Book Review: Black and Mormon

March 6, 2005 | 50 comments
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Any etiquette book will tell you: there are certain topics you just don’t bring up in polite society. Any Mormon will tell you: we have a few topics of our own to add to that list. And one of them is the issue of blacks and the priesthood.

Until Black and Mormon was released last year, the only scholarly treatment of the topic of African American Latter-day Saints was Embry’s Black Saints in a White Church, which was written a decade ago. So while there is perhaps a need for more academic (and personal, and theological) inquiry, this book is an uneven and awkward contribution. While some of the essays were informative and interesting, the work as a whole suffered from some poor choices by the editors.

The Introduction, which is credited to both Bringhurst and Smith, is sloppy and slippery. For example, as evidence that the Church considers any reference to its past on this issue “embarrassing,” they quote the Ostlings stating that the CES seminary student book contains just “ten words about the revelation” buried in a “laundry list” of events during President Kimball’s tenure. But a quick check at www.ldsces.org reveals that the Declaration extending the priesthood is its own entry, with about a page of text, and it also given several paragraphs (more than any other single event, in fact) in the section on the life of President Kimball. (My suspicion is that the Ostlings were using the old CES seminary book, and Bringhurst and Smith followed them without checking their sources because the evidence fit their theory.)

When I read a book about a topic that I don’t know a lot about, I need to trust the authors/editors. But when they slip up on such an easily (un)verifiable bit of data on page four, it is hard for me to trust them on the facts that I can’t verify. It is even harder for me to trust their judgement.

Similarly, they cite in the Introduction the famous passage in Mormon Doctrine (no link as not to aid or abet) where Elder McConkie states that African Americans did not hold the priesthood because they were not equal to other races. They present this as Latter-day Saint belief without citing Elder McConkie’s (almost) equally famous follow up after the 1978 revelation: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” (All Are Alike Unto God,p. 1, which I copy from a secondary source, as I don’t have the original, but I believe this to be accurate). Neither does their simplistic Book of Mormon exegesis of Nephites=white=good and Lamanites=dark=bad inspire confidence in their ability to guide me through the murky history and theology of African Americans in the Church.

Perhaps my biggest beef with the Introduction, however, is that they set out “the reasons for Mormonism’s limited appeal among African Americans” as a “key issue” for the book, yet not a single disaffected member or disinterested investigator is given voice in this book. I realize these people may be harder to find than active African Americans Saints, but I also don’t trust the ability of active Church members (of whatever race) to articulate why the Church doesn’t appeal more to nonmembers.

Tighter editing would have improved the book in other ways as well. Virtually every essay reminds us of the basic history of the ban and that the Church doesn’t record the race of its membership (making research difficult), but then noting that Church records aren’t available to researchers in any case.

As for the essays, Bringhurst presents an interesting history of the Missouri thesis (that is, that the Church limited the rights of people of African descent in order to ease persecution in slave-holding Missouri). However, he points out that we can’t find any instance of Joseph Smith limiting the priesthood, which works against the Missouri thesis. I appreciated his inclusion of Elder Ballard’s statement (from 2002) about the priesthood restriction: “we don’t know . . . It’s difficult to know why all things happen.” Bringhurst then ends his essay with a bombshell (at least, it was news to me):

“Making the situation of Elijah Abel even more ambiguous is that this black priesthood holder served three missions for the Mormon church, the last one in 1883, shortly before his death on December 25, 1884. Even more paradoxical is the fact that Elijah Abel’s son, Enoch, also a Latter-day Saint, was ordained an elder on November 10, 1900, even though Mormon black priesthood denial had been enforced as a widely accepted practice since 1852. Still later, Abel’s grandson, Elijah Abel Jr., was ordained a priest on July 5, 1934, and an elder on September 29, 1935. Such historical information is acknowledged on the momument erected for Elijah Abel and dedicated by Elder Ballard.”

Maybe this is common knowledge, but I had never heard of this. It seems the topic of an essay itself (perhaps addressing the larger issue of doctrine and practice and the sometimes imperfect alignment between the two) rather than a concluding paragraph.

In the next essay, (and it pains me that such a thing might be necessary), Alma Allred offers a solid exploration of the scriptures used by ignorant people to justify limitations on African Americans. (Question: Can exegesis correct folk doctrine?)

Ronald G. Coleman and Darius Gray present the personal history of two Saints, Jane Elizabeth Manning James and Len Hope Sr. These histories are inspiring in the best sense and deserve a wide audience. I cannot really fathom the kind of faith shown by people like Len Hope. When he was made unwelcome in his Ohio ward (this is after WWI), he still continued to pay tithing and opened his home to a monthly devotional meeting with the Branch President.

While Jessie L. Embry’s essay strives for a more sociological approach, presenting the case studies of two multigenerational African American families, I found the personal aspects of the story most interesting and, again, an amazing testament to the faith of early African American Saints. After Katherine May attended a ward in New Orleans for three years in the 1960s without anyone speaking to her (can you imagine?), she wrote a letter to President Kimball (!) asking what she needed to do to become a member of the Church. He forwarded her letter to the ward, who sent missionaries, who baptized her.

Armand Mauss’ essay sketching “the extent and limits of progress since 1978″ begins with an important idea (perhaps worthy of its own post):

“One of the great popular myths in traditional Mormonism, quite apart from racial questions, is that people can find in this religion all the ‘answers’ they need. A consequence of this myth is people’s manifest discomfort with quandries that seem to have no ready explanations. Producing those explanations had always been a growth industry among the Mormon folk. . .”

