The Untold Story of Black Mormons: DVD
Last week, I officially received my invitation to the “Mormon moment.” It came from Margaret Blair Young, a creative writing teacher at Brigham Young University. Author, editor, and film creator of several works on African American Mormons, Young has been presenting a series at Patheos on black Mormons (another good one here) that has been simply marvelous. This weekend, as my fantasy football team soundly defeated the only non-religious historian in our league, I took the time to watch her co-directed and co-produced film Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. It was definitely worth missing Derek Jeter break his ankle.
I watch a lot of religious history documentaries these days, at least more than I would like. I prefer my television to air shows like ESPN or films like Prometheus, but I’ll log the hours to watch God in America or that one on Sister Aimee from years back creatively titled ... wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, ... Sister Aimee. I like the music; I like the pictures; I find the aesthetic of Ken Burns-like documentary films quite soothing. Nobody Knows has these many of these qualities. Music introduces chapter titles which then use voice-overs, panned-over photographs, video footage, and interviews to bring the viewer from the 1830s to the 21st century. Our senses are pit against one another from the very beginning. The slave spiritual "Nobody Knows" resounds as we read "What comes to your mind, when you hear the word ... Mormon?" Visually, an African American man smiles at us in a close up. Sight, sound, and text provide different markers of meaning and the goal seems to be dissonance, a dissonance the film will try to explain and negotiate.
Nobody Knows was different from other documentary films, though, because of this dissonance. It did not have a story cleanly to show, but a problem cleverly to solve.The directors, producers, and participants never shied away from the central problem of how can one be black and Mormon? Why would one of “African descent” choose to be a part of a church that has long claimed those people are “cursed”? How could you function within an organization that bars your men from certain rites and rituals and who has its main university named after a fellow who counseled beheading for any white individual who married one of your racial group?
After narrating the history of several intrepid first African American Mormons, including Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James, the film spends most of its time on the late twentieth century. As we all know, for some reason in the 1960s and 1970s, the LDS altered its policies that restricted African American men from full priesthood rites. "People can think you're an idiot," explains one black Mormon. Martin Luther King III discusses how assumptions about Mormon racism continue to color the church and keep African Americans from it. Historian, author, and co-director and co-producer of this film Darius Gray states that he is "proud black man" whose parents were "proud of our ethnicity." He"embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ," Gray continued, and "that should say something." "I'm not stupid," Gray concluded, I'm not a fool, and I'm not an Uncle Tom"
In Nobody Knows, the answers are clear: mission, calling, and revelation. "I believe I chose to come to earth as a black man," explains one African American attorney. He repeats himself over and over. "I chose my mission." Others discuss hearing God call them to the church to be beacons of light - that African Americans were actually made to save the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This is the story of racialized missions within a racialized tradition. Nobody Knows is a powerful and intriguing saga, one that is still unfolding as well-meaning white Mormons sometimes ask what their black counterparts will look like as "white" in the celestial kingdom.
Eric Lott called the envious "love and theft" of some white racism - where whites pine for the cultural experiences of those deemed non-white. Others may read this use of music as an attempt to "blacken" Mormonism aurally. When we get to the 1978 "revelation", however, the music shifts from the spirituals to a vocal-less organ. Are African American cultural traditions subsumed within LDS musical norms?
The ultimate question, I guess, is this: is Nobody Knows worth watching? Most certainly! The stories are personal, compelling, and get to so many main questions in US religious history: the problems of race in American religions; the struggles between notions of religion as human-made and more-than-human-made; the role of various contexts, such as the Second Great Awakening and the Civil Rights Movements; and it leads to contemporary questions of the role of race and religion today. And Nobody Knows is only 70 minutes long - so easily built into 1 or 2 class periods. I definitely plan on using this when I teach US religious history again next fall.