A Utah Minstrel Show in Two Acts: “Ain’t No Racists Here”
Today’s essay is a slightly revised version of one I posted a year ago. Utah’s own Dixie State University in St. George, Utah is undergoing a name change. The Name Recommendation Committee and Board of Trustees proposed changing the name to Utah Tech University. Last week, the name change passed the Utah House 56–15 and the Senate 17–12.
“Senate President Stuart Adams had told members of the media that he wasn’t sure if the name change could succeed. And joining him, Sens. Don Ipson and Evan Vickers, both staunch Republicans who represent southern Utah, said they would not vote in favor.
“Ipson made a last push against it on the floor, calling himself ‘the last man standing’ and pointing to a relative of his, who in the past stood against renaming the University of Deseret to the University of Utah in 1892. He said he would continue that tradition and fight against dropping ‘Dixie’ to appease a few people worried about political correctness. He defended the name’s heritage in St. George and the surrounding area, disavowing any ties to racism. [See ACT I, below, which addresses that heritage’s ties, or lack thereof, to racism.]
“We fought a good fight,’ he said. ‘And people and alumni around the world will be disappointed by this.” ~ Source
ACT I: We Must Preserve Symbols of Racism so We Don’t Become Racists
In the 1850s then Mormon leader Brigham Young sent folks to the southern part of what later became Utah to establish a Mormon Indian Mission to save the Southern Paiutes — from themselves. According to Mormon doctrine, Southern Paiutes descended from peoples god cursed with dark skin for their disobedience in Book of Mormon times. The first Mormon settlers, whom Young commanded to grow cotton in the temperate climate, came from Southern States of Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Texas, and Tennessee. Robert Dockery Covington, who led the second company of Mormon settlers, was called of God as the first President of the Branch of the Mormon Church in that region. In his previous life, Covington was a slave owner (eight chattels, according to the census) and overseer. He was known to publicly recount with some relish the slave rapes and whippings.
“Already the settled area of the Virgin Valley was being called Utah’s ‘Dixie.’ The fact that cotton would grow there, as well as tobacco and other semi-tropical plants such as the South produced made it easy for the name to stick. The fact that the settlers at Washington were bona fide Southerners who were steeped in the lore of cotton culture — many of them, at least — clinched the title. Dixie, it became, and Dixie it remained. . . . The name ‘Dixie’ is one of those distinctive things about this part of Utah. . . . It is a proud title.”
Andrew Larson, I Was Called to Dixie, at 185.
The civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder reprised a controversy in the Southern Utah Virgin Valley known as Utah’s Dixie. As it turns out, the only way to avoid a pro-racist uprising and turn non-racists into racists is to preserve symbols of racism. St. George resident Joey Samons-Ashby helped organize a protest in Washington County Seat, St. George, Utah, in support of keeping the moniker. As reported in the local paper, she explained that “changing the name ‘Dixie’ around the city would create more racists by making white residents think that their heritage is being stripped away.”
“‘They’re trying to take the Dixie name off of everything . . . ,’ Ashby said. ‘[I]t’s making people racist. You take away our heritage and people who are not racist have a tendency to be that if you’re demanding taking that away from us.’ . . .
“‘There were wrongs and I know that that was wrong to have slaves as we look at it today, but think of the good,’ Ashby said. ‘What blessings did they have? They were able to be born in the United States and have American citizenship where they can do anything they want if they have the drive to do it.’”
Watercolor, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
“When asked about the song ‘Dixie’ that was written in 1859 — before the St. George area was known as ‘Utah’s Dixie’ — for minstrel shows and served as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, Ashby said that people should get over it and learn from it.”
“‘People in St. George are not racist,’ Samons-Ashby said. ‘I can’t speak for all of the people that have moved in, I’m speaking of the people from Dixie. We were never racist — never. Dixie is a name that means a lot to us, it’s our heritage.’
“Samons-Ashby also brought up The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [see ACT II, below], saying the church teaches people that, ‘we are all God’s children.’ She admitted that there is racism in America but urged city officials not to take away the heritage behind the name Dixie in Washington County.
“‘You’re not going to get rid of racism, but, instead of complaining, think about the blessings black people have,’ Samons-Ashby said. ‘Because of their ancestors, they’re able to be an American, they were able to be born here, they’re able to do something for themselves because this is America. This is America, and they can pull up their bootstraps and do it if they want to. There’s plenty of people to help the blacks right now so instead of complaining, do something.’
“Samons-Ashby was also asked about former minstrel shows, blackface performances, and mock slave auctions at Dixie State University. The name of the university has been revisited a number of times, including talks in 2013 and 2015.
“‘We used to have minstrel shows here in St. George. It was in fun, it was nothing racist,’ Samons-Ashby said. ‘I used to dress up with a blackface for Halloween. I think actually it was a compliment to want to look like a blackface. Look at the good, quit looking at the bad. Forgive, go on, do something for yourselves, earn your respect. You’re not going to do it by tearing down statues.’”
