Growing up black in a white church
In light of the tragic shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, (and some of the sad, yet sadly predictable responses to such), Fatimah Salleh wrote about the black church. I encourage you to read the entire thing, but I’ll share just a snippet:
…Upon their arrival here on the auction block, black Africans were subjected to white Christianity. A white Christianity that used their Bible to support black subjugation, a white Christianity that preached of a cursed skin and black bodies adherence to white ownership. Yes, all of this destruction and degradation was cloaked in Christianity.
White Christianity used their white Jesus to tell black folks they were anything but children of God.
But, black slaves refused to believe the Christianity presented by their enslavers.
Instead, in what can only be counted as one of the greatest acts of radical resistance, they claimed Jesus for themselves. What they chose to find was a God who saw them, what they chose to believe was that God could answer their prayers much like the God of the Hebrew slaves…
As a black person who has been a member of the LDS church my entire life, I can’t say that I have much personal interaction with the black church. My parents are converts from black churches, but I have not talked to them too much about their experiences. I know that my father sees something in Mormonism that converted him for sure.
I know that my one experience going with a friend to his black pentecostal church ended up with me being exorcised (or whatever the hell they would call it) for Mormonism in a back room.
As an atheist, I don’t get Christianity. I don’t get why Mormonism attracts black followers, but then again, I don’t get why black people would join the religion of their enslavers. But then again, I don’t perceive to have any experiences with the divine, and I don’t get Christianity or Mormonism in general, so it seems natural that those more specific cases would seem more opaque.
But I think that the first time I really started thinking about the black church was during Obama’s presidential campaign when all of the Reverend Wright stuff came out.
At that time, I saw people responding with incredulity that someone would speak so harshly about the United States. At the same time, I heard on black radio shows people mostly agreeing with the comments. It was a matter of lived experience.
Over time, I’ve witnessed and endured the treatment — on the internet, in the news, in the courtrooms, in day-to-day conversation — of Trayvon Martin’s killing (and so many others…the names just keep parading on until we get all the way to the nine killed in Emanuel). I’ve witnessed how stories and narratives develop if a person is black and how other stories and narratives develop if a person is not. I’ve witnessed how people are treated if they are black and how others are treated when they are not. And even throughout it all, this witness is not enough — if I say something in some venues, I can expect a challenge of everything and anything.
I’ve come to recognize the value in even potentially having an outlet where one could speak lived experiential truths that go unrecognized by a white majority public.
I have often said that I think it’s a good thing that the LDS church doesn’t try to speak on various racial issues, because I don’t think the church would say anything helpful.
Isn’t that sad? But isn’t it also sadly predictable?
When people talk about black people “acting white”…when people talk about “oreos” as it were, I have to recognize that that describes me, yes…but it describes me in part because I grew up black in a white church. My religious and spiritual language (faithless though it may be) is Mormon. My religious and spiritual community is Mormon, white as it may be.
And yes, I think that makes an alienation.
For a church that cares so much about genealogy and connecting with ancestry, I have no appreciation for genealogy. What for? I am not connected with those people. I see and read the comments of people with connection to Africa and recognize that I don’t even have the faintest clue of where my ancestors may have come from. I feel no connection to that continent, much less any of the countries or tribes within it.
And yet, because of my appearance, I have experiences that keep me bound up in everything. People act a certain way. People react a certain way. People interact a certain way. I have to learn this, live it, breathe it, to survive and to thrive.
Mormonism and Mormon theology and Mormon’s God can’t really teach me anything about any of that. These things can’t provide meaning or comfort or solace or explanation to any of this. They can teach me — and have taught me — how to perform. How to perform a certain level of whiteness, a certain level of respectability. How to act out a role that should hopefully prevent me from meeting an untimely demise.
At the end of the day, I have to recognize that my alienation really is thoroughly Mormon. That’s why I still claim a cultural Mormon, even though I don’t believe in Mormonism, don’t practice it, don’t live it. Because of the lacks and the gaps and what is missing…these are holes gouged out by Mormonism.