The Experiences of Black Mormons: a gap in Mormon letters?

Since February is Black History Month I’ve been thinking: what do we know about the history and experiences of black members of the LDS church?

For me, the answer is not much.  I mean,  I’ve heard my dad tell his story about having to defend the Church and it’s policies in a high school history class and I remember the black character in God’s Army and I’ve read Mary Sturlaugson Eyer’s memoir trilogy, but all those are rather superficial experiences.  My dad isn’t black.  The guy in God’s Army was a relatively minor character. Eyer’s memoirs  add up to just barely three hundred pages all together.

Arianne Cope tangled with questions about black Mormon identity in her story, “Salt Water”, which was published in the most recent Irreantum.  But her story seemed a little too much for me.  It wasn’t enough that the character was supposedly the first black male to be ordained to the priesthood. He had to be fatherless and his grandma had to kill herself. The story is interesting, but, in my opinion, it was a lot to take on.   Maybe more than the form could manage.  Whatever your feelings about the story, it simply doesn’t do much to enrich the narrative legacy of Black Mormons.

A quick Google search turned up some interesting hits:

*The FAIR LDS Bookstore has a whole section dedicated to black mormon studies. Has anyone actually read any of these books? Are they accessible to the average reader in the Mormon market? Are any of them written by black Mormons themselves or is their history being filtered through white Mormon writers?

*Blacklds.org has a lot of good info but isn’t an artistic attempt. The testimony section is interesting but it also makes me wonder what a book by a black member would read like.  Again, it doesn’t do much to enrich the narrative and artistic legacy.

*Then there’s the movie Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.  It sounds interesting and like a relatively good artistic step, but I haven’t seen it. Have any of you? What did you think? I wonder if I can ILL movies . . .

I know Deseret Book (through their Shadow Mountain imprint) has published a series,  Standing on the Promises by Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, but I haven’t read those either.  Have any of you? What do these books do to flesh out the narrative legacy? Are they aimed at a YA audience or adults? Are they artistic attempts like Young’s other books or are they more in the let’s-teach-history-the-fun-way camp (like Gerald Lund’s books)?

Now,  I know I’m  not the best read person when it comes to Mormon Literature, but I would argue that I have read more Mormon/LDS books than the average Latter-day saint.  Most of my book choices are taken from book lists, like the AMV canon (which I would link to if I knew which post it was!),  the AMV book club recommendations, and lists of former AML  award winners along with what I come across in my Deseret Book catalogue. I’ve really made an effort to become well-schooled in Mormon arts and letters.  But none of those resources I’m used to looking to cover the subject of black Mormons–at least not that I have found.  So you tell me. Is this a gap in Mormon letters?  And, if so why?

21 thoughts on “The Experiences of Black Mormons: a gap in Mormon letters?”

  1. I saw a screening of “Nobody Knows” up in Wyoming last summer. Excellent and powerfully moving movie. It focuses on the faith of those who waited for change in the LDS Church. But it also doesn’t shy away from suggesting that the reason for the Priesthood ban really had more to do with the human prejudices of Church leaders than it had to do with revelation (by the way, Brigham Young included the policy as a part of his governor’s address to the Territorial Legislature – it was never a “revelation” to bar blacks from the Priesthood).

    So if this stuff bugs you, maybe you’ll want to pass, though I hope you won’t. Very touching story.

  2. .

    In brief, yes, it is. But like the outside-America LDS voices, how to get this p-o-v heard remains to be determined. But sitting around and waiting doesn’t seem to be doing much…..

  3. I don’t know that it’s a gap in Mormon letters — Standing on the Promises got published after all. And there really isn’t an equivalent for other international and ethnic Mormon experiences. But I agree with your assessment of “Salt Water.” And I do think it would be interesting to see more literary expressions of the African American and African Mormon experience.

    But as Seth suggests, Mormons on the whole still may have some things to work out and think about related to the priesthood ban and so while I agree with Theric about sitting around and waiting, I also think that it’s important to recognize that although artistic expression is important and doesn’t *have* to be undertaken in a state of expertise on a subject, Mormon writers would do well to steep themselves in history and doctrine and even literary criticism and theory.

    In fact, that’s part of the reason for AMV’s existence. I don’t know that we’ve had much of an affect. But I firmly believe that Mormon art needs Mormon criticism and that in general active artists and writers could do a little more critical thinking and study, especially since cultural production is so messed up in current society (and even in the Mormon market).


  4. [Wm says: This discussion is about literary expression of the black Mormon experience. This comment isn’t appropriate. There are plenty of other places on the Internet to discuss and debunk or whatever.]

  5. .

    One advantage of criticism is that it provides artists with demonstrable proof of audience. Perhaps discussions such as this one may provide the impetus for the nonlilywhite Mormon community to produce art. Is this not proof that anybody cares?


  6. [Wm says: See Laura’s note below for why this comment is gone. I’m feeling heavy-handed today. Also: this is Bruce in Montana’s MO so most readers of AMV already know what he thinks from his drive-bys on other Bloggernacle blogs].