As for limitations on progress, he points out that the rationalizations and justifactions for the ban were not repudiated explicitly in 1978 or since then, and therefore survive as folk doctrine. This is an interesting topic; one wonders what motivates the decision of the Brethren not to address this issue, and what the advantages and disadvantages are of this approach. As an example of progress, Mauss tells of Saints in the Los Angeles area responding to the aftermath of the Rodney King riots and generating such goodwill that AME pastor Reverend Cecil Murray publicly encouraged people to meet with the LDS missionaries(!). I was relieved to see (although I never completely trust) empirical data showing that Church members have lower levels of racism than the national average (which is the theme of the next essay, by Cardell Jacobson). One would certainly hope so. Mauss’ history of the Genesis Group is also useful. I’m not sure that many Church members even know that Genesis exists.

Ken Drigg’s essay, “‘How Do Things Look on the Ground?’: The LDS African American Community in Atlanta, Georgia” was a heartening example of what a multiracial, inclusive ward (complete with African Americans in key leadership positions) can look like. But the article reaches its full impact only in comparison with the unfortunate concluding essay by editor Darron Smith, “Unpacking Whiteness in Zion.” Smith’s perspective is best explained by considering the anecdote with which he begins his essay. His wife (who is white) was teaching a Relief Society lesson on following the prophets when she asked (hypothetically) if “all the teachings of Mormon prophets [should] be obeyed–even teachings manifesting such racist thinking as the condemnation of interracial marriage?” Unsurprisingly, the Relief Society President (“embrac[ing] her own whiteness as authoritative”) shut down that line of thought and later released his wife. Smith interprets this as the “tyranny of bourgeois decorum,” “humiliating,” and “the repudiation” of “the acceptability of our family [which included two biracial children],” especially since the Stake RS President was later asked to re-teach the lesson.

But I’m not convinced that this event had anything to do with race. It has been explained to me that one of the insidious facets of racism is that one never knows, for example, if lousy service is because the waitress is incompetent–or because you are black. I can appreciate how difficult it might be to make the distinction, but had a teacher in a lesson on following the prophets asked whether we should follow all the teachings of the prophets, even the ones displaying [insert any negative word here], such as [insert any counsel here], she almost certainly would have been shut down just as quickly. Because Smith doesn’t even entertain the idea that this incident might not have been racially motivated, but simply a consequence of his wife’s inflammatory approach, it becomes hard to take him seriously, especially when he views the event as a repudiation of his family. Making the situation even murkier, I don’t know that the Church has ever condemned interracial marriage (it certainly doesn’t now), but rather counseled against it at a time when it would have inarguably brought extreme hardship on the spouses and their children (although I’m still unsure, personally, if it should have been discouraged; perhaps the fact that, when it was discouraged, interracial Temple marriage would not have been impossible is the deciding factor).

Given Smith’s curious interpretation of events and his apparent love affair with the graduate-school jargon of oppression, it is more surprising that he had a discussion with a General Authority about teaching a Black Studies class at BYU than it is that his request was turned down. It becomes even harder to situate his thought in the LDS mainstream when he calls for an “affirmative action program” (his words) for Church leadership. He claims that the subjective method of assigning callings (i.e., inspiration) allows for unconscious racism. While I am sure that it does on rare occasions, affirmative action for callings is hardly a reasonable solution if one believes that callings come by revelation. Working with leaders (and members in general) to be sure that they realize that racism is incompatible with the Gospel seems a much more logical solution.

He concludes, “whether whites admit it or not . . . they harbor racist thoughts.” Again, Drigg’s essay about the Church in Atlanta becomes a vivid backdrop to Smith’s shrill essay.

I don’t claim to have many good theories about the history of race in the Church. Despite its weaknesses, this book did spur my thinking about it (especially the information about black priesthood ordiantions between the 1850s and 1978), as well as some larger issues concerning folk doctrine and obedience. It is a deeply flawed but nonetheless worthwhile read for those interested in Mormon Studies.

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50 Responses to Book Review: Black and Mormon

  1. Ivan Wolfe on March 6, 2005 at 1:31 pm

    Julie -

    Have you read Margaret Young and Darius Gray’s trilogy Standing on the Promises from Deseret Book?

    It’s a fictionalized history of Blacks/African-Americans in the church, but it’s based on solid research (the one mildly annoying feature of the books is that instead of dealing with their sources in and appendix or afterword, they interrupt the narrative after each chapter to detail all the sources they used in writing that chapter).

    I’ve read the first two and enjoyed them. Haven’t read the third yet.

  2. a random John on March 6, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    Julie,

    When was the last time that you were in a Gospel Doctrine class that looked at OD2 and addressed the associated issues? The manual I read four years ago instructed teachers to avoid the topic and instead talk about the importance of continuing revelation.

    The only worthwhile discussions I had seen on the topic prior to the advent of the bloggernacle was in institute in which an entire 90 minute lesson was devoted to the topic.

    Unfortunately there does not seem to be an appropriate forum for the general church membership to discuss sensitive issues or any topic in which it seems that past leaders might have been wrong.

    It seems from looking at the facts and the history that after Joseph Smith’s passing other leaders invented doctrine to justify their own attitudes, but the great majority of members have never heard this history even though they would love to. Members of my own family were shocked to hear of Elijah Abel and wondered why in 50 years of church membership they had never heard his story. This is information that people want to hear, but they have to seek it out themselves, which is hard to do when you don’t know it exists.

