Representations of the Holy
Dr. Murray articulates the issue beautifully in Twice Tested by Fire:
Black America is the only culture to worship God in images and symbols that do not mirror its lived reality . . . God is portrayed as white, and so is Jesus, as are the disciples, prophets, and other biblical figures. Someone may ask, "What difference does it make?" Black churches are ministering mostly to people who have been indoctrinated with four centuries of the dogma that "white is right, black get back." Then to come to a house of worship and see the same message symbolically reinforced—well, this adds but little to the spiritual healing that is the charge of religion. (65)
Reverend Murray's solution to this problem for his own church was to hire an artist to delicately alter a European nativity picture to "show Jesus, Joseph and Mary in the color they more likely had been" (66). This alteration was made late at night to avoid political controversy. Later, the stained glass pictures in the First AME were also darkened.
During my fifty-seven years of life, the Civil Rights Movement has brought us all to the threshold of Dr. King's dream. We have not yet crossed it, though our heads are turned toward the promised land.
The year before my birth, May 17, 1954, Brown v. the Board of Education set a standard that would take years to implement—and which, frankly, is not being currently met. Ideally, all students in the U.S. would have education of equal quality. This meant that integration would become part of education. Susie Mae Thomas, my previously mentioned friend, was involved in that integration. She was assigned to take classes in domestic service at her high school, and insisted that she wanted a better career than being some white person's maid. She and three other students began attending other classes. They were taken from these classes, handcuffed, and forced into police cars several times because of their protests. Finally when they arrived at the school, still determined to take the classes they wanted, a "sea of brown" (according to Tamu Thomas-Smith) greeted them. Latinos, Blacks, and Asians were giving their bodies and voices to support them. Susie and her friends were allowed to take classes that would prepare them for something better than domestic service. Eventually, Susie became a civil rights leader in San Bernardino, California.
In the same year of Brown v. Board, Mormon apostle Mark E. Petersen spoke at Brigham Young University, discussing segregation aggressively. This was around the time I was conceived. I would grow up in the white privilege he advocated:
I think I have read enough to give you an idea of what the Negro is after. He is not just seeking the opportunity of sitting down in a cafe where white people sit. He isn't just trying to ride on the same streetcar or the same Pullman car with white people. From this and other interviews I have read, it appears that the Negro seeks absorption with the white race. He will not be satisfied until he achieves it by intermarriage. That is his objective and we must face it. We must not allow our feelings to carry us away, nor must we feel so sorry for Negroes that we will open our arms and embrace them with everything we have. Remember the little statement that they used to say about sin, "First we pity, then endure, then embrace." (Petersen, Aug. 27, 1954)
I was twenty-three when the priesthood revelation was made public—that the LDS priesthood would now be available to "all worthy males." The restriction was over.
But that revelation, now called Official Declaration 2, said nothing about abandoning the ideas of curses or other speculations about why blacks had been denied the priesthood. Recent statements by the LDS Church newsroom have proclaimed that we condemn all racism, including that in our own past. But will we abandon the vestiges of racism if we don't recognize them for what they are? There are many Mormons who still believe in the Curse of Cain but don't consider themselves racist.
We are yet on a journey to wholeness. I take comfort from Dr. Murray's book, which is a poignant memoir and a series of sermons:
The valley of deep shadows will never disappear, so we must walk the walk and talk the talk in companionship with the One who commits to being with us always, enjoining us to fear no evil. And coming to life as a student, we never really graduate, for we receive the cap and gown only when we reach the end of this road. (86)
This stained glass depiction of Christ was given to the Sixteenth Street Birmingham Church by the country of Wales. One hand pushes back past oppression, while the other is open to the future and forgiveness. And Jesus is black.
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.