Working with Darius

September 1, 2006 | 16 comments
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Alas, my other lives (teacher, wife, mother, producer [for the moment] and writer) are calling me, so I will contribute less frequently to T&S and other blogs–though this has been really fun. I promised to publish a post about writing the trilogy with Darius. I’ve written elsewhere about some of that experience–the miraculous parts–and thought I’d write here about the more difficult parts. The most obvious difficulty I dealt with in writing about Black Mormons and the history of the Church in regards to race was the research. Not the research per se–I loved doing that–but the things I read, the sad and lingering legacy of prejudice.
Many people have told me how pleased they are that the new movie in the JS Building shows a little of Jane Manning James. Yes, I am glad she was included, and thought Fiona Smith did a good job representing her, but because I know “the rest of the story,” I had a few problems seeing the selected vignette. Jane is in a scene in which Joseph Smith binds her wounds–not quite historically accurate, since Jane reports that God healed her bloody feet (and those of her family) after they prayed during their journey. So it was Jane’s faith, not Joseph’s hands, which bound the sores. But more important are the events which followed Jane’s time in Nauvoo. She came west with the pioneers and pled for temple blessings. Eventually, she was permitted to do baptisms for the dead, but she was never allowed to receive her endowment. She had been invited to be sealed as a child to Joseph and Emma Smith and turned that offer down in 1843. When in 1884 she requested the sealing, racialist ideas in the Church had evolved so much that she was sealed not as a child, but as a servant to the Smith family, with Bathsheba Smith acting as her proxy. And regardless of how deep Jane’s faith was, it could not be transferred to her children. Eventually all of her progeny left the Church. She has seven generations of descendants; most don’t even know her pioneer story and have never heard of Joseph Smith. This is not to say she wasn’t loved. She was, and Church presidents blessed her. Nonetheless, they felt that they could offer no better than what she had already received because she was “of Cain.” That lineage summed up her limitations.
I use this as a precursor to my experience with Darius. We became quick friends, and I knew him as a bold advocate of the faith. But in the moments where we dealt with his most difficult experiences (such as his learning about the priesthood restriction the night before his baptism), unless I was willing to let him tell his story in his way, we fought. We could fight over adjectives, phrases, or characterizations, but it came down to the problem of my using my talents to tell HIS story, and presuming that I understood what it was like to have two white missionaries say, “You won’t be able to hold the priesthood.” (I wonder, if Jane would’ve fought with the screenwriter for the new film…)
I have found many in the Church who have Black friends and assume that by virtue of the friendship, they understand the Black experience (or the many Black experiences). Not so. We all understand something about the human experience, but the truth is, each of us is ultimately a mystery. We may love Cakchiquel Indians, for example (as I do), but will never really understand their lives, because we visit their culture with our own options–namely, we can get on a plane and leave at any time. And I doubt that security guards will suddenly take notice of my entering a store. They do take notice of my Black friends–one of whom is a respected lawyer and has simply grown accustomed to the suspicious stares. I grew to love Darius dearly, but I recognize that though I know him very well, he remains a mystery. As for the trilogy, I know so much more about the characters now than I did when we wrote the books, because I have met their descendants. The characters we present in the trilogy are the result of imagination, research, and experience. But if I were to meet any of them in real life, I am sure they would let me know where I got it wrong.
In the early years of the Church, when racism was an international plague and the white man considered that he had a “burden” to civilize the “hottentot” and any dark-skinned creature, writers and anthropologists tried to sum people up as categories or as fulfillments of their own theses. That’s always a temptation, isn’t it. We want Jane Manning James to stare, awestruck, into Joseph Smith’s eyes while he wraps her bloodyd feet. In some ways, we want the story to end there, while it’s still comfortable. We want to wrap her up and use her as a testimony builder. I love John Updike’s poem called “Seven Stanzas for Easter” which says “Let us not mock him [Jesus] with metaphor.” I hope my life will continue to be an opening and an unfolding, inviting experiences gleaned from literature and from friends of many cultures and skintones. I hope to know my friends better at my death, and I hope to know the Savior better. But surely I will not fully understand them or Him. Still, I hope to stare, awestruck, into Jesus’ eyes and prepare for greater light and knowledge.

