BYU Graduation and Malaria

Thursday, April 25: Today is graduation day at BYU.  Black-robed grads will stand in front of the campus entryway while their parents click photos.  On one side of the road into BYU-World is the pronouncement carved into cement: “The World is Our Campus.”  On the other: “Enter to Learn; Go Forth to Serve.”

Some of these young people have proven themselves beautifully in their classes.  They’ve calculated, diagrammed, structured essays around a thesis, and taken all of the required religion classes.  Many have interrupted their schooling with LDS missions. Many have gotten married. All have done good things.  It’s a fine day for graduation.

It is also World Malaria Day.

Two of my former students were missionaries in the DR-Congo. Both are now pursuing their university degrees.  One is from Canada, the other from Zambia.

The Canadian wrote an essay in my class about his experience with malaria—the death of a five-year-old boy.

It was Mama Cecile’s grandson, Alma. Five years old, and he’d gotten malaria . . .le grand palu. In the corner of the room was his body. Lying shirtless and lifeless on the couch, he seemed so calm compared to the chaos that reined around him. Placed on his stomach was a warm iron, prostrate, like a plea to God himself. “Don’t take him from me, not yet. Let me have just a little more time with him.” The iron was to slow decomposition, something that normally hits rapidly in Africa. In this way the family could at least finish their mourning before burying him. In the center of the room were the women, the source of the tumult. Wailing, screaming and crying, they pounded their hands mercilessly against the concrete ground, sometimes calming down enough to look back up at the child, which would drive them into an even greater frenzy. In the corner sat the boy’s uncle, our age, curled into a ball and gasping for air as tears rolled down his face. And silently sitting on the front steps was the grandfather, weeping into his hands. And so we stood with the others, guarding the family during their time of need. There were about 40 of us crammed into that alleyway, heads hung, listening to their cries. What could we say? What could we do? Nothing. There was nothing any of us could do but stand there for hours, until others came to relieve us.

The Zambian student had more personal experiences with malaria.  He got it several times during his life (exacerbated by chicken pox during his LDS mission) and also lost his father to it.

I lined the Canadian RM up with a former student, who is fun, imaginative, able to beat him in computer games, but also completely centered in what matters most. They got married. They need each other to make their education lead not just to a degree but to a unified, open-hearted approach to the world. They are ready to go to Africa, if they can, and do some good.  Graduation for both is a couple of years away.  What will this university be like when they graduate?

I remain concerned that I still hear reports of the “Curse of Cain” being taught in BYU’s religion department and elsewhere.  I am concerned that several African American students have spoken to me about the isolation they feel at BYU.  Not all the news is bad, but the bad news must give us pause.

In 1965 when Darius Gray came to BYU, he was called in to the Dean of Students’ office.  “We’ve had complaints,” the dean said.  “We’ve had parents call us concerned that you’re talking to their daughters.  You need to stay away from the white girls.”  Darius did as he was told.  Thirty-five years later, when he and I were speaking to an alumni association, the dean who had given  this mandate was present.  He approached Darius.  “I don’t suppose you remember me,” he said.  Darius assured him that he did indeed remember.  The man’s eyes filled with tears.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  As I recall, they embraced.

So here we are in 2013, and these are just a few of the notes I’ve gotten from African American students at BYU:

“I just want to be myself and not represent all black people.  I’m tired of being the poster child for blacks. I wish I could be me without everyone staring at me.”

“My fiance’s mother forbade him to marry me because, she said, our children would have ‘cursed blood.’”

“[In an anthropology class, one of the students talked about the priesthood restriction.  He said:] ‘Is God racist?’ And then he went on to say, yes he is, and to give examples from the scriptures that he thought proved this – including the scripture where Jesus refers to the [Canaanite] a woman as a dog, and other scriptures about withholding the priesthood from certain tribes. . . [except the Levites].  He equated this to withholding the priesthood from the blacks, and basically gave the impression that the Church’s recent statements were just a PR move to mask over the reality and not offend people, although we all need to accept the ban was not just a policy, but a natural act of God.. .I wanted to say something, as I was feeling incredibly uncomfortable. As an African American student at BYU, this is not the first time I have felt this way. But, in the end I didn’t because I also fear being viewed as hypersensitive or overly defensive because of the very fact that I am such a minority at this school, with less than 300 black students among 30,000.”

