Thursday, July 7, 2011

500 Words on What To Do with Racist Mormon Novels

A few months ago, the blog Good Reason posted some thoughts on Emma Marr Petersen’s 1956 Mormon novel Choose Ye This Day, which contains a chapter that seeks to explain and justify Mormonism’s former racial policies. Unfortunately, I don’t have space to go into all of the ideas set down in the chapter. Put simply, they are these: a person’s race was determined in pre-mortality based on his or her loyalty to God during the War in Heaven. The most loyal people were blessed with white skin while everyone else was assigned a lesser race. The most disloyal of the loyal—the fence-sitters—were given black skin and no right to the priesthood.

The chapter also rails against interracial relationships. Basically, it argues that integration is okay as long as the “negroes” don’t get too fresh with the white girls.  

Sadly, these ideas were pretty common before 1978, when the priesthood ban was lifted, and they are still expressed on occasion today, usually by older members who make a habit of reading old school church publications.

These racial theories aren’t the most flattering aspect of Mormon history, and it’s unfortunate that they’re tied to some of our most respected forbears. Personally, it’s a part of our past that I would gladly do without. Like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the old racial policies and the theories used to justify them nag at me. Sometimes I think it would be better for us all if we just forgot about them.

Of course, forgetting the past—or worse, denying it—is a bad idea, and not simply because of the old cliché about being doomed to repeat it. An honest approach to history allows us to acknowledge our flaws, experience guilt, and feel compassion for those we have wronged. In a sense, it gives us the privilege of having a nagging thorn in our side, a constant reminder of the worst we are capable of.

Perfection is a hard thing to live up to, so it’s important that we keep a clear view of the past. Works of fiction like Choose Ye This Day are lousy contributions to the Mormon canon, but we can’t tuck them away into the corner of our meetinghouse libraries and pretend they don’t exist. They need to be remembered—if not read—to encourage us to produce a Mormon literature that strives to be more than what it has been: more thoughtful, more compassionate, more aware of others, and more worthy of the name Mormon.

Of course, I’m not saying we need to promote novels like Choose Ye This Day as important works of Mormon literature. That would be giving them more credit than they’re worth. What we need, rather, is to remain aware of them, keep them on the shelves and open for discussion. As much as we hate to admit it, they are a part of who we are and where we have been. They say something about us, but also challenge us to change the future.

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