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16 Responses to Working with Darius

  1. tyler on September 1, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    When I come to die, I hope I can write almost as well as Margaret. That said:

    I too believe developing empathy is part of godliness. Others will always remain a mystery, true, but chipping away at the mystery, learning to more fully explore, emrace, and understand what is inside of others is one of the most powerful way we develop empahty. Christ’s love in perfect because his empathy is perfect–His experience of others’ sorrows lends him the ability to love everyone perfectly.

    I have often thought about the difficult legacy of beliefs about people with dark skin. My only conclusion is that Joseph received a shocking, overwhelming cascade of truth and light and that we are still, so many years later, trying to get our arms around what he received. All of us at all levels in the Church, including him, are unable to live up to the standards created by the theology he taught–but I think we are getting better, I think we are coming closer.

  2. Greg Call on September 1, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    The wonderful poem Margaret mentions can be found here: http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2109

  3. J. Stapley on September 1, 2006 at 2:00 pm

    Margaret, thank you for the work that you do. Jane Manning James’ story is probably the painful moment’s of our history for me. I can’t talk about it (the sealing), without choking up.

    I recently read the brief early life sketch at the begining of Seymour B. Young’s journal. He characterized the MO slave holders as inhuman, describing level of depravity of those people in relation to those of African descent. It made me proud to read, but the fealings are dramatically tempered by our inability to move forward so long.

    God bless you, Margaret.

  4. Matt Thurston on September 1, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    Nice post Margaret. “We all understand something about the human experience, but the truth is, each of us is ultimately a mystery.” So true. Reminds me of David Byrne’s lyric: “And you may tell yourself, This is not my beautiful wife!”

    I recently listened to your podcast with Darius for John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories and thought it was excellent. I’ve since burned it onto a few cd’s and given them to a few people in my ward. My home teacher, one of the cd recipients, called me last night (very excited) to tell me it was one of the greatest “talks” he’d ever heard.

    If you get a moment, what is the latest on the film you are producing? I saw the “trailer” or “preview” at Sunstone and it looks wonderful. Can’t wait.

  5. Julie M. Smith on September 1, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    “racialist ideas in the Church”

    I am wondering if you meant ‘racial’ or ‘racist’ or if I am revealing my ignorance of a technical term here?

    “presuming that I understood what it was like to have two white missionaries say, “You won’t be able to hold the priesthood.â€? ”

    Of course, if you had been a convert, this is precisely what two white (or otherwise) missionaries would have said to you! And just like men can’t really ‘get’ what it is like to be female, we can’t ‘get’ what it is like to be another race.

  6. DKL on September 1, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    Great post. I think you’re right that we tend to use our perceptions of other people’s opinions to satisfy our own needs. I think that beyond being a temptation; it’s necessary in some sense. I have a certain image of what my wife thinks of me, yet I have no doubt that (a) she has a substantially more nuanced (for lack of a better word) view than I appreciate, and (b) some amount of give and take on my understanding of this view vs. her communication of this view helps to make the relationship work. The balance that one has to strike in order for there to be the right amount of both give and take is sometimes quite delicate, especially with those that we want or expect to be close to.

  7. shannon on September 1, 2006 at 3:33 pm

    Now, I’ll just HAVE to read the trilogy. Those books caught my eye when they were first published – I\’ve always had a keen interest in the experience of black Mormons, and especially now living in the South. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and perspective. You also peeked my interest with your invitation to join in your volunteer project in Guatemala. My husband served a mission there and I would LOVE to go back there with him. He’s concerned about dragging three young children with us though. What do you think?