  3. Loyd Ericson on March 6, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    I had the opportunity of hearing Darron Smith speak twice this week. Once in my Mormon Cultural Studies class and the other during the Mormon Studies conference held at UVSC. After hearing him (as well as Armaund Mauss and Cardel Jacobson), I feel quite confident in saying that there still exists some strong racism in the church. While in the individual level, most people would feel that they don’t harbor any racial feelings, representations of church hierarchy and cultural folklore still promote an institutional racism. Just look at the stands during general conference. What does that image say about the status of whites vs. blacks in the church. A large percentage of Mormons still hold to racial ideas on why blacks could not hold the priesthood. How do those ideas affect black members… especially when they are told straight to their face by well-meaning white members and missionaries that they were less valient in their pre-mortal life and/or they are cursed because of their supposed Cain/Ham ancestry.

  4. a random John on March 6, 2005 at 2:29 pm

    Loyd,

    Eugene England conducted some informal surveys of his classes at BYU in the early 1990′s. He was amazed at how widespread doctrines that are no longer taught were among his students who weren’t even old enough to remember 1978. It seems that since nothing official filled the vaccum that was left after OD2 the old ideas just rushed back in.

  5. Kevin Barney on March 6, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    I haven’t read this new one you review, Julie, but what I’ve heard from others who have is entirely consistent with your review. The Smith essay in particular seems to be problematic.

    There is an older anthology of essays on this subject that is very good: Neither White Nor Black, edited by Mauss and Newell. And since it is out of print, Signature has helpfully put the entire text online:

    http://www.signaturebooks.com/fulltext/neithertitle.htm

    If anyone hasn’t read Armand Mauss’ thoughts on blacks and the priesthood, which were originally given at a FAIR Conference and reprinted in Sunstone, I would highly recommend them. They are consistent with my own point of view (so of course they’re good–grin). See here:

    http://www.fairlds.org/pubs/conf/2003MauA.html

  6. Matt Astle on March 6, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    Has anything ever been written studying the experiences and history of blacks in other countries? In Brazil, where I served my mission, racism is much less common and intermarriage is much more common than in the United States. And I always heard that one of President Kimball’s motivations for asking for the June 1978 revelation was the upcoming October 1978 dedication of the Sao Paulo temple–in a country with such a large African-descent population, it would be difficult to exclude them from the temple. But I don’t know if this story is true or if it’s a nice legend. How has the revelation affected the work in Africa? How is the church perceived in Africa today? These are even more interesting questions that deserve to be answered.

  7. Christian Y. Cardall on March 6, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    As for limitations on progress, he points out that the rationalizations and justifactions for the ban were not repudiated explicitly in 1978 or since then, and therefore survive as folk doctrine. This is an interesting topic; one wonders what motivates the decision of the Brethren not to address this issue, and what the advantages and disadvantages are of this approach.

    One possibility is that the Brethren agree (amongst themselves) that it was a faulty policy based on bad doctrine, but they don’t want to be explicit about this out of concern it will weaken their authority: It may lead people to say, `If they were wrong about that, what else might they be wrong about today that I have difficulty with?’ Because of this danger, the method of choice for repudiating doctrine seems to be to try and sweep it under the rug and hope it fades quietly from memory rather than call attention to it in any manner whatsoever.

    Another possibility is that the Brethren have not come to agreement on what the reasons for the ban were; in this case the scriptural requirement of unanimity prevents them from saying anything definitive. The lore is that some issues languish for years or even decades because of this requirement—sometimes until apostles pass away (allowance of promulgation of the limited geography theory may be an informal example of this; my recollection is that it was around for decades, but vehemently opposed by Elder Mark E. Petersen, so that it was not widely published until after Elder Petersen’s death in 1984).

    If this second possibility is the case with this issue, it didn’t stop Elder McConkie from offering his own personal explanation—that it’s simply a natural expansion in the spreading of the gospel, similar to the gospel going from only the house of Israel to the Gentiles in the time of the original apostles. I think Elder McConkie probably believed that being born into the house of Israel correlated with premortal valiance, so this would allow him to accept the new policy without relinquishing his belief in what you call the “rationalizations”, “justifications”, and “folk doctrine”.

  8. Jack on March 6, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    I’m with Kevin on “Neither Black nor White”. I thought it was very well put together.

  9. Shawn Bailey on March 6, 2005 at 5:00 pm

    If anyone knows, I would love to learn more about the role of Brazil in the history of the OD2. I have heard that President Kimball was touched by the faith of particular individuals who made major sacrifices for the construction of the temple even though they didn’t expect to enjoy temple blessings due to the ban.

  10. Christian Y. Cardall on March 6, 2005 at 5:07 pm

    Neither does their simplistic Book of Mormon exegesis of Nephites=white=good and Lamanites=dark=bad inspire confidence in their ability to guide me through the murky history and theology of African Americans in the Church.

    The Book of Mormon has times when the Lamanites are more righteous than the Nephites, which makes it obvious that skin color is not necessarily a reliable index of a current generation’s righteousness (however, what about 3 Ne. 2:14-16?); but does it not state pretty explicitly that the origin of the darker skin color was wickedness? I’m thinking for example of 2 Ne. 5:20-23, where this idea is presented in the context of a word-for-word “Thus saith the Lord” revelation to Nephi.

