I am tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
I enjoy pulling weeds and planting seeds. I keep grass and plant clippings, fruit, and vegetable peels and rake my neighbor’s yard in exchange for bringing her leaves to add to my compost pile. My goal is to have healthy nutrients and microorganisms in my garden. Each wriggling worm affirms I am doing it right. Good dirt is vital to a bountiful harvest, whether you are a large-scale farmer like my grandfather or a home gardener.
Daniel’s first wife, Mary, knew he could spot good dirt. She trusted whatever land he chose to homestead would provide for the family.
They stopped at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, about a hundred miles east of Salt Lake, on their trek to Utah. Mr. Bridger, the proprietor, was so confident the saints would not be able to grow corn in the desert of the Salt Lake Valley that he off-handedly offered one thousand dollars for the first ear of corn raised there.
But Daniel was an exceptional farmer with a strong work ethic. He crawled and learned to walk on his parent’s farmland in Canada. His father gave him greater responsibilities on the farm with each passing year. When Daniel married, farming was how he provided for his own family.
After leaving Canada, Daniel adapted his farming techniques as he moved through the American states of Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Nebraska. The prophet Brigham Young asked him to grow crops for the church to sustain them during the emigration to Utah.
Daniel knew his family’s survival in Utah rested on his ability to farm. Daniel patiently traveled through the Salt Lake Valley, digging up clumps of earth and feeling it between his fingers. Before settling, he wanted to find good dirt essential to growing healthy crops.
For years, the government gave acreage to white homesteaders without much thought of the native people already using it. Was Daniel one of those given land, or did he buy it from fur traders already living in Utah? Did the Native tribes give permission or get compensated for land the saints began using as their own? Regardless, Daniel picked a homestead and put down roots.
Most likely, Daniel created an irrigation system similar to the ones made by the Native Americans since dependable water sources were challenging. After using the crops to feed his family and livestock, he used extra harvests to exchange for other necessities and pay for the required church tithing.
Growing up, I often heard the phrase, “Bloom where you are planted,” which implied putting down roots and blossoming were possible anywhere.
Daniel planted our family in the soil of the Mormon church. He watered us with his loyalty to them. His faith in the gospel’s truthfulness was the warm sun, inviting us to sprout and bloom, taking hold of the church dogma with blind trust.
As adept as he was in finding good dirt for corn and wheat seeds, he did not spot the church’s tainted soil, which allowed racists like me to grow. Or maybe, the less tasteful truth is he did see it and planted us there anyway.
The Mormon church is not unique in the racism coursing through its history. Even so, I have felt angry at Daniel for planting me there. He could have left or stayed and fought internally for change. He could have refused to go on mission trips to recruit more members. I am disappointed I didn’t question, speak up, or leave the church because of its racism.
If I could, I would brew my grandfather a cup of fresh peppermint tea from leaves grown in my garden before diving into the host of unanswered questions I have. Wonderings like, “Did you ever question Brigham Young’s leadership?” “How did you vote when Utah decided whether to become a slave-holding territory?” “Did you believe skin color was a barometer of righteousness and worth?” “When you heard disparaging doctrines about black men, women, and children touted as the word of God, did your still small voice whisper, “This is wrong.”
With a second cup of warm tea poured, I would ask, “If you knew members of your own family would be black, would you have done anything differently?” “Grandfather, are you proud of the harvest which came from your choices?”
Unlike my atheist brother, who believes that nothingness comes after death, I think something of us remains, allowing continued learning, feeling, and evolving. The answers I want from my dead grandfather would show he has regret and that he is with me as I write this.
I believe we can change the soil diseased with white supremacy, though I agree with Resmaa Menakem, the author of “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.” He writes substantial change will take several generations. Meaning most likely, I will not live to see the harvest from a world I hope is possible.
But still, my hands are in the dirt, pulling weeds and planting seeds. Looking for the wriggling worms, telling me I am doing it right.