Nobody Knows the Curses We've Seen

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.

There is so much to analyze within the film. The use of African American music (composed largely outside the Mormon canopy) to structure the story of Mormonism is fascinating move, one that could, perhaps, strike some as what 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 Help
The background images also had stories to tell. The Christus never appears (I know, we're all so sad about that :). But within the first five minutes, a clearly non-African American Jesus appears on the wall of a home. And that's not all. White Jesus figures run through the background of the film as they do in The Help and The Apostle. (shocking that I would pay attention to those, right). The visual images are never commented upon, but they add another layer of meaning. We're seemingly not the only audience. White Jesus is, perhaps, an overseer; perhaps he's a friend who cares naught for the color of one's skin (in this world or the ones before or after); perhaps black Mormons have so many other thorny issues to deal with within the church that this is simply too much to bring up. Whatever the meanings, certainly there is much more reckoning to be had as the church deals with its new black members, its art, and its embodied theological "folklore."

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.


Christopher said…
Excellent review, Ed. I appreciate the perspective you bring to this, and especially like your consideration of the stories told by background images. Thanks!
Such good points, Edward! The picture you have of the beautiful woman next to a white Jesus is of Tamu Smith, most recently seen on _The Daily Show_ as one of a panel of black Mormons responding to the interviewer's shock that there would be any LDS members of color. It was she who gave me a picture of an African American Jesus. This picture had become controversial in the BYU Bookstore because someone claimed it was "blasphemous." Tamu led the fight to get it back into the store after it was removed. She succeeded, though after it sold out, it was not re-stocked. The resolution to the challenges the film presents won't come until there is a clear statement repudiating past folklore from the highest church leaders. Whenever the priesthood restriction comes up, we Mormons still hear about curses, even from young members. I heard it last year from a 16-year-old in my Sunday school class.
Edward J. Blum said…
Margaret Young has SO MANY fascinating stories to tell ... and to help others to tell as well. Thanks for you work!!!
To be honest, reading _The Color of Christ_ opened some storehouses of memory and curiosity. I was born in 1955, and so have memories of the Civil Rights Movement from a Mormon perspective. I also remember when the Christus was put in the SLC Visitors' Center, and the first time I saw it (1966 or 67). I do have a picture of Pastor Cecil Murray by the Christus, which I put in the Patheos article about LDS Church president Gordon B. Hinckley's apology to Pastor Murray for the Church's involvement in slavery and racism.
Edward J. Blum said…
Here it is, folks
Here's the link to _The Daily Show_ featuring several people from our doc.

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