By Mica McGriggs
Mica McGriggs is a PhD candidate in counseling psychology at BYU. Her academic research is primarily in the area of multicultural sensitivity in psychology.
I don’t remember the first time I learned about the priesthood ban, but I do have several vivid memories of my encounters with the issue.
At my second year of girls camp I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Joseph Freeman speak and then chatting with him later—even taking a picture of us together. Bishop Freeman was the first black man to be ordained to the priesthood after the ban was lifted. During the ban, he would sit in the temple parking lot with his children while his Hawaiian wife made and renewed covenants in the house of the Lord.
“This is a man of faith,” I thought to myself. “This is what it looks like to have security in your relationship with God.” At thirteen I hadn’t read enough to know that Joseph Freeman neglected to mention that he was not the very first black man to be ordained in the history of the LDS Church. Though he was in many ways a trailblazer, he was also part of a legacy that had begun more than a century before.
When I was in high school I bought a book at Deseret Book that talked about the history of blacks in the Church. This was where I first learned the name Elijah Able. I asked my seminary teacher about him but he had no idea who Able was. As I gathered more information, I realized that I was uninformed about the history of the priesthood and temple ban, but I didn’t feel as though I had been deceived by anyone, at least partially because my family did not propagate the standard myths of the time about the curse of Cain or levels of loyalty in the pre-mortal life. In fact, when I began my university studies I felt reconciled enough with the issue that I was willing to defend the Church against my never-Mormon aunt who was adamant that it was racist.
But by the time the Gospel Topics essay “Race and the Priesthood” was released, my position had evolved. I had come to realize that the ban was, in fact, racist.
I was in the first year of my doctoral program at BYU when the essay came out, and multicultural student services promptly hosted a lecture series addressing it. The speakers were candid, and the take-home was that the ban was instituted and reinforced in a context of white supremacy (though, of course, that term was not used in the basement of the JFSB). They admitted that Bruce R. McConkie’s teachings on race and the priesthood were misinformed. But they told us to remember that “that was then and this is now.” Lucky for us, we now have the “true” thoughts of the Lord. I left the lecture hall feeling similar to how I feel whenever I leave a BYU event, “That was a step in the right direction, but I want more.” I feel the same way about the “Race and Priesthood” essay.
While the essay acknowledges that an element of racism contributed to the institution and continuation of the ban, it fails to present a substantive picture of our race-relations history. It sets a stage where the racist practices of leaders and members were completely based on the culture of America at the time though it also trots out a few “enlightened” quotes such as a compliment Brigham Young paid to Q. Walker Lewis, as well as his prophecy that one day blacks would receive all the blessings of the Father. The essay mentions the debate over “servitude” but it does not go into detail about how servitude was actually practiced: black slaves being accepted as tithing payments, Brigham Young owning slaves.
Without a more detailed presentation of the depth of LDS leaders’ racism, the essay’s readers will have a difficult time understanding how the ban could have been instituted in the first place. Perhaps we would understand a little better if we knew that during at least the earlier years of the ban, blacks weren’t simply considered people who happened to be cursed right now but would one day be blessed, they were considered subhuman savages. Brigham Young once said, “You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind . . . Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin.” Owning the deeply rooted prejudice our past leaders held would actually benefit the present Church, allowing us to tack this racist policy onto fallible humans instead of implying that God was its instigator and perpetrator as the essay currently does.
“That was then, this is now,” is what they said at the multicultural student services fireside I mentioned earlier. I would like it to be that simple. Though the priesthood and temple ban itself is in the past, it continues to impact today’s black Church members. Most black members that I have interacted with have not internalized the message, taught for such a long time, that they are spiritually inferior to whites or that they were less valiant in the pre-mortal life. But when we enter the room in a church building, when we speak up in class, when we perform our callings, we often find ourselves relegated to a position where we must prove our worth and value. We must justify our existence. We find ourselves scrambling to please.
Especially as a youth I aimed to go above and beyond the call of duty to prove that I was “on the Lord’s side.” For most of my teenage years I attended bishop’s youth council (BYC), where each of the class and quorum presidents from the youth programs met with the bishopric to discuss how the youth in the ward were doing collectively and individually. BYC started at 7 a.m. every other Sunday and the Young Women’s president would give me a ride to the meeting. One Sunday morning there was a miscommunication between leaders and my ride forgot to pick me up. Due to her epilepsy my mother doesn’t drive and I didn’t have a license yet, so I threw on a dress, jumped on my bike, and rode nearly three miles in the pouring rain on a road with no bike lane or proper shoulder. I was late but I made it to the meeting.
As I walked in, the bishop was lecturing the other youth about being dedicated and his disappointment that a few other class/quorum presidents weren’t at the meeting. While I was a bit embarrassed at being late I felt proud of proving that I was more dedicated than my peers who likely slept through the meeting with little to no concern. By the end of the block everyone in the ward heard about my bike race to BYC that morning and I was praised for it. People were so impressed with my dedication to my calling. I really didn’t care about getting to the meeting and reporting on my peers, I was concerned about pleasing others and ensuring my image in my ward family. I went above and beyond because I knew people were watching me closely (how could they not, I was the only black person in my ward). I felt pressure to be the picture of perfection even as a beehive.
At that time I didn’t have the language to label my feelings, but now I do. I know that I was internalizing racist messages—based in a complex, colonial past and delivered as microaggressions.
The impact of the priesthood and temple ban is not just social; it is personal. Many hearts have been broken over it. Many still ache. Many more will break in the future. This essay should offer a balm instead of an apologetic. It should open the way for repentance, forgiveness, and atonement rather than rationalizing the issue. It should show its trust that the hearts of its members are open, good, and convertible.