By VELINCIA VELJASEVIC
A new book by Darron Smith and Newell Bringhurst seeks to shed light on the status of blacks after the 1978 revelation, which allowed all worthy males, regardless of race, to hold the priesthood.
“Black and Mormon” will be distributed nationwide the first week in October by the University of Illinois Press. Smith, a part-time BYU sociology professor, said the book’s purpose is to educate the public on the history of blacks in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and draw attention to former racial folklore and cultural practices that continue to impact the conversion of blacks.
Smith said the book is intended to facilitate social change, not criticize the LDS Church. The product of a three-year collaboration, “Black and Mormon” is a collection of academic essays aimed at bringing racial issues to the public’s attention.
“There are racisms within the church, and most people don’t see them or want to acknowledge their existence,” Smith said. “Some people might see me as a rabble-rouser, but I see myself as a truth-teller. The content of the book is calling on the LDS Church to take greater responsibility for the maintenance of racism. What I mean by that is the folklore of the so-called curse on people of African-American descent.”
Smith joined the church at age 15 in Nashville, Tenn., after leaving the Baptist faith. Smith said he did not experience much racism until he converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah.
“Much of the racism was in the form of families who forbade their daughters to date me, or being called, on occasion, the n-word,” Smith said. “I was indeed disappointed that this place, Utah-Zion-had significant problems with folks who look like me.”
After years of discrimination, Smith said he felt something needed to be done about what was happening within the church.
Smith said his book may raise a few eyebrows and turn a few heads, and he makes no apologies for that.
“They [people in the church] need to hear about how their racisms continually harm black folks,” Smith said. “I am defining racism as a broader social context whereby white people have created a system whereby they benefit disproportionately … I am very curious myself to see what people think about it. If they like it, good. If they don’t, oh well, they are going to have to deal with it.”
A well-known group called Genesis was established in 1971 by three black Latter-day Saints to help meet the needs of blacks in the church. The group is open to people of any race, however, and there are people from many nationalities who attend their services each month.
“Very few Mormons, regardless of race, do not have much insight or truth regarding the history of the LDS as related to blacks,” said Marvin Perkins, Genesis mission leader in southern California. “What they are not aware of is that Joseph Smith ordained black priests and blacks were allowed to hold the priesthood since the church’s inception.
“The revelation allowed all worthy members to hold the priesthood regardless of race, but did not address the false traditions that have been manufactured and circulated since 1830, which became the rationale for not allowing blacks to hold this position for roughly 130 years.”
BYU students and faculty have commented about the book’s subject matter.
“College students on campus are used to blacks having the priesthood, so it probably won’t be a major issue for them,” said Paul Warner, BYU’s chaplain.” I do not see [racism] as a church problem, but as a problem with some members of the church.”
Andre Bennin is a molecular biology major at BYU and a member of the Black Student Union.
“[P]eople will criticize you regardless of what you write about-it is just the extent to which that criticism comes,” Bennin said.
“Darron writing about this subject will catch a lot of people’s eye to what is really going on and hopefully give them an understanding of how to change that.”
Bennin is black and said within the church in Utah he feels uncomfortable because of his skin color, but in his home ward in Washington, D.C., he doesn’t receive “curious” looks from other members.
Cardell Jacobson, a sociology professor at BYU, has a chapter in Smith’s book and has written his own non-fiction collection of essays on race and ethnicity in the church.
Jacobson said his book is a collection of personal essays written by various people, while Smith’s book is aimed at an academic audience and is more critical of past church policies.
“There is just a naivet? in the Intermountain West about minority groups, because the whites who live here have little experience with minority groups,” Jacobson said. “They don’t have exposure to the variety of other groups, so they ask a lot of questions. One thing to note is that although there is racism within the LDS Church, there is also racism within other churches as well.”
By policy, church officials do not comment on commercial publications.
The BYU bookstore will carry “Black and Mormon” and two copies of the book will be available for checkout in the HBLL.