Friday, July 17, 2009

In my Father's house are many mansions.

Ten years ago, I made my first black friend.

Don't judge me. There just aren't that many 'round these parts.

Okay, go ahead and judge me, but please wait for the full story first.


Black fella wanders by as I am listening to Quincy Jones's gospel/soul/jazz/rap take on Handel's Messiah, which (as it so happens) is one of his favorite records. Up strikes a conversation, just like that. He tells me of his conversion to the LDS church and how his family thought he was bonkers. About how he moved to Utah to attend BYU, not telling his family that he had decided to serve a Mormon mission until he was already in the Missionary Training Center, so as to avoid endless debate on the topic. He laughs, recalling how they wired money to him in the MTC, stating that they were sure he'd been brainwashed into the mission idea, and explaining that they wanted him to use the wired money to bribe his way out of the missionary cult prison compound thingy. About how he had gone on to serve a two-year mission in Italy and graduate from BYU and for some bizarre reason (I was dying to know but didn't ask), settle in the Provo area. He insists that despite the culture shock he'd experienced in transitioning between life as a South Carolina Baptist and that of a Utah Mormon, the only moments he regrets joining the LDS church are while sitting in a mostly-white congregation each Sunday and listening to us warble the hymns sans fire or feeling.

This is just the coolest thing, thunk I. He didn't seem angry at me for being white -- I was sure most black people must be at least miffed at white people. (I am exceedingly white, to be sure.) And I was mostly able to sidestep the topic of my cushy life as a privileged middle class white girl and how spineless I was by comparison. So far, so good.

Bonus: if there was any question as to whether my prior lack of black acquaintances meant I was racist, here was the answer: I had a Bonafide Black Buddy, folks! I was now certified un-racist! I'm surprised I didn't ask him to pose for a photo with me as hard proof.

He was more than a novelty, though -- he was friendly, intelligent, a storyteller. I started to have a crush on him because, you see, I get gooey over good conversationalists. I'd never been smitten with a black fella before.

Soooo here's where it gets twelve times more embarrassing.

But must continue in the interest of full disclosure.

What follows is the progression in my thinking over the subsequent weeks and months of our acquaintance:

Stage 1: I'm sure he's going to eventually ask me out, and what if we hit it off? And what if it got really serious and we got married? How would I deal with having babies that would probably look really different from me?

Stage 2: Okay, I've embraced the concept of sweet brown babies. But how would my parents respond? And holy Hannah – my grandparents?? They're good people, but they're from those transition generations and they still struggle a bit.....

Stage 3: Okay, I'm pretty sure I could convince my good-hearted elders to embrace the concept of a good-hearted black in-law and sweet brown grandbabies, but WHY WON'T HE ASK ME OUT ALREADY??

Stage 4: Ohhhhh, right. He's a way better person than I am. And he's in really good shape. And he doesn't eat sugar. At all. Ever.

Yes indeed, that was the internal monologue, and it took me several months to realize what I'd been doing. I had seen Quality Human Being and Stellar Latter-Day Saint Who Just Happens to Be Black and somewhere in my subconscious I'd reasoned thusly: I'm not getting any dates with white men because I'm not terribly sexy/sassy/saucy/whatever. Surely this poor man must be as dateless as I due to the fact that he is a black person in snowy-white Utah.* If I can be the Noble One to look past his skin color and grace him with my pasty affection I can get a better companion than I deserve simply because he has the misfortune of living in a land where low-grade pearls generally trump premium onyx (feel free to substitute your own cheesy color-themed metaphor here).

'Twas an icky epiphany. In my feeble attempt to be open-minded I'd failed to realize that it was entirely possible that he didn't see himself as a victim of his situation -- he certainly never acted like he did -- and that, though sincere in his friendship, He Just Wasn't That Into Me (as the kids say). That that possible future I'd toyed with in my head would be a condescension for him, not for me. That he might have his own misgivings about freckled albino descendants with soulless blue eyes. That he might rather remain alone than have to explain to his mother why he'd settled.