  8. Margaret Young on September 1, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    A quick answer to the questions:
    Julie–I discovered the word Racialism through Armand Mauss. Definition: a. An emphasis on race or racial considerations, as in determining policy or interpreting events. b. Policy or practice based on racial considerations.
    Matt: Thank you for being our unpaid publicist! The reason I’m so rushed right now is that we are having our main fundraiser for the documentary on September 15. Any of you who live in Utah are invited. (E-mail me at Margaret_Young@byu.edu and I’ll send you an invitation. We are especially interested in relieving “anonymous rich guy” of some of his burden.) It will be quite the event. Dustin Gledhill, an internationally acclaimed pianist, will be doing a concert at the home of Chris and Claudia Cannon at 7:00. Some of you just raised your eyebrows. “Margaret and the Cannons?” (Chris is a Republican congressman, for those of you outside Utah.) Oh, it gets far more tangled and interesting. My ex-husband is Claudia Cannon’s brother. My ex’s new wife was Dustin’s piano teacher for years. Chris Cannon is my best friend’s brother (she died 12 years ago), and my oldest daughter is a cousin to the Cannon kids. I think holding the event at the Cannons is ideal. If all of us–with our political differences, our past pain, grudges that could be maintained were we to focus on them–can come together to build bridges through this project, we’re doing something really good. And we’re re-cutting the trailer to include an extremely important report from AME Pastor Chip Murray on a conversation he had with President Hinckley. We’ve been protecting this footage for awhile, but we’re ready to show it now. We did NOT show it at Sunstone.
    DKL: And what about your perception of your wife? Do you think she might surprise you if you got into the nuances of her sense of things? Bruce has quit being surprised, but it took awhile. He is very structured, and I am an intuitive little butterfly. He’s had to sprout some wings he didn’t know were available to him. And I’ve had to live with his mounds of paperwork. Actually, I think he loves my sporadic ways, though it took some getting used to. As for me and the paperwork–well, if I ever do a guest blog again, I’ll address that one.
    Shannon: It is more difficult to go to a Third World country with little ones than with teenagers. You do have to take special care that their hands keep clean and that they drink only filtered water. It would be somewhat hard on you (it nearly killed my mother when my dad took all of us, the youngest being two months, to Guate), so I’d try a two-week stint before making a longer commitment. So much depends on where you live. Your husband can tell you about the possibilities. Chimaltenango would be pretty easy. Patsun and Patzicia are more difficult. Momostenango is my favorite place in the world.
    Jonathan and Tyler: THANK YOU.
    And thank you to whoever corrected my post so that it was appropriately divided and not all on the first page. I was just too dang rushed this morning when I composed it.

  9. Kaimi Wenger on September 1, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    Julie,

    To follow up on Margaret’s definition — racialism is a focus on racial categories; it need not be motivated by the indivious motivations that we usually associate with a behavior when we call that behavior racist.

    For example, there may be differing interpretations as to the priesthood ban. Some may say that it was a racist policy, motivated by negative attitudes towards Blacks. Others may argue that it was not racist, because it was not enacted out of a racist animus against Blacks. Regardless of the resolution of these arguments, and regardless of whether one believes that the priesthood ban was racist, it is absolutely certain that the priesthood ban was racialist.

    This definition allows us to focus on effect and potential harm of race-based categorizations, without having to answer subjective intent-based queries about whether those actions are motivated by racism, which is usually defined as having some element of animus against a racial group.

    (The analogy is imperfect, but it may be helpful to think of racialism as the race equivalent of gender essentialism. Gender essentialism is not itself sexism, however it may be related to sexism, and it may lead to gender-differentiated results.)

  10. A. Nonny Mouse on September 1, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    I discovered the word Racialism through Armand Mauss. Definition: a. An emphasis on race or racial considerations, as in determining policy or interpreting events. b. Policy or practice based on racial considerations.

    So, is the attempt here to remove a sort of a more negative or perhaps prejudicial connotation from the word “racist” and “racism”?

    Just curious, because I’ve never encountered it before either.

  11. DKL on September 1, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    Margaret Young, you’re right that it cuts both ways. The same thing holds for my wife vis-a-vis me, but I’m hesitant to go into that online. It’s worth noting, however, that Darius’ modes of thinking about others are no less flavored by his needs than yours are.