    Let me hasten to add that I do not believe that origins of skin coloring has anything to do with righteousness, of either current or former generations. Maybe my exegesis is “simplistic”, but unfortunately this means that 2 Ne. 5:20-23 leads me to doubt the reliability of revelation, even that which is presented in the “Thus saith the Lord” style. (Not sure if Nephi or Joseph is to be blamed, but either way the principle of revelation is compromised.) If anyone has a more “sophisticated” exegesis that could straighten me out on this, I would be grateful to hear it.

  11. Arturo Toscanini on March 6, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    Kevin Barney sites Neither White nor Black as a good study of LDS doctrine vis a vis blacks, and although it’s old, it has aged quite well. (I think he means to say that it was edited by Lester Bush and Armand Mauss).

    Lester Bush’s “Mormonism and the Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” on page 11 of Dialogue 8:1 (Spring 1974) is the best historical survey before the lifting of the ban, although Bush seems unaware of the ordinations of Elijah Abel’s descendants. Even so, it seems to me that no very serious treatment can avoid siting it. (Recent events and discussions here on T&S make it interesting to note Hugh Nibley’s response on page 73.) Nevertheless, for the less casual reader, the essays in Neither White nor Black are individually more specialized and more comprehensive as a group.

    I believe it was the Tanners who first publicized the ordinations of Elijah Abel’s son and grandson in their Salt Lake City Messenger #5 (November 1965). This appears to have led to the event (sited by Greg Call) in which “[Lou] Midgley showed up unannounced at Lighthouse Ministries and rudely interrupted George Smith having fondue with the Tanners.”

    I’d heard at some point that Elijah’s descendants were ordained because Joseph had promised him that his descendants would never be denied the priesthood. I’ve never found anything to corroborate this. Moreover, this explanation seems to entail that Joseph Smith had understanding of the priesthood ban seems anachronistic. The only other explanation I’ve heard offered is that his descendants were light skinned enough to “cross-over” into white society. This is certainly plausible (I remember my surprise to find out in college that a friend of mine considered himself to be black, and my amusement at seeing in pictures that his parents had dark skin—what we call “race” ends up being a very poor basis for categorizing people). Even so, I’ve never seen pictures that could verify the skin tone of Elijah Abel or his ancestors.

    As far the role of Brazil in the changing of the policy, Mauss’s essay, “The Fading of the Pharaohs’ Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Ban Against Blacks in the Mormon Church” on page 10 of Dialogue 14:3 (reprinted in Neither White nor Black) discusses the problem with racial ambiguity in Latin America in general and Brazil in specific.

  12. Arturo Toscanini on March 6, 2005 at 5:13 pm

    BTW, Bush’s essay is also reprinted in Neither White nor Black.

  13. Christian Y. Cardall on March 6, 2005 at 5:16 pm

    It becomes even harder to situate his thought in the LDS mainstream when he calls for an “affirmative action program” (his words) for Church leadership.

    I don’t own a Church almanac, but I have a sense that a review of callings of General Authorities before and after President Kimball became president of the Church would suggest a clear pattern of intentional inclusiveness on his part (e.g. George P. Lee, a Native American, and the first Asian seventies). Whether or not this would rise to the level of an “affirmative action program” might be debated, of course.

  14. Kevin Barney on March 6, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    Arturo, you are correct that Mauss’ coeditor for Neithe White Nor Black was Lester Bush. I have a hard copy on my shelf, and I just now checked. I said Jackson Newell before because that is the way the Signature website has it (on their page linking to the full text which I link to above). If anyone here has connections at Signature, you might want to suggest that they correct the error.

    Another fascinating read is Lester Bush’s retrospective 25 years after writing his article, which was published in the Journal of Mormon History. (I hope that the MHA puts their old journals online one of these days.)

  15. Julie in Austin on March 6, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    Ivan–

    Standing on the Promises is the only LDS fiction that I have enjoyed. I recommend it to just about everyone.

    a random John–

    Your thoughts are worthy of their own post. On the one hand, having seen too many discussions spiral out of control, I appreciate the fact that we don’t and shouldn’t bring up contentious issues in Sunday School. On the other hand, we have to talk about it some time. I just don’t know what the solution is to this. If you know, tell me.

    Loyd Erickson–

    Please realize that the general leadership of the Church is by necessity a reflection of what Church membership looked like 40 years ago ( in other words, there are no recent converts among the GAs). If the stand is lilywhite in 40 years from now, then we should talk about it.

    Kevin–

    Thanks for that link; I didn’t know about that book. Any kudos to Signature for making it available online. I wish more publishers would do that or offer the book POD. No reason not to.

    Arturo Toscanini–

    fondue?

  16. Arturo Toscanini on March 6, 2005 at 6:11 pm

    Those are Greg Call’s words, Julie, not mine.

  17. Loyd Ericson on March 6, 2005 at 7:04 pm

    Julie in Austin,

    I understand that the racial make up of the Church’s hierarchy is indicitive of the racial make up of the Church 40 years ago. However, racial prejudice and (unintentional) institutional racism is not a problem that will only exist 40 years in the future. It exists today. That is why such an affirmative action program would be helpful in the church today. While I do not question the presence of inspiration in the selection of the hierarchy, in any brief look at the hierarchy it should be easily apparent that family, friendships, business and church associations influence the process. I see no reason why positive affirmitive action could not also be utilized in the inspiration process. I doubt you would deny that the presence of a qualified black leader in the church hierarchy would drastically change the image that many black Mormons have for themselves.