I've seen the same phenomenon since I moved to Salt Lake -- but unfortunately it's being played out rather than just imagined. A beautiful and whip-smart black LDS woman I know has been endlessly dating a white fellow who, while apparently not a bad guy, is nowhere in her league (in my not-so-humble opinion). Seems to me that he's stringing her along, wasting her youth. I suspect he realizes, whether consciously or subconsciously, that her skin color means fewer romantic opportunities and fewer romantic opportunities means that she'll put up with a lot more nonsense and a lot less substance than a white girl of lesser spiritual or intellectual gifts ever would have to. Of course, she appears to be the victim of the same thing I was doing all those years ago, so I must stop short of throwing stones at her beau...

Here's where you beg me to shut up and get a journal and/or a therapist.

I'm almost done.

So these dead, bloated memories bobbed back to the surface of my mind a couple weeks ago when I attended a screening of the excellent new documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.** I knew most of the broader historical information on this topic, but the outstanding element of the documentary was the interviews with black Mormons (African-American Mormons, to be more specific), many of whom joined the church before the priesthood ban was lifted in 1978. These are hopeful, faithful people and few seemed terribly troubled about the ban itself, but many expressed disappointment at how white members of the church often tried to explain the reasons for the ban (or excuse their own racist behavior or that of their ancestors) using false doctrine. They talk candidly of their individual struggles to reconcile their complete devotion to the LDS church with hurtful behavior -- some well-intentioned, some malicious -- of their white fellow-Saints. It is quite wonderful to watch. I get to pat myself on the back for all the stuff I would never do (the nerve of some people!) and confront things I'm still inadvertently thinking or doing that contribute to the problem. Not all of it is easy to watch, but it is clearly a strong step forward; it is cathartic, honest, hopeful.

As I've reflected on the film in the last several days and what it Means in the larger context of a faith that claims divine origins, I've noted that while Joseph Smith revealed many ludicrously forward-thinking doctrines, most of his followers have taken many generations to be dragged (kicking and screaming) onto the spiritual high road he laid out for them. Basic Word of Wisdom compliance took over 80 years and ultimately the threat of exclusion from our beloved temples. Most of us are still eying the radical Law of Consecration suspiciously despite Joseph's explanation that it is an absolute requirement of a covenant people. The seemingly ludicrous enormity of tracing family lines back more than a few generations for the purpose of temple work staggered even the most visionary early Mormons, who fell back on sealing themselves to church leaders until Wilford Woodruff proclaimed that it was time to actually believe what God had said and trust that if we tried to make genealogists of ourselves, heaven would open up technological doors. And though the full racial inclusion that Joseph demonstrated in the 1830s and 1840s*** was officially restored over 30 years ago (after 130+ years of partial exclusion following Joseph's death), many of us still have work to do on our individual hearts and minds, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.

Those who tell their stories in this movie know that we will get there – they know that Zion will happen.

But soonish would be nice, they say.

Amen, my brothers and sisters.

* Where there is still some cultural resistance to the idea of interracial marriage, though this is not doctrinally supported.

** Which I now own on DVD, so if you want to see it, I'm your girl. If you want to own it yourself, you can buy it here. If you're looking to pay less, Benchmark Books might also have a few left at their slightly discounted price.

*** Some great stuff I'd never heard about less-known early black Mormon priesthood holders is included on the DVD's special features. And also a 1954 take-no-prisoners sermon by Elder Spencer W. Kimball on the evil of racism, especially within the Church. My lands, it's fierce and fiery! And there's muchmuchmuch more. You really need to get your hands on this DVD.


Gawain said...

Thanks for this post. I've had some of the same thoughts as you, especially when I spent my time in Jamaica, about the Priesthood, blacks, and the raw deal they've gotten from church members. I'm certainly going to track down this documentary.

Cindy said...

