Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part III

By February 25, 2016

This is the third and final post in a series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. Part one and part two can be read here and here.

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Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, August 2011.

Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, August 2011.

Another purpose of the Friends meetings is to provide instruction. Most black members in the Durham Stake tend to be converts to the Church, many of them having converted fairly recently. Every month a theme is chosen and one person appointed to direct the conversation or to provide a lesson. Themes include “outreach,” “fellowship,” “true v. false doctrine,” or “being a black Mormon today.”[1] In September 2011 Brother Isaiah Cummings taught a lesson titled “Blacks in the Bible.” Brother Cummings has apparently written a book on this subject but has been unable to find a publisher. I was not present at this meeting but Christina shared with me a copy of his lesson outline and it is also posted at the group’s Facebook page. In that lesson he taught that “When you begin to look at ‘Biblical History,’ it is important to realize that the world had two (2) beginnings… The World “before” the Flood and the World ‘after’ the Flood. Hence, the Black Race had two sets of Parents: 1) Cain and his wife and 2) Ham and his wife Egyptus.” The lineage Brother Cummings constructs to illustrate the history of Blacks in the Bible is supported by scriptural references to the Bible and the Book of Abraham in the Mormon book of scripture, the Pearl of Great Price.

I must confess to being a little surprised by the content of Brother Cummings lesson. A conception that revisionist Mormons have often tried to work against is the popular idea, among many Mormons and Protestants, that a black skin was the result of a divine curse for disobedience, either in the figure of Cain or Ham or Ham’s son Canaan. Biblical exegetes and religious scholars have pointed out that this is never clearly stated in the Bible and is the result of long Christian tradition—a tradition that has often been used as a justification for slavery and other pernicious practices.[2] I was somewhat surprised, then, to find a straightforward acceptance and promotion of the identities of Cain, Ham, and Cannan as members of the “Black Race” in a lesson taught by a black Latter-day Saint in one of the Friends meetings.[3] But it is interesting here that these identifications of Cain, Ham, Egyptus, and “The 1st Pharaoh of Egypt (Pearl of Great Price, Abraham 1:24-25)” are being identified as Black not so much to justify or explain priesthood restriction—though that may be an accepted part of the narrative—but to claim a place in biblical history. Thus the same narratives that have typically been utilized for purposes of exclusion can be taken up by those they were meant to exclude for purposes of inclusion—in this case, for inclusion in the biblical narrative. Thus, while the cursed figure of Ham (or of Cain) has often functioned as what one scholar has called “a vehicle for Black-hatred,”[4] as Isaiah Cummings has shown us, Ham can also be a biblical Patriarch—a figure of veneration, or at least one that black Christians can recognize as one of their own, laying claim to a black biblical heritage.

But if Brother Cummings’s lesson evidences a different purpose for deploying the curse of Cain/Curse of Ham narrative, it still affirms that reading of the historical record that sees the mark placed upon Ham or Cain as a skin of blackness, putting Cummings in line with much of what might be referred to as a more conservative and traditional Mormon hermeneutical tradition. It would appear, then, if his lesson is taken as representative, that, somewhat counter to my expectations, the purpose of the Friends meetings has not been so much to offer a revisionist view of the Mormon past so much as to provide support to black members who may feel lonely, self-conscious, or isolated among so many white members and so few black members. The African American cultural celebration is likewise not aimed so much at historical revisionism, in the sense described above, so much as to promote cultural exchange and exposure in terms of gospel singing and breaking bread together.