  18. Arturo Toscanini on March 6, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Thanks for the tip on the Bush article in the Journal of Mormon History. The MHA site says that they send out past journals for only a small fee. (There’s so many of journals nowadays, it’s impossible to keep current on all of them. Perhaps a good idea for a blog would be to provide content and summary information on all the numerous journals.)

  19. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 6, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    The troublesome, self-proclaimed black-Indian “prophet,” William McCary, arrived in Winter Quarters during the winter of 1846-47. While church leaders initially tolerated McCary’s bizarre activities, by late March he was clearly in trouble. In a revealing confrontation with Brigham Young, and Apostles Richards, Orson Pratt, Benson, Woodruff, and others on 26 March, 1847, Young informed McCary, “its nothing to do with the blood for of one blood has God made all flesh, we have to repent (and) regain what we av lost-we av one of the best Elders an African in Lowell-[i.e., Walker Lewis].” McCary shortly after was expelled from the Mormon community but attracted some followers to his own curious schismatic brand of Mormonism

    Interesting quote from Neither White nor Black — I appreciate the link.

    Arturo Toscanini–

    fondue? — it is always fun when Arturo is reporting it straight. ;)

    I did like Nibley’s reminder that the moment we think of Priesthood in terms of status and power we are giving way to the god of this world and choosing mortal values over God’s. We repudiate the Priesthood and God when we claim support for our pride thereby.

    http://content.lib.utah.edu/cgi-bin/docviewer.exe?CISOROOT=/dialogue&CISOPTR=3439

    It brings to mind perspective from my mission. I and my companion baptised a young black student on a co-op in his engineering program. He was from Kenya and had, what I have discovered, is a common Kenyan name. He shown with the Spirit and his joining the Church completely transformed the ward.

    I remember my companion teaching him about the priesthood. Neither he nor I had any idea of what God had to say on the matter as God spoke, Richard heard, and there wasn’t much connection with what my companion was saying (and he knew it). God and Richard had a private conversation and all we got from it was the experience of being the the room, without overhearing it.

    I was rather surprised as I confirmed Richard to have the Spirit tell me that Richard would have the priesthood in this life and during the life of one of the few General Authorities I knew through a family member. It made me wonder what God had told Richard. I also held my own peace, as I’d read the book of Alma.

    The closest I came, was being at Richard’s house when Richard’s brother called. The brother (and his French wife) had investigated the gospel, but had rejected it when told of LDS racism. I remember Richard telling them that unlike them, he knew the entire story and it was a great blessing and privilege that God had given to him and other Black members.

    It has been a long time since the mid-70s, and I’ve reflected on that from time to time.

    I am aware of the risks of extrapolating from specific incidents and I do not know the meaning of all things. But I know that God loves his children and visits blessings on their heads, and that, at least for Richard, not having the Priesthood was, at that time, a great gift and blessing from God.

    Do I understand why? No, but I didn’t understand how internal combustion engines worked when I first learned to drive, nor how lungs worked when I first learned to breath. And, though I do not know the meaning of all things, I remain convinced that God loves his children.

  20. Jed on March 6, 2005 at 7:52 pm

    Julie,

    Do Bringhurst and Smith say anything about the role of public relations in the reinvention of the black image in the church? To my mind, this is one of the most interesting subplots in this rapidly evolving story. According to Christianity Today, the church hired Edelman Public Relations soon after President Hinckley took office in 1995. Obviously minimizing negative publicity was a primary goal, and that meant reinterpreting the traditional hot button images: Mormons-as-racist and Mormons-as-violent.

    On the racist image, we can see the results, I think, in the video/DVD Pioneers of Africa (2003), which reinterprets the pre-1978 goings on in Ghana in miraculous terms. I was quite moved myself, exactly the response the church wants from such proselyting videos (missionaries can show this to anyone who throws down the racist card, a counter we never had before). In Pioneers, black voices are heard saying God was working through them in forming their little pockets of informal, unbaptized congregations operating without priesthood authority. White voices speak of the Spirit moving them in various ways. The effect is to hallow this contested ground, to replace the image of hate with love, and to make the timing of the revelation heaven-sent instead of political or arbitrary. Other PR events have coincided. The church’s commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revelation, as well as Gladys Knight’s very public performance at GBH’s birthday may also be part of a concerted new wave of positive publicity. I don’t say the PR firm recommended any of these events, only that they fit within a pattern of concerted attempts to alter stereotypes and negative images.

    (As for Mormons-as-violent image, President Hinckley himself dedicated a memorial and a plaque at Mountain Meadows in 1999, and now the church has given three of its own scholars open access to the archives to write a book on the tragedy. Unfortunately, a couple of public books playing up the Mormons-as-violent image [Krakauer, Bagley] may have set us back some.)

    In both these areas, the church seems to be saying that it wants to acknowledge the pain, to come clean, and then, as President Hinckley likes to say, move on.

  21. Julie in Austin on March 6, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    Jed–

    No, these things are not mentioned. But they do talk about the Freedman’s Bank Records and Black History month events.

    Thanks for the info, tho, I’m going to look for that dvd.

  22. Justin on March 6, 2005 at 10:30 pm

    Regarding Brazil and the priesthood, Mark Grover published an article on that very subject in the Spring 1990 issue of Dialogue.

