On Being a Mormon and a Black American
Mormonism in the United States is a microcosm of US culture--White dominated US culture to the extreme and Black expressionism of equal passion to the extreme
It Is What It Is
Being a Black person in a White society is stressful enough without throwing in another minority identity from a religious angle, but try throwing in the religious angle of Mormonism! Much is written on being Black and Mormon. Spiritually, it is a breath of pure air! Culturally, it produces a spectrum of experiences from social fulfillment to cognitive dissonance for some members--White and Black.
There is a slight difference in the experience of being Mormon and Black in the United States than being Catholic and Black, Jewish and Black, or pick-a-religious-society and Black. The common denominator of being Black gives the experiences of many Black Americans a common theme that will play out repeatedly in each group; however, those other religions have made more of an effort in recent history to reach out to the Black communities in America than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Recently, the President and Prophet of the Church, Russel M. Nelson, made a joint statement with the NAACP for more civility towards all people, which is a good start. The leadership gets it. The rest of us Mormons still need to work on it. The process of analyzing being both Black and Mormon in America would fill volumes of books, and I've tried to condense the major points about this dual identity into this article. In order to understand being Black and Mormon, an understanding of the cultural context of being an American, being Black in America, and being Mormon in America needs a little exploration.
Historically, Americans are considered White people. The majority of people who live in America are White; therefore, assuming an American will be White is not far-fetched. Americans come in all ethnic forms; however, most of those ethnicities are of European origin--White.
With recent political changes in the nation, White people are more prone to speak their minds about perceived injustices, while minorities seem more distant and a little disillusioned. Because minorities have been accustomed to the White Americans being silent about many things in the recent past, this new found First Amendment option indirectly inspired by President Trump causes some minorities to cry White privilege and foul.
A number of minorities believe that since most Americans are White and the cultural dynamics of America caters to White people, they should not feel free to speak on certain racial matters. Minorities, additionally--specifically some Blacks--feel that White Americans do not deserve the right to weigh in on certain racial matters due to the oppressive history of slavery and graduated levels of racism thereafter.
The United States of America is a country of freedom for all people, yes. However, it is a White nation. It is the result of Greek and Roman influence and philosophy packaged in the form of Christianity. In this worldview, most European-based nations exist. White people or people descended of European stock control the cultural complexities of language and culture. All of the Americas, Canada, Central America, Mexico, South America and the United States are the result of European culture. It is not wrong or racist. It just is.
European culture dominates the world. It is a truth that cannot be denied. It might not be liked or welcomed. We speak one of the European languages. You are reading English now! It is the way history unfolded. Again, it just is.
Understanding that our heritage and culture is influenced by and supports European culture now helps all people in the US understand why there exists White privilege. What is White privilege?
Let's change the name from White privilege to European Cultural Preference. Doing so provides a context from which to view White privilege that may be less offensive. Things that support the supremacy of the majority European psycho-social cultural construct such as art, music, custom, racial similarities and such, racial Politickers refer to as White privilege. Anything that supports preeminently the idea of accepted European heritage is a function of privilege. People who appear to be White, not just European--hair texture, skin color, cultural mannerisms and speech--are a part of European Cultural Preference.
It is not wrong for this to exist depending on the application. European Cultural Preference is used to profile and diminish people, which is negative. It is a ruler--a standard used by Western societies and most societies on the planet.
An example of this preference is that White people tend to be Christian. Islam does not typically have an association to being White. Christianity supports European culture and identity. Islam does not. Which one is more acceptable in the world?
The president of the USA supports sanctions against Islamic nations that do not share cultural aspects of Western Culture, which, of course, are European heritage friendly. Most Americans do not identify with Muslims culturally making it easier to accept disparaging statements regarding traditional practitioners. It will always exist. The idea of privilege will ever live to be more specific.
Privilege is not a concept or practice limited to White people, but the practice of all dominant cultures in any region on the planet. What makes it so powerful when White people exhibit it is the truth that European culture dominates around the world and every color/ethnicity of people perpetuate it. Think about it. In cultures dominated by European influence, society, whether purposely or unaware, teaches its people European cultural preference.