I am troubled.  If we continue to tolerate prejudice at the Church’s flagship university, how can our students respond to the real needs of this world–a huge portion of which are on the African continent?  Will some BYU graduates feel justified in dismissing the problems faced by those of African lineage–or even just dark-skinned people–as less important than those faced by the European rendition of humankind? As they “go forth to serve,” WHOM will they serve?

Let me parody a typical conversation wherein one person has not been able to see beyond color:

“Hey, I need to know if you people prefer being called redheads or gingers.  I know we don’t call you carrot-tops anymore, but I just want to be sure I don’t offend you.”

“How generous.  Were you planning on addressing me by my hair color?”

“I just want you to know I’m not prejudiced.  I had a good friend once who was a ginger.  Well, she’s in jail now. She was a really good person until–. I was surprised when she went to jail.  Of course, I know what other people say about, you know, the tempers you people have, but I think there’s only a percentage of you with that problem and we shouldn’t judge all people by a few bad carrots. I believe in being tolerant, and I want to tolerate you with all my heart.”

“I can’t tell you how deeply touched I am.”

“And I really believe you have a soul.  I’ve heard the myths about redheads not having souls, but they’re myths, that’s all.  You are beautiful.  You are the most beautiful redhead I’ve seen.  And I’m sure you didn’t do anything in the pre-existence  to deserve that hair.  And after we die, I know your hair will be the most beautiful blonde.  And if I don’t recognize you, you come and find me.”

It translates pretty well.

If I could have a few hours to modify BYU according to my own dreams, this is what I’d do:

1) Drop half of the required religion classes (fourteen credit hours–six classes–are required) and substitute those hours with “true religion and undefiled.”  In other words, give service wherever it’s needed.  Semesters abroad for service opportunities would cover these hours, as would mentoring in inner-city schools or even in local schools.

2) Take one tenth of the budget for athletics and give it to the multi-cultural center.  With this, we would re-instate programs which were recently cut, notably:

“Foundations” (a program to prepare multicultural HS students for BYU).

“Foothold” for the multicultural freshman–to prepare them for BYU life and to introduce them to others who will face similar challenges.

Eagle’s Eye magazine, which gave students an opportunity to practice journalism and to address multicultural issues.

3) Black History Month would be taken seriously, with programs to match what other Utah universities do–including bringing well-regarded Black speakers and Civil Rights activists, some of whom could well be LDS.  Plays and films discussing racial issues would be showcased, and a forum headed by a significant leader such as Mitt Romney or Harry Reid would discuss why race still matters and how we can build needed bridges to heal our past.

4) There would be a major in African American or Black studies, and faculty hired to support it–at least fifty African American faculty members and a few more African nationals.

(Note: We lost two of our African American faculty last year.  One, Peter Johnson, is now a stake president in Alabama.  As I understand it, he did not get continuing status for failing to publish adequately.  With these losses, we have only one tenured faculty member of African lineage at BYU.)

As we prepare more African American and African students to come to BYU, we must dramatically increase the number of Black students.  We currently have two hundred black students.

Why must we do something along these lines?  Because we simply cannot afford to have BYU feel like a rich, white kids’ club.  It is a remarkable university. I love teaching at it.  I am a proud wife of a BYU professor, and a proud daughter of a retired BYU professor.  I care about this place.  I am also a member of the world community.  I know that if we marshal the good forces which energize this campus and let our students discover needs far greater than their LSAT scores or the perpetual “how do I get an A in this class?” question, their hearts can swell far beyond the reaches of this little paradise and set some lights beyond our indulgent skylines.  As important as what service they would do is how they would be personally changed–if they do it in the spirit of true religion.  We live in a generation of entitlement.  Our young people need to see what’s really happening in this world. They need to fall in love with other cultures and learn not to tolerate but to celebrate the gifts each person offers.

It’s World Malaria day.  And Commencement begins shortly.

Onward.

About Margaret Blair Young

Margaret Blair Young teaches literature and creative writing at Brigham Young University. For the past fifteen years, she has specialized in the history of blacks in the west, particularly black Mormons. She has written six novels and two short story collections, but has lately become interested in filmmaking. Her current endeavor is a film to be shot in Zambia called Heart of Africa (www.heartofafricafilm.com)


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