  12. Margaret Young on September 1, 2006 at 8:27 pm

    Yes, of course Darius’s modes of thinking are flavored by his needs, but they do actually take priority in a writing partnership which addresses the life he knows and which I am merely imagining. (Of course, in my marriage I fully expect Bruce to anticipate my every whim and to figure out what I’m thinking by my facial expressions.) A writing partnership is not a marriage–thank God. When one is writing about someone else’s experience, the subject SHOULD feel that their life is being truthfully portrayed. I mentioned on BCC that I’m set to do my part of a book about my great great grandfather, George H. Brimhall, and the BYU controversy of 1911. Believe me, I’ve got some nervous relatives. There is a mission all us Brimhall/Holbrook/Groberg/Blairs have been charged with: to portray George H. as the noblest of souls and nothing else. He may well have been noble, but he was also seriously depressed (a condition many of my family have inherited) and he ultimately committed suicide. (And that is why his progeny have been so charged: to restore his good name.) I am certain I will not do him justice as I write with Ann Chamberlain, but I have been studying his talks/journals/etc so I can at least approach the truth. Granted, it will go beyond the truth my family would like conveyed, because it will include his depression and the fact that his first wife (who he never divorced) was institutionalized for most of their marriage. (Note the subtly, almost imperceptibly implied parallel with Jane James and the faith-promoting vignette in the JS film.) It’s one thing for me to do this on my own. If, however, George H. were beside me (assuming he was a completely honest man), it would be unethical for me to portray him in a way that served my agenda/feelings and disregarded his. Darius and I wrote about many people, and some were members of his family. I remember weeping with him as we portrayed a slave auction involving his great great grandmother. The last book casts him as a character. Oops–can’t write anymore. I am being summoned by my family. They think I should quit blogging and fix dinner. The gall!

  13. Kevin Barney on September 1, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    Beautifully written, Margaret. I really enjoyed the Sunstone trailer, and wish you all the best in your fundraising efforts so that the editing and polishing can be done.

    How did you and Darius colloborate mechanically? Did each of you focus on different stories, or different parts of the research? Did you do a lot of coordinating online, did you meet every month? I’m just interested in some of the nitty gritty details of how the collaboration worked.

  14. Margaret Young on September 2, 2006 at 1:13 pm

    Here you go, Kevin.
    Work stations: Darius’s house, my office, the Provo Public Library, the telephone.
    Meeting times: At least weekly
    Mechanics: I always did a first draft, structuring the books according to the historical facts we had. Darius’s job was to make the voice[s] authentic. We did this by reading the text aloud. Usually, I’d have him read it. Since I’m a linguist’s daughter, I tend to pick up on things like minimal pairs etc., so I’d quickly identify where he had subconsciously changed a phrase or left out (or added) a word. Then I’d stop him and repeat what he had said and ask, “Is that what it should say?”
    Once, when I was working on a prayer (Jane’s mother was blessing Jane), I called Darius and gave him the situation, then said, “Pray like Jane’s mother would.” He gave such a beautiful prayer that he got emotional.
    That’s a quick summation.

  15. grego on September 5, 2006 at 10:59 am

    And just like men can’t really ‘get’ what it is like to be female, we can’t ‘get’ what it is like to be another race.

    Interesting. I think men can know what it’s like to be a woman, but woman don’t even have the ability to understand what it is to be a man.

  16. Margaret Young on September 5, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    I have to take issue with your word choice, Grego. We don’t suddenly “get” what it’s like to be someone else. That simply will not happen. There’s not some blinding epiphany that reveals their essence and gives it to us. We approach empathy, and that’s the best we can do–not just with people of other genders, skin tines, nations and tongues, but with everybody. If a married couple can’t approach empathy, a sense of how one’s partner perceived an action or a conversation (preferably without judging that perception), they’re doomed to separate lives. But as far as “getting” the other? Not in this world. And I’m assuming your final statement is intended to be somehow ironic, because it’s so obviously false, but the irony escapes me. Any man who thinks he claims he “knows” what it’s like to be a woman has been grandly deceived. I would say that one of the miracles of the atonement is the very idea that Christ actually did accomplish the impossible in fully comprehending the lives and pains of all.