Some books move you beyond simple reading enjoyment and lift you to a higher emotional experience. Some books engage you so fully intellectually that your mind is buzzing a hundred miles per hour long after you’ve turned the last page. Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aidan Gray’s Standing On the Promises series goes far beyond either of those reactions. After placing the last volume down last night, I was filled with the Spirit of God. These books about the African-American-Mormon experience spurred a powerful spiritual experience that is not easily categorized or dissected. I originally planned on making this a more traditional, academic “review” of this beautiful series. However, after finishing the series last night, I knew I had to make this more personal, as I had a very personal experience with these books. Thus I’m calling this a “reaction,” an exploration of my journey before this book and a spiritiual topography of where the books brought me from there.
I’ve always felt very connected to the marginalized. As a child, I remember choosing a stuffed rabbit at the store that was missing its arm because I knew that no one else would buy it. I felt great love for that disadvantaged toy. As I grew older, and I became interested in comic books, outsider heroes like the X-Men, who were hated because they were different, really resonated with me. I had number of childhood friends who were minorities and, more recently, I have a number of friends who are specifically African-American. So the subject of Civil Rights, racism, and equality have always had a strong resonance with me from the time I was a young child and realized that people were treated unkindly for the most superficial and unjust of reasons.
While reading these books, my thoughts often turned to my African-American friends:
I thought of Mika Julien, who was a very close friend of mine in my old singles ward. I still remember her telling me her frustrations about the attitude many members had that she should marry within her own race. She was embarassed when people would try to set her up with other black Mormons who had nothing else in common with her except the color of their skin.
My thoughts turned to Cat Taylor, a friend from my high school theatre group, whose monologue from A Raisin in the Sun touched and impressed me so deeply that I looked into the play over a decade later and decided to direct it as my first production as a high school drama teacher. I have had my other classes read and watch it as well and it has become one of my favorite plays.
I thought of Cooper Howell, an actor friend from UVU’s Theatre Department. I thought of how appalled I was when a few of our fellow actors in The Tempest used highly offensive, racist epithets with him as “jokes.” I asked Cooper about it later and realized that, although he was laughing with them at the time, it was surely no laughing matter in his aching heart. I also remember how frustrated Cooper became when he felt like he wasn’t able to get the roles he wanted at the department, even in one of my own plays, because he felt that the roles were all written for white people.
I thought of my friend Danor Gerald, one of the best actors I’ve ever known, who has worked in a number of professional film and theater projects. I thought of how proud I have been of Danor and impressed with how much he has been able to accomplish in his career as an actor. He and I have been working on some projects together lately with our friend Jaclyn Hales Lasseter. I don’t know whether he has felt the same, but from the moment I met him, I felt a deep connection and kinship with him.
I thought of Quiana Arnold, who helped with costumes at UVU Theatre Department, and then afterwards took roles in the Department’s productions of Adam Slee’s Echoes of American Slavery and Carl Arrington’s Queens of Birdland, which, in the latter, Quianna played the powerful role of Tina Turner. She gave the show it’s most powerfully emotional moments.
I thought of many of my students who I currently teach and our production of A Raisin in the Sun last year. I got some complaints from a few students. A few of the caucasian students were miffed that, for our first production as a school, we were doing a play that so many of the caucasian kids couldn’t get into (although we actually did end up having two non-African-Americans in the cast). I thought of the powerful experience the kids had with the text, even though the production itself was somewhat marred by the antics of an immature cast member. I also thought of how the subtle, and often destructive, race relations and politics that I see working in the microcosmic world my students.
I especially thought of my friend Aaron Vaught, who has been my best, kindest friend in Arizona. He and his beautiful family live in one of the apartments across from us. In a time where we have been very lonely because of the move here from our previous home in Utah, his family have been a great haven of friendship and kindness for us. I sometimes only half-joke to my wife Anne that we should have an arranged marriage between our son Hyrum and their daughter Sophia. If we lived in a time of arranged marriages, it wouldn’t be a joke at all, for their daughters are absolute sweethearts.
And, more painfully, I thought of my dear friend Jessica LaMay. Jessica is as white as I am, but when she was investigating the Church when we were in high school, it was the Church’s previous race exclusion policy that really provided one of the biggest roadblocks to her joining the Church. I was very involved in the process of her investigating the Church, having been the one to invite her to consider it, and was there when she was taking the missionary discussions. I was thrilled when she had committed to baptism. I felt very personally invested and involved, as I considered her one of my closest friends. However, a week before her baptism she cancelled it, and has been at arm’s length from the Church ever since… and, honestly, I totally understand where she’s coming from.
As I read Standing On the Promises, I re-lived all these memories vividly in my mind. As Young and Gray described the painful experiences of these historical, powerful, African-American Mormons, it brought even more personal names and faces to my mind.