    Grover has another article on Brazil in the Autumn 1984 issue of Dialogue.

  23. a random John on March 6, 2005 at 11:31 pm

    Shawn,

    As an informal data point, during my mission, the longtime white members of the church spoke of the pre-1978 era as “a epoca do racismo”. They made no pretense and called it as they saw it.

  24. annegb on March 7, 2005 at 9:28 am

    The fact that the church amended its policies does not lessen the insult. I am troubled by the fact that the church chooses to overlook its racist policies and find in meetings that when the subject comes up, (and it does), more often reasons asserting racist policies are blithely tossed out without objection. I hear every so often the assertion that blacks are inherently inferior because of their ancestors. Makes me want to hit people.

    I wish we could say honestly, it was racist, we were wrong, now its different.

    I’m going to print off and study this thread because the topic is important to me.

    Thanks

  25. Arturo Toscanini on March 7, 2005 at 10:14 am

    I’m probably in the minority here, but I don’t think that every policy that discriminates based on race necessarily warrants the use of the term racist. This is not to say that all forms of discrimination aren’t harmful in some way, but racism is a strong word. Slavery was racist, Jim Crow laws were racist, segregation was racist, denying people employment based on race is racism. But the LDS church’s wasn’t persecuting anybody; on the contrary priesthood and proselyting policies didn’t materially harm anybody or deprive them of something they might otherwise get if the LDS church weren’t there in the fist place.

    Moreover, times change in ways that render past decisions of this type value neutral. This is why we generally fault (say) Jefferson Davis for owning slaves but not George Washington. But to use an example from the church: Was the church grossly negligent before it introduced a comprehensive welfare system? I believe that it would be negligent if the church didn’t have one now, but it doesn’t follow from this that the church was negligent until it adopted one.

  26. a random John on March 7, 2005 at 11:53 am

    Arturo,

    You provide several examples of race-based policies that are in fact racist. Do you have any examples of such policies that you think are not racist? The arguement that there is no harm because you are depriving someone of something that they wouldn’t have access to if the church didn’t exist seems a bit weak. It could be applied to swimming pools, restuarants, and buses too.

  27. Ana on March 7, 2005 at 12:10 pm

    Julie, thanks for the review. Crucial topic for my family as by two little boys are of African descent.

    I agree about Neither White nor Black — useful and important. That’s a book that was on my dad’s shelf as I grew up and one that guided my thoughts about the whole issue as my husband and I contemplated transracial adoption.

    Race is a taboo subject not just in the Church but in the United States as a whole. It’s counterproductive and sad, but we whisper about race the same way we whisper about illness and disability. When my older son was a baby and we were attending Genesis and a support group for transracial adoption, and celebrating Kwanzaa in our modified way, my mother-in-law voiced a concern that we were “making Sam feel different.” Our response was that a look in the mirror would tell him he was different. Our best option is to talk about that difference, celebrate it, confront the demons of the past and look forward to a very bright future. Now, he hasn’t always “gotten it.” When he was a toddler, we read a book called “Shades of Black,” which repeats the text, “I am black. I am unique!” One day he walked up to me and proclaimed, “I am black.” I was so excited, he was making the connection! Then he backed up to show me his feet. “Black shoes!” he said. He was wearing my black dress shoes.

    Transracial adoption is close to my heart. I feel it’s a work of gathering. I feel it’s a connection to the Church and to eternal families that otherwise might be impossible to make because of the difficult history of the Church with regard to race. I feel blessed to be part of it.

    As for theories about the history, consider this: A Black member of the Church today can perform proxy ordinances for all his or her ancestors. Even those who died before 1978 can receive every blessing and ordinance offered by the gospel. They don’t miss out on a thing. So who missed out on blessings? To me it seems like it was the White members, unable to accept a diverse Church, who were unable to have the blessings of sharing the gospel, sharing a chapel, sharing their lives with people whose skin was different from their own. They missed out on learning the true nature of God’s family and the true meaning of “every nation, kindred, tongue and people.” Those who choose to miss that, are still missing it.

  28. Ana on March 7, 2005 at 12:12 pm

    er, *my* two little boys.

  29. annegb on March 7, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    Ana, my neighbor adopted four black children, they were raised side by side with my kids. My daughter was the same age as the twins, they were babies together and very close. One day, when she was four, she came in and said, “We wish we wern’t bwown. We wish we looked like Bawbie.” She couldn’t say her “r’s”. She thought she was black, too, because she had dark hair, eyes, and skin. I didn’t correct her, I just showed those little girls beautiful people on TV who were black (Miss America was black that year.)

    I don’t think she figured it out till she was in middle school. I applaud you for celebrating your sons’ heritage. I think any adoptee, no matter the race, needs a sense of themself.

    But you know, here in our little southern Utah community, those girls got called the “N” word by supposedly educated, active Mormons. So you will never convince me it’s not racism.

    I read the stuff that was on this thread and highlighted it so it would stick. I didn’t see much new. I put a link to that book on my e-mail, but have only cursorily skimmed it. I really almost got 86-ed out of Sunday School because I made my exegis (just looked it up, my new word): “Joseph Smith was not a racist, but race relations were not his first priority, Brigham Young also had other priorities, but the others, they practiced that benign, but deadly form of racism that people observe when they wouldn’t lynch a black man, but they wouldn’t eat at the same table, either.” I said that all the revelations had come when somebody asked the question and they never asked the question. When Spencer W. Kimball, who had been raised among native Americans asked the question, the Lord said, “sure, what took you so long?”