Examples are people of Asian descent who change their names to be less like their ancestral heritage and more like the dominant European culture. Africans who adjust their hair texture to appear less like their natural texture and more like European styles to fit in stating, "I just like that look."
Why do these people prefer that name change or look? The answer is because the dominant European culture affirms the practice of mimicking by others. It is the highest form of flattery. Adjusting to fit the lauded American dream lifestyle yields the reward of social acceptance and career advancement. It is a practice of all societies to include those who are willing to acclimate. It is also a tradition of all cultures to ridicule those who cannot assimilate. White people are culturally, politically, and financially, as a group, the most influential people on the planet, which is why so many in the US speak against European Cultural Preference.
Many Blacks hate Whites for history's sake. Anything a White person does to assist the Black communities can be twisted into a negative.
The Excuse to Hate
In an article called The Truth About Being Black in America I wrote:
After many generations of slavery and second-class citizenship, the sociological impact on this group [Black Americans] created a people with no reason to glorify the past as other Americans, and little reason to love a country that did not guarantee them constitutional rights.
Black Americans have a history of oppression in the United States; though the nation has made progress in recent years in racial relation despite opinions to the contrary. The cultural baggage from years of abuse will take several generations to disappear--and that is with everything going well.
Many Black Americans who have known no slavery or discrimination directly live in fear because of occurrences around the nation of Black men being killed by officers of the law for one reason or the other. Fear to see White Americans gather to protest a historical site of Confederate origin's right to exist though it represents oppression is a reminder that the US has a history that excluded Black Americans as citizens of equal worth.
Black Americans protest and some riot. Few attack White Americans who are going about conducting business because these misguided people are taught to hate and hurt White people. When these White people fight back, both sides cry foul.
Many Blacks hate Whites for history's sake. Anything a White person does to assist the Black communities cynics twist into a negative. If a White person popularizes a traditionally African American concept in fashion or music, it is called appropriation. If a White person helps a Black person from an indigent circumstance, detractors accuse that person of having a "White Savior" complex.
As sad as it sounds, discriminatory Black Americans are celebrated in the media as comedic geniuses as they use jocularity to come up with different ways to insult or demean Whites. This behavior affects the youth of both races causing hate on both sides. If a White comedian were to do the same as a Black comedian, regardless of European Cultural Preference, there would be a cry from many directions against that person.
Focusing on all the negativity of the Black American experience in America in an attempt to convince people that Blacks have experience disenfranchising abuses at the hands of White Americans has the psychological effect of creating frustrated and angry individuals.
Mormons are White according to most people questioned about it.
How does European Cultural Preference Relate to Mormonism?
Mormonism in the United States is a microcosm of US culture--White dominated US culture to the extreme and Black expressionism of equal passion to the extreme. Let me explain.
God restored the Church through Joseph Smith Jr. in the context of his European heritage. When the church spread around the world, all of its adherents had to accept a form of European culture along with the doctrines of the Restored Gospel for the leadership to consider them faithful.
When the Gentile nations started joining the early Christian church, which was full of Jews, the Jewish members began to teach the Greeks that they had to be circumcised as the Jewish members were according to the law of Moses. It was Jewish culture! Christianity was not supposed to be a different religion than Judaism. It was a fulfillment of the Law of Moses.
An apostle had to inform the members and early leaders that such a policy was not of God. Peter received a revelation to teach Gentiles the gospel and Paul explained it was folly to subject the new people of Christ to become Jews for cultural reasons just to fit into the church.
The same was true of the Church in modern times for a time. White members expected the new converts to accept their culture additionally. The misplaced sentiment among the faithful Jewish Christians mirrored later by a similar attitude among the Mormon Christians directly relates to the perceived supremacy of the prevailing cultural ideology. It was what it was, however.
