Many Latter-day Saints shouted with joy or at least breathed a sigh of relief on June 9, 1978 when the Church announced that any worthy male could be eligible to receive the priesthood, thus ending the painful and controversial practice of denying the priesthood to males of black African descent. While many white members of the Church are glad to have that era behind us and now wish to move forward, many of have not appreciated the lasting impact of the former priesthood restrictions on black members in the Church, including the anguish that the former policy caused for black members (including black women) and investigators. Many of us are not familiar with the challenges that black Mormons face today or with a variety of race issues. To better appreciate the history of blacks in the Church and the hope of better serving all our brothers and sisters in the Gospel, I am pleased to recommend the outstanding new book, Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 172 pages).
Black and Mormon is a remarkable resource from a variety of intelligent minds and skillful writers. In general, I am pleased with the vision of the editors in putting this work together, and would rate it as a success and an important contribution. It opened my eyes to several serious issues, and changed some of my thinking on this topic. It will cause some pain and rethinking old assumptions for some members of the Church, but is likely to help all of us better understand one another and better understand some of the pains that blacks have felt and continue to feel in a Church dominated by whites, a Church with a past racial policy that continues to cause pain in spite of having been revoked for a quarter century. I look forward to further progress in the Church and through our society to overcome racial misunderstanding and racism of any kind.
Though I have some objections for part of the book, in general Black and Mormon strikes a healthy balance between optimism for the future and facing the pain of the past. It is time for Latter-day Saints to understand and acknowledge the pain that blacks have felt because of the past policy on limitations to the priesthood. Much of the pain came from insensitive attempts to provide a doctrinal explanation of what was never explained and what was not doctrine, but policy. Most whites have not pondered what it would be like to be a black investigator or member of the Church who was not only told that he could not have the priesthood, but that it was because he was a descendant of a murderer or because he was unworthy before being born. Alma Allred and others do an excellent job of clarify the unjustified nature of such explanations, but gaping wounds remain, and reprints of some well-known LDS books continue to promulgate such harmful and unsound "explanations."
This book further strengthened my respect for black members willing to accept the Church in spite of a policy that caused such pain. The faith and patience of many black members should be explored and celebrated much more. Especially poignant portions of the book retell the stories of some black members and their families, and provide valuable insights into the issues of retention and missionary work among minority groups.
An important contribution of the book, in my opinion, is helping to identify additional steps that could help to heal wounds of the past. For example, I personally look forward to some sort of formal clarification from the Church to repudiate the former racist speculations that were often given in the vain effort of creating doctrinal reasons for something that was never doctrine but an unexplained policy.
Following a thorough and intriguing forward by the editors, the book contains eight chapters written by an impressive group of respected writers, including some well-known African Americans within the Church. I believe all of the authors are LDS, but the book is hardly an exercise in defending the status quo or rationalizing the past. It is a sincere effort to help those within and without the Church to better understand blacks and the Church in terms of the past, the present, and the prospects for the future. It is well worth reading and pondering.
The chapters comprise the following:
I wish to further clarify my concerns about the last chapter by Darron Smith (see his Website at DarronSmith.com, a black convert who served a mission in the Church, who, according to information in the book, was a lecturer at Utah Valley State College and an adjunct faculty member at BYU and now, according to his Website, teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City while completing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Utah (he also has a M.Ed. in Higher Education from Brigham Young University -- see his curriculum vita). His viewpoints, though eloquently expressed, sometimes strike me as being too heavily derived from the academy, where bitterness toward society is often the norm. Frankly, given the huge burden of racism and some of the painful experiences he and his wife have faced, I can understand some of the reasons for such attitudes, but his discussion of "whiteness theory" with respect to the Church seems too harsh - or perhaps too "academic" - in finding evidence of white supremacy and oppression of minorities.
I think Smith takes the class-struggle paradigms behind "whiteness theory" a little too seriously, though again, there are legitimate issues to confront. For example, Smith sees the reluctance of local Church leaders to replace standardized Relief Society lessons with controversial discussions of racism in the Church as evidence of racism. He says that "white people consciously suppress conflict (passive aggressiveness), not only because they wish to avoid the discomfort of confrontation, but also because this avoidance enables them to maintain white hegemony. When white people say, for example, 'Let's not be contentious,' they eliminate opposition. Without opposition, whiteness always wins" (p. 153). I find this and several other statements to almost be offensive. There are times and places for digging into controversy, but Relief Society is not it, in my opinion.
I also think that some blacks will be offended by Smith's charge that groups like Genesis (an highly respected association of black Mormons, whose founded, Darius Gray, is among the contributors to this volume) are guilty of "replicating, in every significant way, the established 'whiteness' norm of Mormonism" which makes them "socially white" (p. 163). I object to this worldview. Whites aren't necessarily white oppressors seeking to enforce whiteness, and blacks who don't share your political and social perspectives aren't "socially white" or, as some agitators say, "white on the inside." Race is not a political identity.
