so damn funny. And part of that is based in some nineteenth century racist logics that The Book of Mormon both archives and functions on, as the musical goes into. The decision and the change in 1978 was arrived at not because a faith community necessarily worked through its theological and social concerns regarding race (say like other Christian denominations and eventually the Southern Baptists did), but rather because leaders said God revealed it was time to change … and so they did. There’s no sense of struggle; no real consideration of the racist work the ban did in Mormon culture or theology; no apology for the discrimination that many men and women faced. Everything just changed and that was it.
And the thing is, my grandfather did struggle with the 1978 revelation. For me, I look at 1978 as this step forward for the institutional LDS Church where it ended its discriminatory practices—perhaps not thoughtfully, but it did stop discriminating at least. And as a gay progressive heterodoxical Mormon, 1978 is this representative watershed moment of potentiality—where everything you thought was impossible could become thinkable, reality, and the order of God. So as I stand alongside Mormon women seeking equality in the LDS Church through true universal priesthood ordination, it’s not like there isn’t precedent. And as I move forward with other LGBTQ Mormons who envision a day where they do not have to choose between their religious and their sexual identities, it’s not like there isn’t precedent. Because of the belief in ongoing, modern revelation, God can change his mind about a lot of things. But that’s how I see 1978: more than a joke: it’s hope.
That’s not how my grandfather saw 1978. For him, it was a Church he converted to asking him to do and believe something really hard. My mother has told me it did not make sense to him, he didn’t like it, it made him question his decision to join the Church. He thought about leaving the faith. Besides the family he was raising, none of his family was part of the LDS Church. He did not have deep generational roots. And remember, he was a convert that spent a lot of time looking for what he felt was God’s one correct church on the earth and just 14 years in, it changed on him in a pretty fundamental way. And in terms of an on the ground application of the revelation, it did so far more in northern Florida than it did in Utah. As an ecclesiastical leader that served at the regional level, my grandfather would be responsible for ordaining black men to the priesthood, preparing black men and women to go to the temple. He would be laying his hands upon their heads conferring authority. He would be the very instrument of the thing he could not agree with. The 1978 revelation asked him to confront his convictions head on and sacrifice his own pride or way of seeing things for the building up of the kingdom of God and the establishment of Zion. See I think 1978 is great because it asked the Church to change and start believing what I believe; for me it’s easy. But when have I been asked to repent so fundamentally?
That song from the musical is a funny joke, but behind it there are people. The ones who suffered discrimination for generations; the ones who benefited from discrimination; the ones who are left to figure out what exactly to do with the grizzly past; and the ones who lived in the transition and struggled to figure out what to do while it wasn’t the past.
[Enter A, B, C, D, E, and F. A and C enter font]
Allan: And I think I will never stop struggling to make sense of it and his complexity because he never stopped struggling. But that’s the curse of Adam, right? “The earth will produce thorns and thistles for you…By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.”
[Projection reads baptismal prayer]
C: Brother Zachary Harris, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of William Coleman Crews, who is dead, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
[C baptizes D. Lights fade. All exit, except D.]
Continue to Scene III: A New Skin
Continue to Scene III: A New Skin