  7. To be clear, it is NOT the purpose of this post (and AMV in general) to discuss the doctrine of the LDS church. I just wanted to see if other people were aware of artistic works produced by or about the black LDS experience.

    Thank you Theric and William and Seth for keeping the discussion on track.

    William–if this disintegrates into a slew of inappropriate comments you have my permission to pull the post or close comments or whatever you think is necessary.

  8. Your list omitted a book published by BYU Studies a few years ago titled Walking in the Sand: A History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana. It was written by Emmanuel Abu Kissi, a native of Ghana and at the time of the writing an Area Authority Seventy. It’s a unique book in that Kissi was both a participant and an observer. It’s a quick and interesting read, especially the material that covers the 1960s and 1970s.

  9. Thanks for the tip Heather! I wasn’t sure how the Church in Africa fit in with the black members in America so I didn’t address it. Call me lazy 😉 Anyway, another book I read about the Ghana temple (and the growth of the Church in Africa) that was a great read was _Safe Journey: an African Adventure_. It was written by Glenn L. Pace (a GA) and I really appreciated his insights.

  10. I haven’t read the Standing on the Promises series. My understanding is that it was something of a major publishing event, and it’s probably the place one should start in looking at what has and hasn’t been done in the field of literature about Black Mormon experiences. I believe that they included endnotes describing the historical bases for the stories.

    There have been other books published by Black Mormons describing their experiences. For example, there’s Gladys Knight’s memoir, which I believe includes an account of her conversion to Mormonism. And I remember seeing some books on my mother’s bookshelf back in the 1960s and 1970s from Black members of the Church who were (essentially) giving their explanations of how they came to be Mormons, but I don’t remember any titles.

    Someone out there ought to be doing a bibliography specifically of Black Mormon literature. I’m guessing actually that either Margaret Young or Darius Gray would know most of the titles that are out there.

  11. .

    Ebony Washington thought he had finally found his home. A black teen raised in foster care around the country, Washington joined the LDS Church in 1996 in the Bronx, N.Y., and shortly after moved to Provo to find his place in a community of Saints.

    But when he arrived in Utah, he was crestfallen. “I had been led to believe that this was–quote, unquote–‘Zion.'” Instead of finding a warm embrace, Washington felt like his white counterparts viewed him with hostility and suspicion.

    Despite being a faithful member of the church, “they didn’t see me as that; they saw me as the next gang banger,” Washington says.

    His experience reflects the frustrations that many black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feel, particularly in Utah’s predominantly white congregations. A book released nationwide last month, Black and Mormon (University of Illinois Press, $34.95), takes a new look at the issue. In eight essays, Mormon historians and sociologists discuss the dilemmas of black Latter-day Saints, what they see as the persistence of racist teachings in church settings and remedies that might increase black membership in the church.

    (source>)

  12. I suspect the lack you’re pointing to, Laura, could be read as a magnification of the general state of American letters in which women and racial and ethnic groups beyond the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male have had to fight to be included in the “canon.” Yet, while the multicultural presence in American lit is growing, we, as Mormons, still seem to be clinging to a bunch of dead white guys, most of whom have roots in the intermountain West.

    I’m convinced this has something to do, among other things, with the power and authority structures of the Church and with the latent racism that we find in the scriptures and in our recent past (and our present), especially in the Book of Mormon, which is, ironically, one of the major things that sets us apart from the rest of Christianity, that makes us different, makes us Other. Interesting that a culture whose history is full of persecution and injustice and whose driving theological message claims that everyone on Earth has the potential to become as God is can, to a degree, still be convinced (even unconsciously) that one’s righteousness is a function of the color of their skin or of their biological sex.

    Eileen Kump takes up this conflict between self and other in “The Willows,” the story Wm. posted yesterday. Amy really only views McGary as “evil” because she’s been conditioned by her community to see him that way. Yet, when she meets the warden face-to-face; when she hears her father call him “Brother McGary,” her notion of otherness is shattered because she sees him as “kind,” as a human being; she then struggles to deal with the ambiguity, to adapt to life after her rebirth into this new, utterly foreign worldview. And that’s where Klump leaves the issue, in her readers’ hands.

    We’ve go to take up the baton somehow, and perhaps forums like this are a good starting point, a good place to front the biting realities we face as a culture. But is that where we need to leave it? I don’t believe so. But I also believe it takes time for a culture’s wounds to heal, especially when that culture doesn’t know it’s been wounded (by racism, sexism, etc.). Sure, blacks have been able to hold the priesthood since 1978; but that doesn’t necessarily mean Mormon culture has fully accepted them into the fold (as evidenced in Th.’s link to The Genesis Group).

    We still have a ways to go before we reach Zion.

  13. .

    I was at the Genesis Group last night in hopes they would have some sort of reading list, but I couldn’t find one. But I’ll bet that they know much more than us white AMVers.