There is, however, an important sense in which both the group and the celebration try to promote historical revisionism, and that is by asserting a history and heritage of black Mormon pioneers. The second part of Brother Cummings’ lesson was titled “Blacks in the Church after the Restoration by Joseph Smith,” and it focused on asserting the presence of several Black pioneer Latter-day Saints in the history of the early church Restoration: Elijah Abel, Green Flake, Jane Manning, Samuel Chambers, John Brown—names that have not typically appeared in the grand narrative of Mormon history. By asserting them here, as “Black Pioneers,” Cummings is claiming a place, recovering a place—a past that Black Mormons can call their own. “The presentation by Isaiah was well received and quite informative,” the minutes of the meeting explain. “Perhaps what was most eye-opening was the number of ‘pioneer Blacks’ who joined the Church soon after the Church was organized in 1830 showing that Blacks had always been members of the Church despite not being able to hold the Priesthood.”[5]

To Christina, this historical narrative of black pioneers, of black church members who were present at and contributed to the major events in Mormon history, is a vital element in her sense of inclusion and belonging in the church. The names of black Mormon pioneers have become iconic to her, connecting all the dots of the Mormon saga. “I mean, Elijah Abel—he was right there with Joseph Smith,” she told me. “You know, he helped build the Nauvoo Temple and everything. And you got Jane Manning James—she took and helped out the Relief Society and stuff. She paid her tithes. And she walked 800 miles to get to Nauvoo… [and] you’ve got Green Flake—wild name [laughs]—but he helped Brigham Young…when they moved, he helped them bring the Saints to Utah. He made numerous trips back and forth. You know, you’ve got a lot of people, a lot of black pioneers that were right there.”[6]

This narrative of black pioneers is informed by three books Christina read which were gifted her by other church members. The books are part of a series, titled Standing on the Promises, co-authored by Margaret Blair Young, an English professor at Brigham Young University, and former Genesis Group president Darius Gray. The series begins with the stories of Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James, some of the earliest black Mormon converts—and important players in the priesthood controversy—and culminates in the organization of the Genesis Group, the announcement of the priesthood revelation, and the beginnings of temple work for deceased black pioneers.[7]

These figures have not generally been a part of the grand narrative of Mormon church history. In general, Young and Gray’s narrative can be read largely as an effort to attach the names and faces of black Latter-day Saints to the grand narrative—with events like the organization of the Genesis Group and the priesthood revelation taking a much more prominent position as the culminating events in the narrative of black Mormon history. It is not a story that is generally presented to new members in their missionary lessons. Christina did not know anything of this story when she was baptized and became a member of the church. “When I first joined the church, …it was just the stereotypical thing: people say, there are no black Mormons [laughs]. But, you know, there have been black Mormon since day one, really.” This is a story and a heritage Christina tries to share with other black Latter-day Saints. “These are some of the black pioneers that I offer for some of the people in our group to read. Cause there’s three beautiful books by Darius McCrey [sic] of our church… They are beautifully written about our black pioneers.” Christina notes that “new converts are happy to note that, yes! there was blacks all along.” “This is new information,” she exclaims. Becoming aware of these stories and sharing them with others, Christina explains, “opens up a lot of eyes.”[8]

Opening eyes is one of Christina Stitt’s main goals with the Friends meetings and the African American cultural celebration—for black and white Latter-day Saints alike. “As long as you’re willing to open up your mind, and your heart and your eyes, you’ll learn. …that’s part of why we started the African American program.” Accordingly, Christina and other Friends members can get frustrated when (white) church leaders are invited and fail to attend. Brother Lee Cook noted that, even though stake leaders have been supportive in allowing the group to use church facilities, they have not yet been able to get any ward bishopric members or stake leaders to attend any of their meetings. One member mentioned that, even though the Friends meeting is on the bulletin every month, the bishopric will not announce it from the pulpit. Lee Cook explained that “we are not an official church group,” implying that it is a matter of policy.[9] That explanation did not satisfy Sister Stitt. “Uhmm, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts…?” implying that other groups meeting outside of general church meetings get announced, then why not Friends meetings?[10]

But Christina is very positive about what they have been able to accomplish. “They should write us up in the Ensign,” Christina told me as I interviewed her about the African American cultural celebration. “Nobody anywhere has done this. I mean, we broke ground.” [11] Christina is well aware of the significance of what she and those who have supported and worked with her in Chapel Hill and Durham have achieved. Interestingly, when Christina is able to achieve her objectives, Utah again functions as a signifier to mark where she has taken the Chapel Hill Saints from and where she has taken them to. “I’ve got a choir here,” she exclaimed during the Friends meeting, “right up from Utah, singing gospel.” The symbolic—and also quite literal—space between Utah and Chapel Hill is both Jordan and Exodus. When she has gotten white folks moving in sync and singing gospel, the Saints have finally crossed over and have arrived in the promised land.

