Representations of the Holy
The authors also acknowledge the place of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as "part of a broad and sweeping revolution." Mormons "were part of and participated in the birth of the white American Christ," they claim (77).
As a Mormon deeply involved in race issues, I am aware of the particular relevance of Mormonism to their thesis.
Only two weeks ago, I invited a thirteen-year-old girl of African lineage to accompany me to Genesis (www.ldsgenesisgroup.org ), the Church's support group for Latter-day Saints of African descent, organized officially in 1971 when blacks were still banned from the temple and all privileges associated with the priesthood. I had taken her once before. I thought she'd decline after a day full of meetings. I was wrong. Not only did she accept, she jumped up and down and said, "Yes! Yes! That's the only place I can go where I'm not the only one who looks like me!" It can be hard to be a black child in Utah.
Sistas in Zion (Tamu Thomas-Smith and Zandra Vranes) were the Genesis speakers, and used humor, faith, and song in their presentation. Afterward, we had testimony time. I added mine, remembering when I first started attending Genesis and when I took the Genesis youth to my grandparents' cabin in Island Park. We went to Yellowstone. One of the young men (now deceased) was afraid to jump into the river where we were swimming. I treaded water with my feet and held out my arms, assuring him that I wouldn't let him drown, that I knew how to swim. After five tries, he finally fell into my arms. As promised, I caught him, and he laughed.
I remembered other times when Tamu or her grandmother, Susie Mae Thomas, had opened their arms for me when my children were making bad choices and I was fearful. We were a community, a family, holding our arms out to one another. There was even a time when a friend came to join a discussion and said, "Oh my gosh! Margaret is white! I mean, I knew, but I hadn't seen it." We had evolved into a community where "race" was incidental. Could we have been together in 1977 with the same feelings of friendship? I would guess not. In fact, when Susie Mae joined the LDS Church and went to her first meeting as a Mormon, a woman tapped her on the arm and said, "This is a white church." Susie quit the church right then, but returned a decade later. When my co-author, Darius Gray, joined in 1964 and went to his first meeting as a convert, a little girl looked at him in terror, and then ran away shouting, "Mommy! A Nigger!"
It plays both ways, of course. When Darius Gray and I were invited to Jacksonville, Florida to present firesides and information on black pioneers, a black leader there saw my photo and said, "Oh no. No, you are not bringing her. We don't need white folks to tell us our own history." He was eventually persuaded to give me a chance. It was he who confessed his initial resistance to me, years after we had become dear friends.
These are the tensions Mormons still live with, and which continue to surface throughout America, showing themselves more than usual in current politics.
Blum and White are right that "representations of the holy bec[o]me crucial for the nation's identity and struggles." The implications of that statement suggest that representations of the unholy also become crucial for national and communal identity and framework. Racism depicts "other" races as unholy in some ways. Perceiving another as inferior infers that they are lacking in some divinity that "we" in our designated framework—either cultural or religious—possess. They are cursed by God, perhaps, as Mormons and other religions taught about blacks for years, and therefore not entitled to the same blessings as the "we." They are other.
Margaret Blair Young teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. Her best known novels include the Standing on the Promises trilogy, co-authored with Darius Gray. These three books give the history, with some fictional liberties taken, of Black Mormon pioneers. The updated and revised versions will soon be available through Zarahemla Press and at Amazon.com. Gray and Young also made the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, now available wherever LDS books are sold, and shown monthly on the Documentary Channel. Young is currently working on a film about Mormon missionaries in Africa, titled Heart of Africa.