Teaching Official Declaration #2

For the Mormon Sunday School teachers out there, this one is for you.  This is a follow-up to an earlier post: Mythbusters: Official Declaration #2 edition. 

Today, I taught the lesson on Official Declaration #2. For most of us, it is over. Whether with grace or clumsiness or perhaps #facepalm moment (or three), we’ve taught the lesson on Official Declaration #2.
Since it deals with one of the great lines of exclusion drawn in human societies in the modern (and arguably, pre-modern age), it was a heavy load. That it took place within a community and faith system that many of us cherish, the anxiety and pain is particularly stark. Can we broach it, particularly as people of European descent? We do not know what it’s like to live in black skin. All the stories of Missouri persecutions–as searing and sympathetic as they are–will not stand up to any comparison with the black experience in America.
But not only do I think that we can broach it; I think we have an obligation to broach it. Official Declaration #2 stands alongside every other revelation in our canonized text. It initiated the growth of the Church for well over 1/6 of the world’s population. As such, it deserves sustained scrutiny.

How to do it?  Instead, I want to speak about on-the-floor paradigms, strategies, operations, and tactics. I have delivered a few of these seminars–from Durban, SA to Wyoming to Wisconsin.  Silver bullets for teaching about existential questions don’t exist. But more effective/less-effective practices do. A topic this sensitive with anyone (and certainly those who live in a world outside the academy) is going to elicit emotional responses–every time. In terms of content, the material available is vast and plentiful; I am including a reading list at the end of this post.

So here is my short list of tactics for teaching a Sunday School Lesson about race in LDS history effectively:

Major Caveat: My current Sunday School class approached this topic with grace and active engagement. It went well. This post should not be read as an implicit (let alone explicit) critique. Would that all teachers had such a class. 

1. It is Their Class As Much As It Is Yours. Anyone who cares enough to read a blog post about teaching about Mormon racism in Sunday School is likely to be a fairly informed person. You read scholarly tomes about Mormonism and subscribe to the Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, and perhaps Sunstone. Walker Lewis is not foreign to you. The people we teach probably are not these kinds of people. And, as frustrating as it is, that is not a sin. 

We will likely want to enter the class with a set of lesson objectives–and feel a certain moral obligation to make sure they absorb them. That is a good thing. Please do so.  Aspire high. Plan to be the person who Changes The Way Your Sunday School Class Talks About Race.

But the reality: the people sitting in front of you fall into a few categories. Generally speaking, these folks are good people. Do they have gaps in their knowledge? Absolutely. But they probably can run circles around you (read: me) when planning logistical operations, run financial analyses, or performing a surgery.  These are the same people who could very well pull you out of a foxhole, make you dinner when you’re ill, or help you move.

I tell the story of my grandfather as a case in point. A member of the LAPD who also made no secret of his racism, he also never made a secret that he did not want his grandchildren adopting his views on black people. His children made no secret of their disapproval of his views.  He was not the “crazy uncle”; he was a work-his-fingers-to-the-bone father who sacrificed immensely for his family.  The question never was: “ugh, what are we to do with grandfather?” The question always was: “How can someone so good be so badly wrong about something so important?”

This is not to suggest that their goodness to you buys them clearance on entertaining bad ideas (see #3).  It does not.  We have a responsibility to share what can be documented; no one wins by our feeling intimidated because Sister Peterson made us cookies. But it does mean that we literati need to check ourselves, too.

2. Remember That You Are Not The Gate Keeper of Knowledge. I am conversant in the documentation about Mormon race history. When it comes to Who Believed/Said What/When/Where, I can invoke a number of sources to explain/analyze it.

But this is their class as much as it is yours. They have spiritual needs in dealing with racial questions. Those spiritual needs can run the gamut from: “I didn’t know Mormons had a racial history. Please help” to “My black friends think I’m a racist for belonging to a racist church. Please help” to “I went inactive over this issue, but I’m giving it a chance now. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

While we do not need to carry the burden of reaching all of these needs, we do need to be aware that we should not consider ourselves the “Woke Mormons Tasked with Sharing the Racial Gnosis on these Benighted Nitwits.” We’re not especially woke. It’s not a mystery of the kingdom. And they’re not nitwits.

3. Stay Realistic. You can’t cover everything, and make sure you emphasize this. I recommend drawing up a timeline of some key events of Mormonism’s race history (e.g. 1833, for the “Free People of Color” brouhaha in Jackson County; 1836, for Joseph Smith’s pro-slavery statement; 1847, for Parley P. Pratt’s statement on the “blood of Ham,” marking the first time a General Authority made a documented statement connecting Hamitic identity with priesthood worthiness, etc.).

4. Kick the Tires I get it:  most people don’t have the time/resources/emotional resilience to prepare for every possible contingency in this kind of discussion. But you can come close. And I am assuming that readers of this post are wiling to put in the time necessary to understand the issues being discussed.