    Boy, did people get mad at me. I still think I was right. They still throw Ham at me, or the Lamanites. Now I just keep my mouth shut. Except this time. And maybe the next one. . . And when I was the Homemaking counselor, for our enrichment night in February, we celebrated Black History Month and watched the “I Have a Dream” speech. I think I’m getting too braggy. shutting up now. Arturo, I disagree with you.

  30. Arturo Toscanini on March 7, 2005 at 8:16 pm

    a random John: Arturo, You provide several examples of race-based policies that are in fact racist. Do you have any examples of such policies that you think are not racist?

    Black fraternities, black universities, black magazines, brands like FUBU.

  31. Jordan Fowles on March 7, 2005 at 8:33 pm

    But Arturo- in the strict sense of the word “racist”- anything that is “race-based” is by definition “racist” or “based on race.” That doesn’t necessarily mean “discriminatory” in a bad way. For example, the organizations you mentioned are “racist” but apparently not in the “bad” sense of the word. It all depends on what you mean when you say “racist”.

    However, imagine how bad we would consider “white” fraternities, “white” universities, “white” magazines, etc. Think of how bad we reflect on those very things in our own history, Why the disparity? (ie, why is it “not racist” when it’s “black-only” but it is “racist” when it’s “white-only”?)

  32. Arturo Toscanini on March 7, 2005 at 8:37 pm

    I’m not sure that we disagree, Jordan. The exchange I’m having with random began with my comment #25.

  33. Jed on March 7, 2005 at 9:22 pm

    Annegb says: “I said that all the revelations had come when somebody asked the question and they never asked the question. When Spencer W. Kimball, who had been raised among native Americans asked the question, the Lord said, “sure, what took you so long?”

    I think Greg Prince’s book on David O. McKay, due out this month from University of Utah Press, will show that Pres. McKay asked the question many, many times. Can we take the absence of a revelation as evidence that someone did not ask the question? How can we know that?

    Ana (#27): We have a transracial adoption in my birth family and it has worked out. She came to our home a week old and now she is 27 and married in the temple with two beautiful children. Your point about white members missing out caught my eye. So often in discussions like these, the assumption is that the church and church members should have stood above the common prejudices of their time. We think church leaders should be cultural leaders, social progressives, cutting down the narrowness of their time with the liberal vision of a later time.

    I think we have to question the assumption. The nightmare of black members in the church is the nightmare of black people everywhere: it is the nightmare of human history, as Arthur Henry King once said. I think we all lament that larger history of oppression and wonder what kind of world might have unfolded for blacks and whites in the church had ideas about racial superiority never arisen in human history.

    Given that larger history of oppression, I think it fair to question whether the church’s position on blacks and priesthood can be reduced to racism. The church, a guest within a host nation, is not sovereign, and must work within the constraints of set of acceptable cultural beliefs and practices. The alternative to disrupting the host nation’s paradigm, as the church discovered painfully in the 1880s, is oblivion.

  34. annegb on March 7, 2005 at 9:34 pm

    I stand corrected. Well, that shoots my exegis all to —.

  35. Arturo Toscanini on March 7, 2005 at 9:35 pm

    Nicely put, Jed.

  36. a random John on March 7, 2005 at 9:37 pm

    Arturo,

    I don’t think your examples apply, at least if you are trying to make the argument that the pre-1978 policy wasn’t racist. Those are organizations that rose up in reaction to exclusive white institutions. I think I have an idea what side of that equation the church was on, but if you have thoughts on it that I haven’t anticipated I would enjoy being surprised.

    On a sillier level, let’s go back the Sesame Steet days and sing, “Which of these things is not like the others:
    Black fraternities, black universities, black magazines, brands like FUBU, the LDS Church up until 1978?”

    Jed,

    We love to point to how the WoW was “ahead of its time” and the Church has a good record on the issue of women’s suffrage. I wish we could have stuck with the early exmaple Joseph Smith set with Elijah Abel and been leaders rather than followers.

  37. a random John on March 7, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    Julie,

    You wanted suggestions for how to have discussions on this issue. Here are a few:

    1. Have Stake Presidents give a lesson on it at ward conferences. Deliver some reading materials to the members a few weeks ahead of time. Have the stake pres lay the smack down on anybody who says anything hateful.

    2. Make a course on the interaction of the church with different cultures a required course at BYU. Offer it at all the institutes.

    3. Devote two or three seminary classes once every four years to the subject.

    4. A conference talk? It seems like a good venue for presenting information the the church. Too bad we missed the 25th anniversary.

    I would think that it would take time, but steps such as these would show that it is possible to discuss these matters. I don’t think that conclusions should be forced on anyone, but it seems like a shame to not give people the tools to reach their own best conclusions.

  38. Jack on March 7, 2005 at 11:30 pm

    “On a sillier level, let’s go back the Sesame Steet days and sing, ‘Which of these things is not like the others:
    Black fraternities, black universities, black magazines, brands like FUBU, the LDS Church up until 1978?’”

    Hmm. I don’t know. they seem pretty exclusive to me.

  39. Eric on March 7, 2005 at 11:45 pm

    This is one of those issues where, to me, the answers change as you change the question. What is the place of blacks, or any minority, in the plan of salvation?