I've had those same feelings about some guys who I think should like me but they don't. There's a guy in the ward who has me all riled up like that. You're funny.

Anonymous said...

Amen. I find similar thought patterns in myself. I always have to be on the hunt for that ever-lurking condescension.

Amy said...

I am proud to call you my sister.

Anonymous said...

Oh I adore your blog. I stop by every couple of months. I'm the Anon that posted on your Christmas music post. I think the way your brain works is super-D-duper.

Belladonna said...

Thanks for the tip on the documentary. I had not heard of it. You continue to amaze me with your willingness to admit to blatant human feelings that most of us would deny to the bone.

Stephen said...

Your sofa-size heart, big barking brain, and hilarious wit make you the Eternal Catch for any who is man enough to sugar-up and get with the program. Your color-blind patience with the Other Gender will be rewarded.

Marie said...

Gawain -- I hope you found a copy. If not let me know and you can borrow mine.

Cindy -- He should like you, by gum. I'm believing more and more that most of the men in that ward don't really want to get married anyway -- too settled in their comfortable lives. They're just there so as to appear to be trying, so their mothers will stop weeping over them.

Anonymous MEH -- Yes, must be vigilant. But I do have a little rant: I'm sick of the term "racist." So loaded and so carelessly used for so long that it's become almost useless. We need a word or set of conceptualizations that allow us to confess our imperfect perceptions of the Other without having to either a) pretend that we don't notice the differences or b) be lumped together with the KKK when we admit to those lingering imperfections. I feel sorry for my parents' and grandparents' generation who had to reprogram themselves in the span of a lifetime after inheriting millennia of racial cruelty, and then are often berated by those of my generation when they sheepishly admit to lingering prejudices. If you've had something preached to you by your society from the cradle and you believe it, you're no great moral force. That's why it bothers me when I see it in me, and less when I see it in them.

Amy -- The feeling is entirely mutual.

Anonymous #2 -- I adore you for adoring my blog. Let's get married!

Belladonna -- Well, thanks! I hope it doesn't veer into Emotional Exhibitionism. That's not my goal, but we hermitish types do sometimes lose our social bearings when presented with an audience.

Stephen -- That is very kind. Thank you. Sounds very like a prophecy, and I'm holding you to it. If I die husbandless, you'll be hearing from my lawyer and/or my irate ghost.

Marie said...

Not that anyone is likely to read this old post and all its comments, but I would like to clarify my last comment, which I think could be misinterpreted. Violent, malevolent racism is alive and well, so we of course still need the word "racist." And my posting shows that (strictly speaking) ten years ago, in spite of my good intentions, I was still racist, if racism is defined as making assumptions about a person based on their race. No, scratch that. I still AM racist by that definition. Less and less all the time, however (except as regards the French).

And that's the realm of racism which I think needs additional terminology if the goal is unification rather than just semantics. While the term may strictly apply to those of us who want to be better but are still lacking, I don't think flinging about such jarring terms is terribly useful in such cases. If the flawed person has good intentions, being classed with racist idealogues serves only (in my experience) to make them freeze whenever they see a person of another race, worried that any slip in language or will win them that label, and consequently they never get the chance to have transforming experiences with the Other. Perhaps the harshness of the term "racist" is a useful deterrant to careless speech and action. But I don't think it does much for changing people's actual feelings. My grandmother, intending a compliment, once hollered too loudly at a jazz concert "those black people sure have great rhythm!" and when the story was recounted by younger family members, it was assumed that the proper response was exasperation. My grandma, as I said before, would have struggled with a black in-law, but she bore no ill will toward black people and that positive-but-ignorant attitude was a long, long way beyond the world view presented to her as a child. She was absolutely, by definition, a racist. However, I don't think that telling her this would have been useful in changing anything more than her comments. The only cure for her lingering flaws would have been giving her close interaction with good black people. She didn't have that in her life, and if she had I'm confident it would have changed her, because she was a good (read: trying to be better) woman who knew how to recognize goodness in others.