For a scholarly summation of the history of “Dixie” as a Confederate anthem, see The Birth of Dixie, a March 31, 2012 New York Times blog post by Christian McWhirter, here.
“This popularity is remarkable, as little about ‘Dixie’ recommends it as a national anthem. The melody lacks gravitas, and only the first verse and chorus express anything approximating Southern nationalism:
I Wish I was in de land ob cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten
Look away! look away! look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land whar I was born in,
Early on one frosty mornin’,
Look away! look away! look away! Dixie Land.
Den I wish I was in Dixie,
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand,
To lib and die in Dixie,
Away, away, away down south in Dixie,
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
“The rest is unmistakably the work of a songwriter utilizing various minstrel clichés. ‘Dixie’s’ speaker is a slave who worries that his plantation mistress is being seduced into marrying ‘Will de Weaber,’ the ‘gay deceiber’ who outlives her and inherits her plantation. Although the speaker expresses his desire to live in the South until he dies, the song provides little else to endear it to Confederate patriots. . . .
“‘Dixie’ remained wedded to its Confederate identity. Although a simple minstrel ditty, 150 years of history have loaded the song with indelible political, racial, military and social connotations. For better or for worse, “Dixie” was the South’s anthem, and will most likely remain so for generations.
ACT II: If It’s Good Enough for God, It’s Good Enough for Me
I edited a paper written by a friend titled, Mormon Religion, Revelation and Racism. It is the most succinct, scholarly writing I have seen on the Mormon Church’s history of racism against Blacks of African descent. The first sentence, which I publish here with his permission, reads in the present tense: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints . . . has a racism problem.”
Of late, the Mormon church condemns the scourge of racism in any form. Yet, it refuses to confront its own history in an open and honest way.
The church tries to explain its history of racism, not as official church doctrine revealed by God but by shifting responsibility to individuals and away from God and the institution itself. The problem with that argument is the people to whom it shifts responsibility were, according to the church, called of God to occupy the highest positions of authority in the Mormon church — an institution that places God at the helm and Mormon prophets, seers, and revelators as his official mouthpieces for all mankind.
A core problem with its responsibility-shifting, as my friend’s essay points out, is that God revealed his racism to mankind through Joseph Smith in what remains Mormon canon, see, e.g., Pearl of Great Price, Book of Moses Chapter 7 and Book of Abraham Chapter 1, something the church has not renounced. Renouncing God’s word as revealed through Joseph Smith by, say, de-canonizing portions of the Pearl of Great Price, is fraught with its own set of problems. Delegitimizing some of what Smith claimed came directly from God would call into question the rest of it.
As my friend’s essay explains in well-resourced detail, the church continues to have “a racism problem”:
“Mormon racism was and remains firmly grounded in [Joseph] Smith’s claim that God directly revealed that black skin was the sign of the curse God had inflicted upon Cain and Canaan as punishment for sin. Those racist revelations are still in the Mormon canon today, more than 40 years after the 1978 revelation” in which God revealed to church leaders that the time had come when worthy Blacks could receive the blessings of the priesthood.
“In the Book of Moses, god also revealed to Smith that God had cursed the descendants of Noah’s grandson and Ham’s son Canaan: ‘a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.’ In another part of the Pearl of Great Price known as the Book of Abraham, Smith recorded god’s revelation that ‘all Egyptians’ were descended from Noah, Ham and Canaan, and that they were ‘cursed . . . as pertaining to the Priesthood,’ meaning the descendants of Canaan were ‘of that lineage by which [they] could not have the right of Priesthood.’ As with the revelations about Cain that became Mormon cannon in the Pearl of Great Price’s Book of Moses, these revelations canonized as the Book of Abraham remain in Mormon scripture as the revealed mind and will of god.”
My friend poses the following question and rhetorical comment:
“Does the Mormon church still claim that God ‘cursed’ some of his children with black skin, or does it renounce these canonized revelations?”
The church’s more recent position that “its teachings on race, including which are God’s revelations and which are ‘disturbing’ ‘theories’ of ‘church leaders,’” “also leave the Mormon believer in the awkward position of not knowing who is the racist, God or the unrepentant Mormon prophets and apostles.”
I no longer subscribe to religion in any form, having found greater solace and comfort without it.
My own dishonesty and hypocrisy are enough to have to wrestle with. I am working on penance, however, to change the ugly paradigms that shaped me. When science and common sense finally catch up with myth — a substitute for facts and truth to explain the unknown, justify misconduct, or attract or control adherents — the latter often doesn’t fare so well. All religions, including those who claim a direct, exclusive line of communication with god and possession of the only keys to the kingdom, are often trapped by their own histories and hubris.
As I work through personal reparations, I’ve posted about my own goddamned racism, informed and indoctrinated by religion, culture, and my accident of birth.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to here. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November 17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists is not, however, for the faint of heart.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards, and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his artwork. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers.