The Real Elder Price
The Real Elder Price, Part 5: The Face of the Other
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of essays that examines the real world of Mormon missionaries and the real Elder Price. Read the author's Introduction.
According to The Book of Mormon Musical, the Ugandan attitude toward God is "Hasa Diga Eebowai"—a fully gesticulated, profane curse against Heaven for the hardships of African life: starvation, AIDS, droughts, etc.
South Park humor style. But hardship in Africa is no joking matter. Missionaries there meet the realities of governmental corruption, poverty, disease, domestic abuse, alcoholism, and more. No missionary serves his full time without coming face to face with tragedy.
The Ugandans in The Book of Mormon Musical are as Americans might imagine them. The invented Ugandan curse is something Americans might predict—however inaccurately. Where there is so much death and devastation, we might presume that families would not bond tightly to their children; that in places where early death is common, parents would grieve only superficially, recover quickly, and then have more babies. "Hasa Diga Eebowai" makes that sort of supposition ("Try living here a couple days—watch all your friends and family die!"), and depicts the Ugandans shrugging over their harsh realities, and simply throwing their hands up. Though I find most of the songs in the musical fun and often accurate, "Hasa Diga Eebowai" is not one I will listen to again. I believe it perpetuates dangerous assumptions.
Why dangerous? Assuming that we can assess another's selfhood and predict reactions can shrink our compassion and reduce the other to a mere extension of our own experience, something we can contain within our finite expectations. These flattened supposals can get a laugh in a Broadway satire, but in real life, the telescopic imagination is called for. We are asked to gaze as far, as deep, and as magnanimously as possible. The only justified assumption is that we never know another's heart.
|Elder Price with a child|
Of course, the Mormons in the play are also flattened to suit the structures of satire, but we recognize a few of their characteristics. The mission president, for example, appears as the proverbial, patronizing white guy, oblivious to how condescending his words are. He compliments the missionaries on the work they are doing with the "noble Africans"—echoing the reference to Native Americans as "noble savages" during the 19th century, before they were corralled and exiled to the Trail of Tears. He pronounces the elders "one with Africa," and they eagerly believe them. Still utterly naïve, they sing "I Am Africa," using images from Disney's Lion King, and proclamations like "We are the Lost Boys of the Sudan" and "We are the tears of Nelson Mandela."
The real Elder Price and the Mormon boys called to Uganda or the DR-Kinshasa missions did indeed weep with the Africans, and tethered their hearts to them in ways that will affect them for the rest of their lives. There was no self-congratulation involved.
Margaret Blair Young is the president of the Association for Mormon Letters and has published eight books—six novels and two short story collections. Three of the novels were co-authored with Darius Gray and give the history (documented) of Black Latter-day Saints. She and Gray made the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, which is currently under contract with the Documentary Channel and showing nationally. She has written six encyclopedia articles and other scholarly papers on Blacks in the western United States, and particularly Black Mormons. She teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University.