*   *   *

Postscript: As of 2016 the monthly Friends meetings have been suspended. In addition to time constraints on the organizers, there was also a lack of support or involvement from local church leaders. Although of great benefit, a grassroots initiative for a special focus group, not a standard church program, was difficult for leaders to support . (Church leaders did ask Brother Lee Cook, however, to assist black members with various needs and questions about the Church’s project to index the Freedmen’s Bureau records of former slaves.) The annual African American Night of Celebration has continued, though it has been somewhat downsized and simplified some from past celebrations. Though the group has faced challenges, as Christina Stitt put it, “we still keep right on.”

[note: The postscript to this post has been reworded to better reflect the feelings of one or more of the participants in the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent group.]

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[1] See The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Friends-of-Latter-Day-Saints-of-African-Descent/231064263580357

[2] See Mauss, All Abraham’s Children.

[3] I was not present at this meeting, held in September 2011, but Christina gave me a copy of the handout that outlines the lesson, which is also posted, with some minutes from the meeting, on the group’s Facebook page. See October 7, 2011, post at Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, at http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Friends-of-Latter-Day-Saints-of-African-Descent/231064263580357 (accessed April 26, 2012).

[4] Benjamin Braude, “Michelangelo and the Curse of Ham: From a Typology of Jew-Hatred to a Genealogy of Racism,” in Writing Race Across the Atlantic World: Medieval to Modern, ed. Philip D. Beidler and Gary Taylor (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 79, 81. Braude sees the myth of Noah and his Sons as “foundational for nearly half a millennium in the Euro-American construction of race and ethnicity.” He traces a gradual shift in images of Ham from the 13th to the 19th century as moving from being predominantly (but not solely) “a vehicle for Jew-hatred to a vehicle for Black-hatred.” “Ham was the archetypical Other,” writes Braude. “Whatever the phobia of the moment, Ham was it… In the course of his long history Ham was Egyptian, heretic, sinner, satyr, sodomite, Jew, Muslim, Mongol, Black, Asian, African. He was also both master of empire and slave, a paradoxical synthesis that Hegel could love and appreciate.”

[5] The lesson outline is posted on the group’s Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Friends-of-Latter-Day-Saints-of-African-Descent/231064263580357 (accessed May 1, 2012).

[6] Sitt, Interview, April 19, 2012.

[7] Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aiden Gray, One More River to Cross (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 2000); Bound for Canaan (2002); The Last Mile of the Way (2003). Series title: Standing on the Promises.

[8] Stitt. Interview, April 19, 2012.

[9] The LDS Church has, as a matter of policy, been somewhat wary of independent study groups and events not sponsored by the Church, which may explain the unwillingness to announce Friends meetings from the pulpit. Announcements are printed in the weekly ward bulletin, however, which is distributed to ward members.

There may also be some brewing opposition to the Friends meetings on this point, since it is not an official entity of the Church. Brother Lee Cook’s bishop expressed some concern when the meetings of the Friends group came to his attention. “How do we know false doctrines aren’t being taught?” Another stake leader recently asked Brother Cook to change the name of the meeting from “group” to “fireside.” He was apparently more comfortable with that wording, Brother Cook explained to me. Christina took some offense to the change, explaining that everyone else has a group—young men, young women—but that she figured maybe this group was just “too black.” (personal coversations)

[10] Dialogue here is taken from field notes taken during Friends meeting, April 21, 2012.

[11] The Ensign is an official publication (a monthly magazine) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the main organ of the church that is distributed to all subscribing members.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Current Events Intellectual History Oral History Politics Race Reflective Posts Theology


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