Mormons are White according to most people questioned about it. In several polls taken of Mormons regarding race and demographics chose at random, the participants were all White and from the Intermountain West. When people think of Mormons, White people come to mind in the US. The consensus among Americans is that Mormons are White people from Utah. At one time, that was true; though it is not true anymore. Just like most "White" groups, Mormons discriminated against other groups of people, specifically Blacks.
There is too much history to relate how White people in the United States of varying religious persuasion discriminated against Black Americans to include here. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the largest and most well-known group of people called Mormons. Though the church teaches no racism tolerated now, its members did not and do not all practice racial harmony.
Mormons tend to believe what the majority of people in a White dominated nation think--believing in the supremacy of the majority culture and heritage. For years the members of the Church taught that as the people of other faiths accepted Mormonism, if their skins were dark, with righteousness, their skin complexion would become whiter. Mormonism relates to European Cultural Preference in that being White is righteous culturally and will result in more favorable standing with deity.
Some Mormons of differing ethnicities still teach and believe this way even though Church leaders have supported documents that state that dark skin does not equate to unrighteousness or disfavor with God. "Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form" (Race and the Priesthood last para).
Since the leadership of the Church has not explicitly (as of yet) stated that concepts taught in the past regarding the origins of Black Africans through Cain and Ham have never been right, some Mormons believe statements made by deceased leaders were once correct, at least. As a way to keep dissonance at bay, members of the Church used mental gymnastics to explain away incorrect statements by past leaders following Declaration 2 which extended priesthood and temple blessing to all worthy people regardless of race. The apologetic method to reconcile the faith to give the illusion of doctrinal continuity--that there was nothing taught errantly by past leader--is another way of cultural supremacy by using past leaders' statement regarding Blacks as a way of separating the chosen from the not so chosen people. To speak about it was to show a lack of faith. Leaders encourage people to move on with no explanation.
Percent of Religion is White Americans
Percent of Black Americans in Religion
As a Black person, how hard is it to know that the church I love once had living prophets who taught that my legacy, my family is to represent Satan on the earth as a curse and would not get the blessing that all other humans get in mortality?
Black Mormons are no exception to this behavior of Ethnocentrism as proof can be found on the web decrying the racist past of the LDS or lobbying Afrocentric versions of LDS doctrines. Being Black and Mormon is not limited to the perception of White supremacy but scans the spectrum of ideas as a million members of the Church of approximately 16 million identify as Black--with thousands living in the US as a unique minority and budding community of awareness.
In 1978, the Church ended a policy of exclusion towards people of Black African heritage from participating in the highest sacraments of the Church in its holy temples and ordination as ministers. Because all men in the Church are expected to hold the priesthood to bless their families, it was a devastating blow to new converts to the faith to realize they had joined an organization that taught the only reason a Black person could not be a priesthood holder or temple attender was due to his or her race.
To explain the reason this policy went into effect under the leadership of Brigham Young, second leader and prophet of the Church, well-intentioned members and leaders suggested theories that Blacks were the seed of Cain and therefore actively refrained from pre-mortal support of Jesus Christ. Black members of the church taught this fabrication along with the Whites members.
The leaders of the church in the First Presidency, the presiding council of the church, taught that the restriction was not a policy, but a directive from God. Of course, the members taught what our leaders taught. The members of the First Presidency are prophets. Why would the membership advance something different? If Moses said the Lord revealed to him to do a thing, who would disagree with him? This was the position of the Latter-day Saints.
Cognitive Dissonance: Theories
Brigham Young advanced his theories and spoke them as if God revealed them directly to him face-to-face about Black people and our natures. After declaring at a territorial gubernatorial address in Deseret (Utah) that the Negro shall not receive the priesthood until the Lord tells him otherwise because Blacks are not to lead or rule over Whites due to Cain's curse and Ham's curse through his son Cainan, President Young supported his stance with some distressing dogma.