For those who are not aware of the basis of this series, it tells the historical stories of African-American Mormons. It begins in the days of Joseph Smith and shows how in the pre-Utah days, there was no race exclusion policy in place regarding the priesthood (as one African American Mormon named Elijah Abel received the priesthood from Joseph Smith himself and was ordained a Seventy). It showed that Joseph Smith championed against slavery publicly when he ran for president, and tenderly cared for the few African-Americans in his own flock privately. That personal care included Jane Manning James, who he and his wife Emma personally invited to live with them when they discovered she had no home to go to, and they later invited her to be sealed to them as their adopted daughter (an offer she didn’t take up at the time, but regretted later).
But after the death of Joseph Smith, race became a hotter and hotter issue in American scoiety (these are the decades leading up to the Civil War). Things changed after the Mormon pioneers were forced to move to Utah and the leadership of Brigham Young implemented the priesthood exlusion for members of African descent. This is when the story starts to get really painful. We see things change from the way they were under Joseph Smith… not perfect, but inclusive, progressive… and then we see the culture of the Saints take a step back. And, frankly, from the context of the story, it had a lot less to do with any supposed revelation from God given to Joseph Smith (for there is no such revelation on this issue, and quite a bit from Joseph Smith that contradicts it), and has a lot more to do with the racist rhetoric which we inherited from the other Protestant Churches at the time, especially the stinking theory of the African race being cursed through Cain and Ham.
I’m not going to lie. A lot of stories in this series shocked and appalled me. When I found out about a lynching happening in early Utah, which I first discovered in Margaret Young’s play I Am Jane, ( and which Margaret Young and Darius Gray deal with again here ) I wanted to scream. I was equally horrified when I read that slavery was allowed in Utah (I simply didn’t realize this, and I’m pretty up on my Mormon history). But the horror became more somber as I realized a lot of that racism remained in Utah through a good deal of the 20th century.
When I read about how the very few black Mormons were treated at BYU and in Utah society even as recently as the 1960s and 1970s (to valiant souls who had already given up so much by joining a Church that excluded them from its priesthood leadership), I was deeply offended and had an uncomfortable rumbling in my soul, as I wanted to scrub away all the injustice and change the history to something more fair. But that’s the thing… I couldn’t. It’s all there, in our history. I can’t ignore it, I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. It’s there, on our permanent record, and we have to learn how to deal with it and make sure that we never allow such a blindspot to go away unchallenged again.
I once was naive enough to believe it was just the priesthood policy that was our issue, but that otherwise Mormons were kind and fair to their fellow human beings, that the policy was a thing that was forced on us, a thing we really didn’t believe deeply in our souls. Of course we knew that God created all people equal. And for many Mormons, I’m sure that was the case. But then it’s been proven to me that many Mormons became very ugly and sinister when it came to race. Their behavior did not live up to their religion. And I’ve had an even more jarring realization as I’ve gotten older that it’s still a problem for some Mormons.
In this supposedly enlightened period of the Church, I have still heard those horrible things that were said to African American friends, I have still heard Church members (even some of my own friends!) denigrate and stereotype other races, I have still seen the subtle and not so subtle racism that exists in many of our attitudes.
And, let me tell you, it’s not just the Mormon Church, and it’s definitely not just religious people, just as it has never been. Among my high school students, among the religious and irreligious, I’m horrified at some of the things they say to and about each other. And, living in Arizona, I’ve seen the stereotypes that are hurled against the Hispanic community among the general population here, especially with the immigation debate becoming so highly concentrated here. Sure, we’ve come a long way in recent decades, especially in the Church, but Zion is still far in the distance. We have a lot of changes to make before we can deserve the title “pure in heart.”
But the injustices are only one aspect of these books. The flip side of the coin is the glory that these African-American Mormons had gained in their Lord, Jesus, and the bountiful, spiritual blessings they received in accepting the Restored Gospel… even if many of its less inspired members thought there was no place for them in it. It was inspiring reading about Jane Manning James having a vision of Joseph Smith so clear that she recognized him upon meeting him… after she had walked 800 miles on bloody feet to get to Nauvoo to join the Saints!
It was equally inspiring reading about Elijah Abel who was Joseph Smith’s personal friend and risked his own life to go help Joseph when he was being captured by his enemies. And it was wonderful to read about this same Elijah Abel being ordained to the priesthood by Joseph Smith himself.
It was spiritually moving to read of Green Flake, a Mormon slave, who remained strong in his chosen faith and continued to be an inspiration as a pioneer in the vanguard company who was honored by black and white Mormons alike.
It was beautiful to read of more modern pioneers like Aidan Darius Gray who, although ostricized by some Mormons for being black, and ostricized by some blacks for being Mormon, stood up for their beliefs and their race and knew that Jesus Christ honored them for their multitude of sacrifices and had exaltation waiting for them.
It was also wonderful to read that not everyone was blinded by prejudice, and that there were many Mormons, including a large number of its leaders, that were pushing for progress. Joseph Smith. Emma Smith. Eliza Partridge. Joseph F. Smith. Heber Grant. Lucy Gates Bowen. Marion Hanks. David McKay. Gordon Hinckley. Thomas Monson. Boyd Packer. And, of course, Spencer Kimball, whose courageous and inclusive leadership, and humble submission to the Lord’s Spirit, led to the revelation that extended the priesthood to all races. Although they were imperfect people who were still limited by their own culture’s boundaries, it took such visionaries to break off the chains of false tradition and usher in the new revelations of the Lord, a tradition begun in the Church by Joseph Smith himself.
It’s a rather personal and sacred experience, but I feel prompted to write of a dream I had several years ago. It relates very much to what I’m writing here. Some people get nervous when other people relate spiritual experiences, but as Mormons I believe we need to be more open with each other about these sort of things, for that is the life blood of the Church… revelation and spiritual gifts. It’s what makes us distinct from so many other faiths.
In this vivid dream, I was being led down a street by a guide, a beautiful, African-American woman. I remember being struck by her beauty, which was characterized not only by her inner warmth, intelligence, and kindness, but also of her outer beauty. She was beautiful, in every sense of the word. And she was Mormon, that much was clear from our conversation as we walked down the street, discussing our faith. Then she led me to a wall, or vision, or panorama… it’s difficult to describe, but I was seeing a number of individuals, all of them African-American. They were from various time periods. But some of them were very angry, seething with the injustice that had been placed upon them. I was confused why I was being shown such anger. After reading and learning all that I have since then I now understand that the anger, and understand that it was justified.
I awoke from that dream with the powerful feeling of the Holy Ghost pervading me. It has stuck with me since then, and I have strived to learn more about African-American history and culture. The Civil Right Movement, the Harlem Rennaissance, Civil War history and pre-Civil War African-American history fascinates (and at times discourages) me. I admire and honor such revolutionary Civil Rights activists as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I love reading the work of writers and playwrights such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, and August Wilson. I love listening to soulfulness of Ragtime, Jazz, the Blues, MoTown, and even some R&B. I have no rhythm, I’m a white boy from Utah, really as white as they come, but the words and sounds and images and passion of the African-American culture has been making its way deep within me for the past several years and have made a deep impact on me.
And now I can add these beautiful books as part of that journey and exploration of a culture that is not my own, but which has been slowly adopting me in my heart. Standing on the Promises are beautifully written and a soulful exploration of the tragedies and victories of the race issue in Mormon culture. They have challenged my thinking, while never detracting from the core of my faith. Aidan Darius Gray and Margaret Blair Young have been anxiously engaged with the race issue within the LDS Church for a lot of years now. Go ahead, Google their names. You’ll find documentaries, interviews, articles, plays, and books by them, all dealing with this same issue, striving to tell the neglected African-American-Mormon story. Their names are becoming synonymous with Jane Manning James, Elijah Abel, and Green Flake. What these two novelists/playwrights/filmmakers/activists/pioneers create is beautiful, not only because of its skill and craftsmanship with which these projects have been made, but also because of the sense of mission behind all of it. I do not lightly talk of people being called of God to perform a mission, although I fervently believe that is the case with many people. However, I have no doubt that these two beautiful individuals, Margaret Young and Darius Gray, have a mission. The Spirit pervades their work.
Some call the Book of Mormon a racist book, because of the division that occurs between the Nephites and Lamanites within its pages. But when you look deeper, you find the opposite message, of how racial tensions destroyed one nation physically and the other culturally, and that only when those two nations cooperated and loved each other, there was lasting peace. I believe it must be the same way within the modern Church, if we’re ever to build any lasting sense of Zion. In the Book of Mormon, the section 4th Nephi tells us about the most lasting peace that ever occurred in the Mormon book of scripture, the time when Zion was truly upon them after Christ’s visit to the Americas:
And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people… There were no robbers, no murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the Kingdom of God.
And then earlier in the Book of Mormon we have my personal, all-time favorite scripture, which is one of the most clear condemnationsin Holy Writ of prejudice, in all its varieties:
For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. (2 Nephi 26:33)
In his memoir Adventures of a Church Historian, Mormon historian Leonard Arrington quotes the past Church President David O. McKay as saying that the priesthood race restriction was a “policy, not a doctrine.” I fully adhere to President McKay’s view on the priesthood restriction, that such division are created by men, not by God. As Nephi stated “none of these iniquities come of the Lord,” and I’m so grateful to literary pioneers such and Margaret Young and Darius Gray who continually remind us of that fact.