While parts of Darron Smith's writings reflect a point of view that many whites and at least some blacks and other minorities may find objectionable, I believe his chapter is valuable in showing the diversity of viewpoints that can exist among faithful Mormons. His essay is worthy of consideration, discussion, and certainly debate - in the right setting (perhaps not in place of approved lessons during Relief Society or Priesthood meetings, where there are sheep that need to be fed, not stirred up).
Smith also makes the interesting suggestion that affirmative action in the Church would be helpful in correcting problems of the past. In my unpopular view, at least some aspects of affirmative action have, in the long run, been a roadblock rather than a help to minorities in the United States, and I am not sure that an overt affirmative action program would be right for the Church either. (Believe me, making someone a bishop or branch president before they are really ready for that is doing nobody a favor - especially the bishop and his family; and it's not necessarily a favor even when they are ready!) But I do agree that white members must do more to reach out to minorities and help them feel fully part of the Church.
Though I have some difficulty with Darron Smith's chapter, others will not--and objections or no, the book as a whole represents a significant and positive step toward better understanding the difficult past and the hopeful future of black Latter-day Saints. I highly recommend this excellent work, and congratulate the editors and the authors.
I have had a few experiences in the Church relevant to the issue of race relations, but am strictly a neophyte in this area. My association with members of the Church from other races began most extensively during my mission to Switzerland (1979-1981), where I taught people from over 50 countries and learned about some of the challenges that minorities face. Later I lived in Atlanta for 5 years, where the Tucker Ward provided valuable opportunities to fellowship with black members as well as members from a variety of foreign countries. Following that, I moved to Wisconsin. In spite of being heavily white, my area has a large number of Hmong refugees from Laos and a healthy group of Hmong Latter-day Saints. I was soon asked to be a minority liaison for the Appleton Stake, serving on the High Council with responsibilities to assist the Oneida Indian members and the Hmong members. I loved working with both groups and frequently attended Church with them. I began learning the Hmong language at this time. I also had some involvement with Hispanic families in the Appleton area. After a couple of years, I was called to be the bishop of a new ward that included over 100 Hmong members and a few Hispanics. When I was finally released as bishop, the Hmong members of my ward were split off into their own branch, and I was called as a High Council advisor to them for a while, and then my entire family were called to be members of the Fox Cities Hmong Branch to help strengthen the branch, with me as first councilor to a Hmong branch president. Although the Hmong people have suffered from racist attitudes in the U.S., I saw great love and acceptance for them among in general among the Latter-day Saints in my ward.
In terms of minority relationships in Atlanta, a particularly memorable experience came through my family's friendship with a remarkably talented black LDS woman who set up a community theater in Decatur. I attended one night and really enjoyed it. As the only white person present in the small audience, there was an interesting moment of internal tension when a group of teenagers performed a rap song about their victimization by whites and their plans for violent revenge against the oppressors. (A key concept from the song was that whites had nailed blacks to a cross, but the nails were rusting and soon the blacks were coming down from the cross and would go after the whites, so look out.) At the end of the performance, rather than choosing that moment to engage in confrontational "race talk," I clapped - and clapped loudly. (And I can assure you that my avoidance of conflict here was not a ploy to maintain white hegemony and enforce whiteness upon the blacks present.) No one seemed to notice that there was anything improper about the song, and I certainly wasn't bringing it up - and I still enjoyed the evening, choosing to look past the offensive and see the good around me. The point of this story is that my experience as the lone white in the community theater may have some similarities with the experience of black members of the Church, especially if they ever had to endure whites improperly speculating about the causes of the former priesthood ban. Curse of Cain? Unworthiness in the pre-existence? Ouch! Might as well do a rap song (or a country ballad) in Priesthood meeting about putting those darned minorities in their place. Fortunately, I think attitudes are improving - and I was encouraged to see that ethnographic data shows that the Latter-day Saints are making significant progress in their attitudes toward minorities. I hope that progress will continue to be mutual.
Blacks and the Priesthood - a remarkable talk by Marvin Perkins, Director of African American Relations for the Southern California Public Affairs Council of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who shared his views in Los Angeles on September 8, 2002.
"Race in Mormon History" by Jonathan Decker at LDSMag.com. Excellent review of where we've been and how we've overcome some of the problems and errors of the past.
FairMormon.org - one of the best pro-LDS resources.
Questions about Prophets and Prophecy - deals with many issues related to the above discussion.
What is Official Doctrine? by Stephen Robinson.
Are Brigham Young's Sermons Scripture? by John Walsh.
My Turn - a page of tough questions that I would like to ask anti-Mormon critics.
"Letters to an Anti-Mormon" - lengthy but excellent article by Russell C. McGregor and Kerry A. Shirts (FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1999, pp. 90-298) responding to some arguments of James White.