  14. I was worried when I first posted this that it would be offensive to some people, but then last night I was watching the McLaughlin Group(don’t you just love the way he says, “Bye Bye!”) and they talked about new attorney general’s comment that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to racial discourse. The Group decided that it was hard because so many of us are willing to talk within our own “tribes” (their word) but “inter-tribal” discussion seldom occurs. I’m glad Theric took the time to go to the Genesis Group and that Tyler and William have such insightful comments. The arts strike me as a good place to start our “inter-tribal” discussions.

  15. I’ll bet that they know much more than us white AMVers.

    I bet you’re right, Th. (though, really, what’s new?).

    And Laura: I’m glad you posted this. You bring up some very interesting and relevant issues relating to race and the kingdom of God and race in the kingdom of God.

  16. Please read the Standing on the Promises books and see the DVDs for Untold Story of Black Mormons and Pioneers in Africa (by BYU).

    The books are a great combination of story telling and history (good footnotes to sources). A play “I am Jane” was inspired by these books. I have also used them in community presentations about pioneers.

    The DVDs are powerful. Untold Story is a perfect and timely response to the call for candor on race issues from Eric Holder of the Obama administration. Without even getting the DVD, you can see great clips at http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com/
    See Rev Chip Murray’s account of President Hinckley’s apology for Mormon involvement in racism.

    I also recommend “All Abraham’s Children” by Armand Mauss as a scholarly work on many ethnic issues involving Mormons. He has a related article at http://www.blacklds.org. He cites research that shows Mormon attitudes on race have improved substantially since 1978 and prior to 1978 those attitudes were about on par with the rest of America.

    Our art and dialogue should not wallow in the guilt of the past. We are all different shades of brown and the challenges of being a Mormon today have more to do with our personal and community challenges than our correcting of doctrine.

    Although the roles are limited, God’s Army has effective portrayals of Blacks as missionaries, investigators, members of other faiths, and a gang member convert struggling with the addiction of violence.

  17. I was going to suggest a lot of works, but most of them have already been mentioned. A few more historical works that address the issue in context with other aspects of history and the gospel are “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism,” by Gregory Prince; “Adventures of a Church Historian” by Leonard Arrington (where he quotes President McKay calling the priesthood ban a “policy, not a doctrine”); and “Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball” by Edward Kimball. Another excellent book is “All Are Alike Unto God,” which is a collection of conversion stories from the Saints in Africa, most of them pre-and-slightly-post-1978 revelation… fascinating and spiritual. That book is out of print, so it’s harder to find (I know the Provo library has a copy, and I found my personal copy serredipitously at Deseret Industries). As has been mentioned, Darius Gray and Margaret Blair Young have done a great amount of work bringing this subject to light with “Standing Upon The Promises,” “I Am Jane,” and “Nobody Knows.” They’re really the ones to start off, and they put out a quality, soul searching product every time. I also have plans to write a play about the Saints in Africa and the pentecostal experiences they had before and around the time of the revelation. That won’t probably be for a a year or so, though, after I finish the projects I’m currently engaged in.

  18. I read A Soul So Rebellious and Weep Not For Me both by Mary Sturlaugson Eyer. She attempts to convey her view of “the black Mormon experience.” I found her books to have a slight “unreal” feeling in them, and later saw a comment by someone named Sarah (her friend from her first book)in a book review, saying Mary told lies in her book) which supports my “unreal” feeling.
    I have known wonderful black LDS people. Two were from Ghana, Africa. One raised all her children in the church. Her husband died. Her boys went on missions and her children went to BYU Hawaii. She married a non-LDS man, and sort of disappeared from my life one day, moved, left no address.
    The other was new convert, single, M.A. degree from a U.S. college, formerly in a polygamous marriage in Ghana, with a teen daughter who had been kidnapped in the Ghana war and lost for a year. Then in the U.S. the girl bore a baby out of wedlock and got into a drug ring with the baby’s father who had many women coming in and out of his home.
    Both these women were having extremely difficult lives, but not because they were LDS. The church was always trying to help our black sisters who were having trouble, babysitting, providing food, rent money, and friendship.
    It was the non-LDS men in their lives that made the trouble for them. How many authors (and people) are really willing to tell the truth, especially about themselves, rather than catering to the desire to put themselves in a victimized role?
    How much of the trouble in the lives of black women (or any women) can be found in their own choices of men they befriend, even when they are familiar with the danger they could be facing, like a moth drawn to the deadly light?
    I hope to find a book that will more accurately portray a black woman who realizes the wrongs she has done to herself, is now doing to herself, and how she grapples with those in the context of her LDS culture, and above all does not sell out the truth in her desire to make a dramatic story.
    There is an old saying, “In order to have a friend, we must be one,” and this, more than anything, will serve the cause of integration during a time when more open-minded whites than ever are seeking out friends of other races.

  19. .

    Manaen left a comment here.

    Follow the YouTube link he left and watch the Related Videos. Nice looks at the Church in places like Watts and Harlem, etc.

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