Playing Jane: Black Mormon History and Memory

Paul Harvey

While our blog contributor Chris Jones is getting ready to ace his comprehensives, he sent along this outstanding piece by Harvard graduate student Max Mueller: "Playing Jane: The History of a Pioneer Black Mormon Woman is Alive Today," published online at the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin. Highly recommended reading, particularly if (like me) you know absolutely nothing about this subject. The article discusses the historical re-creation efforts of Jerri Halwell, who "plays" the remarkable character of Jane Manning James, an African American woman who served in Joseph Smith's household, became a convert, made the trek to Utah, and remained a faithful member of the Church until 1908. A brief taste from this piece (footnotes omitted):

Last summer, I went to Salt Lake City to look for Jane Manning James in the archives of the LDS Church History Library and the archives of the Utah Historical Society. I hoped that Jane would speak to me from scratchy microfiche and dusty letter-books. I hoped she would tell me how she dealt with the precarious place in which she lived out her life as a black Mormon pioneer in Zion, simultaneously at the center and on the margins of the nineteenth-century Mormon experience. I planned to "ask" her: How did you understand your status as a beloved member of the community, celebrated as a friend of the first prophet's family, as a pioneer of 1847, and as a steadfast member of the LDS Church? At the same time, how did you come to terms with LDS Church policy that, due to your race, defines you as innately cursed and thus unworthy to receive the same blessings as your fellow white saints?

Although this was my plan, during my time in Salt Lake City, I found that the archives are not the only or even the best place to find Jane. Certainly, the archives shed light on the question of how Jane in writing subtly challenged the Church's marginalization of blacks within Mormon history and within the Mormon community. But it was in my interviews with Jerri and in my observations of her reenactments that I discovered the canon is not closed on Jane's story. The legacy of Jane's black Mormon experience unfolds today in the lives of modern black Mormons like Jerri, who strike a precarious balance between their ongoing struggles with the Mormon "folklore" about black spiritual inferiority and the spiritual truth they find within their own Mormon testimonies of faith.

Continue reading here.


roger said…
Oh wow you just never think of early blacks in church history...