Think of every rationale you’ve ever heard used to justify the priesthood restriction. Then, kick the tires. Check it out. Abraham Lincoln said to hold up ideas to every possible angle of light. See what works. See what doesn’t. In order to do this, I would strongly recommend having a few data points memorized: the Evening and Morning Star dust-up in 1833, the William McCary scandal in 1847, and the essence of Brigham Young’s 1849 and 1852 comments on race. Be ready to invoke them–chapter and verse.

It’s tempting (and annoyingly so) to think of this dichotomous terms: either a theory is The Truth or It’s Bunk and We Should Burn It To the Ground. Avoid that temptation. This approach leaves the class feeling stupid for ever having entertained those theories to begin with. And people who are made to feel stupid are not inclined to change their positions. They’re inclined to run away and hide in their shell, if only to avoid the gaze of judgment (Mormon judgmentalism is not confined to issues re: pornography).

Bad ideas need to be excised like a cancer–and like cancers, they’ve often metastasized , reaching into the cells and marrow of our bodies. In that spirit, we don’t excise cancers recklessly.  We do so with care first and foremost for the patient–because we want them to improve, to think/do/be better–not because we want an opportunity to show how much we know about cancer.

Instead, be ready to acknowledge why someone might accept a particular theory (even if it’s bunk). For example, if a Traveler 16th-from Region X sees Someone Radically Different from Them–and the Bible is their primary reference guide for understanding the world–then it’s predictable that they will look to the Bible to understand not only morality but also human origins. “Clearly,” this Traveler says to themselves, “this person does not have the talent, resources, etc. that I do. So what could explain it? And they were born this way–and have been this way for generations.”  More, if this Traveler has a vested, economic interest in looking for purchasable slave labor, then it is to be expected that they will contrive a mythology that justifies the enslavement of This Radically Different Someone.  This psychological process is not some kind of historian’s invention; a quick show of hands will reveal how many people have invented some rationale to justify some kind of behavior they felt to be wrong.

Enter Ham. Enter Canaan. Enter Cain.

By the same token, be ready to qualify, limit, bound, and in some instances, debunk outright particular theories. You might have the exact data points to respond to every potentiality, but don’t let ad hoc theories be entertained without being challenged. And if you have command of the documentation to challenge them, do so. Don’t hold back. Your class members will not benefit from your silence.

5. Start with a Primer in African-American History. This does not need to be extensive. But it should be a starting point. A visual (like this one) is sufficient to highlight the slave trade–along with a simple statement like: “the trans-Atlantic slave trade led to over 10 million Africans–and that’s a low-ball estimate–being sold and shipped to the New World; these are the ancestors of the African-American community today.”  Highlight how enduring issues of monetary disenfranchisement, educational access, housing access, etc. have hung over African-American communities to disproportionate degrees; this should take you no more than one minute. Then move to the remainder of the lesson: “How This Intersects with Mormon History.” This reminds the class that 1. Mormons have not lived in a bubble and 2. that the issue of Mormon racism cannot and ought not be discussed apart from the broader issues of racism in America.

6. Beware of the “Know Nothings.” The standard line these days is: “We don’t know why the ban was implemented.” On some level, I can appreciate the humility. Documentation never tells us everything we want. But, anyone who invokes the “We don’t know” thesis should be able to be 100% conversant in the documentation. They should be able to say what we do know–because there is plentiful documentation to illuminate this. In my experience, those who say: “we don’t really know” have likely, for any number of reasons, not made a sustained effort to understand.

Moreover, we can cite, with confidence, exactly why Brigham Young, John Taylor, B.H. Roberts, David O. McKay, George Albert Smith, etc. believed the ban should be in place. They did not consider it to be a “mystery of the kingdom”; to the contrary, they considered to be common-sensical and self-apparent. Why else, white Mormon Americans thought, would African-Americans be laboring under such economically depraved circumstances–and in the richest nation in the world where the dream of social mobility is woven into our fabric?

As a matter of personal interpretation, I think what gaps do exist can be situated against a variety of legal, theological, and social contexts. If individuals want to make the case that “we don’t know,” they need to reckon with what we do know before daring to identify any gaps. As an instructor, be prepared to engage with where you think the gaps are–and where they are not.

Conclusion? (no such thing)
There is, obviously, more to this than can be discussed in a single blog post. But to my fellow teachers: you have the opportunity to be “repairers of the breach,” and in healthy, cathartic ways. This Sunday School lesson is an opportunity to be cherished, not an anxiety to be dreaded. I am reminded of when Neal A. Maxwell urged BYU students to let their love lead them into the fray, rather than sitting, Jonah-like, while Ninevah self-destructed. And when it comes to racism, Ninevah exists in the darkest recess of the human heart, in corners so deep that few of us have the will or desire to reach into them–unless we can create the spaces that allow for introspection and self-reflection. <—That, my friends, is your job.

Reading List
W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color
Russell W. Stevenson, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and MormonismBlack Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables
Newell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism
Armaund Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage
J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account
E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America