He taught that black skin was the curse from Cain who slew Abel, and slavery or to be the servants of servants was the curse placed upon Ham's posterity. He never supported the abuse of Blacks and always considered us human. That, however, does not take away the decades of abuse members heaped on the faithful few Black Mormons because some White Mormons felt justified by President Young's racial leanings. He explained in warning what should happen to those who would seek to propagate with Blacks. Said he,
Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so! (exclamation point added)
President Young was the ordained prophet of God! Who would question his words? As a faithful member of the Church, I did not and do not question the words of this prophet.
He was not the only one. In a statement to a BYU President, Earnest L Wilkinson by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints August 17, 1951, was revealed the standing policy of the church. It read:
The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said, ̳Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their father‘s rejecting the power of the Holy Priesthood, and the law of God.‘ They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the Holy Priesthood, then that curse will be re-moved from the seed of Cain, and receive all the blessings we are entitled.... taken from John Lewis Lund's The Church and the Negro, p.89.
As a Black person, how hard is it to know that the church I love once had living prophets who taught that my legacy, my family is to represent Satan on the earth as a curse and would not get the blessing that all other humans get in mortality? It is mighty hard.
How can a faithful LDS Christian trust that what he or she hears from the leadership is from God if the words he or she hears or reads are not always the words FROM GOD!?
President Nelson offered the solution to this concern. Revelation.
President Nelson said during the April 2018 General Conference,
In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost... My beloved brothers and sisters, I plead with you to increase your spiritual capacity to receive revelation (Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives).
President Nelson challenges those of us with concerns to get personal revelation. It is a direct invitation to go unobstructed to Deity and get an answer from the source on matters.
We make excuses that there is some deeper understanding that was not apparent to most people and that we should trust in God. It felt wrong to some, but we would not allow one teaching or idea to destroy a lifetime of faith, which is a miracle apparent to our lives.
Some people claimed that God never commanded that the Blacks not receive the full fellowship in the church. Many Black Latter-day Saints do not accept the teachings of the past and never believed them. A former leader of the Genesis Group, an official auxiliary organization for Black members of the church in Utah, by the name of Darius Grey offered his opinion on the matter. After receiving a personal witness that the Ban on those of Black African descent from the priesthood and temple ordinances was not of God, he petitioned the president of the church (Gordon B. Hinckley at the time) if he could teach his views. Grey shares in the video below his experience.
Being able to move past all of that and still live the tenets of the Christian faith is what being a Black Mormon is about.
Darius Gray's Speech on Blacks and the Priesthood.
Being a Black American and a Mormon is its own crucible of faith. The history of the church and its treatment of Blacks is an ever-present reminder of what has occurred in the United States at the hands of Christians who claimed to worship Jesus Christ as a few took whips to the backs of human beings they refused to see as fellow brothers and sisters.
There is no official teaching from the Church explaining its policy toward Black people in the past, yet. However, it took an act of God to get the members of the church to accept Blacks as worthy people to enter the temples and participate equally in the church.
Black Latter-day Saint Cons
- Being Black and Mormon is wondering who will walk by and use some excuse to touch your hair uninvitedly.
- It is being occasionally reminded that there are not many of you by a well-meaning older person who says something offensive when trying to express appreciation for your presence.
- Being Black and Mormon in America is not always fitting in with the members of the congregation.
Black Latter-day Saint Pros
- Being Black and Mormon means to have a connection to God that brings a satisfaction that would otherwise be lost in a sea of confusion and doubt.
- It means to have direction and understanding of who you are, why you are here, and where you are going.
- It helps to connect you to your ancestors in a way that means everything when all they were to their slave owners in many cases were numbers on a slave manifest.
The Good things are common to all faithful members. Knowing that Jesus is real and God really talks to us if we have faith to hear Him is a hallmark of LDS Christians. Each member of the human family faces challenges inflicted on him or her by circumstances of life, heritage, education, temperament, the agency of others, and a host of other things. Being able to move past all of that and still live the tenets of the Christian faith is what being a Black Mormon is about. It is the ultimate goal of every Mormon to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and partaker of His grace. That's just the way it is.
© 2018 Rodric Johnson