“AIN’T NO RACISTS HERE,” A MINSTREL SHOW IN TWO ACTS*
Untitled, Pen and Ink, 8.5" x 8", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
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 a 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 chattel, 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 p. 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.’
“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, please see The Birth of Dixie, a March 31, 2012 New York Times bog post by Christian McWhirter: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/31/the-birth-of-dixie/
“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 am editing 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 dissent. 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 pointed out in my friend’s essay, is 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.
When science and common sense finally catch up with myth (myth being superstition — 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.
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 ugly paradigms that shaped me. As I work through personal reparations, I’ve posted about my own racism, informed and indoctrinated by my culture, religion and my accident of birth.
Traces of Blackface in the Mirror, https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner/traces-of-blackface-in-the-mirror-bc9002049ba7
No One’s Born a Racist?, https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner/no-ones-born-a-racist-728ff15fe7f5
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**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 a number of 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 art work. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers