For the most part the eight essays in the plain-titled essay collection Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, are masterpieces of velvet-fisted discourse. They seethe rational, measured arguments and relevant, pointed examples, and end with subtle observations and lingering questions.
This is a good thing.
As the title suggests, the experience of black Americans in the LDS Church is best expressed by a conjunction rather than a hyphen. Because of the racial basis of the now-lifted priesthood ban and other racial doctrines (folk or not), the Church, as an institution and a people, remains mired in racial (rather than, say, ethnic) discourse when it comes to African Americans. In other words, for black Americans, to be LDS is to be black and Mormon.
Much of the information contained in the essays is available in longer form elsewhere, but what makes this collection necessary, and a valuable addition to the homes of all Latter-day Saints, is that it packs a full picture of the issues surrounding blacks and Mormonism into an accessible, short (166 pages of text and notes) book. Most importantly, the emphasis is on the actual experience of black Mormons. The work is abundant with the experiences and observations of black Mormons drawn from interviews, surveys, personal experiences and historical documents.
The prose is very readable — informed and reflective of in-depth research, but not overly scholarly or theoretical. Moreover it is one of the best-edited collections I have ever read. In fact, there is actual cohesion among the eight essays. They refer to each other when necessary or appropriate. And the later writers even acknowledge the earlier essays when they repeat examples and anecdotes and draw on similar data sets and sources. It makes for a very pleasant reading experience. One gets a sense of a common narrative threading throughout the book — each essay one facet of the entire project.
The collection begins with an excellent survey by Bringhurst of the “Missouri Thesis” and other explanations put forth by Mormon historians on the priesthood ban. That thesis, a product of the “new Mormon history” school, posited that the ban came about because of the Mormon attempts to settle in Missouri. The Mormons who moved into Missouri, a slave state, were mainly from the abolitionist East and so the priesthood ban was a signal that the Mormons were proslavery and not a threat to the other Missourians. Bringhurst carefully lays out the various incarnations and rebuttals of the thesis. He also takes up the case of Elijah Abel, a 19th century black Mormon who received the priesthood. The case of Abel and othe early black members of the Church introduces a theme that threads throughout the book and is important to understand — this topic is full of ambiguities and lingering questions.
The second essay, by Alma Allred, seeks to correct folk beliefs about the reasons and doctrinal justification for the priesthood ban. Allred asserts: “Strictly speaking, there is no doctrine in the church that blacks are descendants of Cain. Neither is there a doctrine that Ham married a descendent of Cain” (34). He then goes on to back up his claims with close readings of LDS scripture and the words and actions of the prophet Joseph Smith. Even if one doesn’t agree with the way that Allred parses doctrine and policy (he sees a strong distinction between the two — for him the priesthood ban was a policy and never a doctrine), the evidence and arguments he musters sweep away the idea that canonical scripture supports the priesthood ban. Either it was a tragic mistake, the result of realpolitik and/or prejudice, by post-Joseph Smith Mormon leaders, or it was an inspired (and still tragic) policy revealed to post-JS leaders. But the whole curse-of-Cain trope is thoroughly discredited by Allred.
Taken together these first two essays provide a succinct introduction to the experiences of black saints and the various Mormon discourses related to blacks and the priesthood.
Other essays include personal reflections by two African American Latter-day Saint men on their pre-1978 revelation “religious hopes”; an analysis of case studies of two African American Latter-day Saint families by Jessie L. Embry; a look at how racial discourse and black LDS experience has changed (and not changed) since 1978 by Armand L. Mauss; a “sociological perspective” of African American Latter-day Saints by Cardell K. Jacobson; a report on the LDS African American community in Atlanta by Ken Driggs; and a personal essay that draws on the discourse of “whiteness theory” to interrogate white LDS concepts of race by Darron T. Smith.
If I have time, I will write up capsule reviews of each of these essays, and I also hope to discuss Smith’s essay in depth, but for now here’s the bottom line:
At $34.95 this collection is a little steep. And as I mention above much of what’s contained here can be found elsewhere. However, unless you have already read widely on this issue, this collection is a must — for those interested in Mormon studies, for LDS artists and for all (members and non-LDS) who want to know more about black Saints and the priesthood ban. One can only hope that the University of Illinois Press also comes out with an affordable trade paperback edition.
Even if you think the question is settled in your mind — whether you take the “misguided policy” or “we don’t know why” or “it was sad but necessary” view of the priesthood ban — you should still read this book. Yes, the essays fail to take up some questions and perspectives. And there are gaps in evidence and argument. And in some ways the essays are too measured. But on the whole, it’s a well-edited, relevant, needed work.
Black and Mormon is available in LDS bookstores, online and from the University of Illinois Press.
Elsewhere: Our Thoughts has posted a preliminary review. Mormanity has a that includes a lengthy excerpt. Mormon Wasp has also posted on the book and links to other resources on this issue.
ALSO: Major props to the Univ. of Illinois Press marketing team for reaching out to the Bloggernacle. As a pr flack, I was surprised by and yet approve of their efforts to use non-traditional marketing methods. This is exactly the type of title that one should pitch to bloggers.