    By simply combining two basic ideas, you see where Heavenly Father’s vision is beyond our own, especially in race relations. First, we believe that all those who die before reaching the age of accountability qualify for the Celestial Kingdom. Now consider the relative infant mortality rates of North America and Europe to Africa, Asia, or even within our borders, Native Americans on the reservations. If race is one of those characteristics that carries into the next life, there will likely be a lot more of Heavenly Father’s “children of color” than those of us who are blond and blue-eyed in the Celestial Kingdom.

  40. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 7, 2005 at 11:46 pm

    And when I was the Homemaking counselor, for our enrichment night in February, we celebrated Black History Month and watched the “I Have a Dream” speech. I think I’m getting too braggy. shutting up now. Arturo, I disagree with you.

    In Plano we regularly have the kids meet for a meal and then go to the MLK memorial community “fireside” every year, often as a part of the choir.

    BTW, has anyone here run across Richard Otenyo? He would be about 49 or 50 right now. I have always wanted to talk with him now, after almost 30 years have passed since we met. I’ve always wondered what became of him after he joined the Church.

  41. Jill Johnson on March 8, 2005 at 5:39 pm

    Some how the meaning of racism always seems to confuse us and we all come up using it differently. Racism in the good old U.S.A.only means this: a system of advantages based on race, which means, it’s applied institutionally. In this country, Whites have the clearer advantage, i.e. better jobs, housing, etc., etc. Perhaps this extended to even the priesthood ban back then based on this practice. There’s a distinction between racism and our own personal prejudices and people often use personal prejudices and racism interchangebly. Moreover, when it comes to God’s Prophets who among us could speak in the absolute on this former ban. Who knows with assurity that this former ban had to do with the practice of racism in the first place? If any one is in the absolute knowledge, let the stone throwing continue.

  42. a random John on March 8, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    Jill,

    Are you new here? Stones are tossed around all day long. Fortunately they are mostly a foam-based material made to look like real stones, composed mostly of bloggernacle hubris.

    How about this? Brigham Young’s well documented “personal prejudices” may have been a factor in his decision to create a church policy that made distinctions based on race. These distinctions included who could hold the priesthood and who could receive the ordinances needed for salvation. These distinctions did not exist during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, as evidenced by the fact that Elijah Abel, a member of the 70, was a black man that lived with the Smiths for a time.

    Does that fit your bill better?

    Please note that your post simply proves the point that it is very difficult to have a frank discussion about these issues. People will stand up and say, “But how can you question the prophet?” without even looking critically at the material. McConkie himself said that he was wrong on this subject, so I would guess that it should be open to exploration. I think that the racism of some past leaders of the church is a topic that is within the bounds of play here. You might think that it is not, but that would simply strengthen my point that it is hard to discuss these issues in any sort of large participatory setting.

  43. Jill Johnson on March 9, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Random,

    You did say “may have been” didn’t you? Unless we read the mind of Brigham Young and knew actually what was in his heart, we cannot speak in the absolute.

    Jill

  44. a random John on March 9, 2005 at 7:57 pm

    Jill,

    What are your thoughts on the matter? And by the matter I mean the reasons for the policy rather than the meta-matter of what you think is appropriate to think about it.

    best,
    arJ

  45. Darron Smith on March 16, 2005 at 3:21 pm

    Your criticism on Black and Mormon, particularly my essay, “unpacking whiteness in zion” are shrill but this is to be expected. Many whites simply do not get it yet they wonder why black Americans have know interest in joining the faith. You need to learn to listen better and understand more. As a white person you simply do not have to engage race in the same ways that people of color do. I suggest that you stop “blaming the victim” and take responsibility for your complicity in racist practices–this is what you can do for me!

    Darron

  46. Dan Richards on March 16, 2005 at 3:31 pm

    Darron–

    Glad you found your way here and that you commented. Do you have a response to Julie’s view that your opening anecdote had more to do with challenging prophetic authority than it did with race? As a white person, I’m open to the suggestion that I (consciously or not) “harbor racist thoughts”–do you also see this as true of minority races? I haven’t read your essay yet, so I can’t speak to its content.

  47. Kingsley on March 16, 2005 at 3:37 pm

    Darron Smith: Which criticisms in particular were “shrill”? I’d be interested to see you intelligently engage Julie’s piece in detail rather than simply retreat to the “as a white you wouldn’t understand” line.

  48. Darrick Evenson on April 17, 2005 at 8:21 pm

    If you want to know more about black Mormon history then go to
    the Black Mormon Homepage which has many links to articles:
    http://www.angelfire.com/mo2/blackmormon/homepage.html

  49. Jake on May 9, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    Darrick Evenson may or may not be a decent source for any material, I would encourage anyone to do some Google work on this fella… Make up your own mind.

  50. Margaret Young on May 11, 2005 at 7:58 pm

    I recommend only three websites on this topic–the one Darius and I put up (www.blackpioneerswest.com), http://www.blacklds.org, and http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org . The final one is the official website of the Genesis Group. I happened on this blog moments before attending my daughter’s dance recital and so can comment only briefly. Thanks for the positives about our trilogy. I consider it historical FACT-ION and think the third book is the best of the three. (It’s also the most difficult and current, and it sugarcoats nothing.) Darius and I had a talk today (5/12) about what our next project needs to be, because we know we are not finished with our mutual mission. We are beginning the next work, and it will not be fiction. FYI, we have a DVD about Jane James which Deseret Book will release in August.