Faith in God, Jesus and the Mormon gospel come easy to Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes. LDS culture? Not so much.
You see, Smith and Vranes are black and were mostly reared outside the Beehive State. They were used to wearing hats to church and calling out “amen” when they agreed with a preacher. Their Jell-O never gelled or their funeral potatoes had too much kick. They were comfortable jawing in urban slang like “hooptie” (a junker car that still runs) and “boo” (a loved one).
“I have a family history and culture,” says Vranes, co-author with Smith of a new book, “Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons: Finding the Lord’s Lesson in Everyday Life.” “When I want to take my culture with me, some people think I am shirking a part of my Mormon faith.”
And then there’s the question of the priesthood ban, which for more than a century barred blacks from joining the faith’s all-male priesthood. It turns out, the prohibition, which ended 36 years ago this weekend, was about much more than priesthood. Indeed, its effects trickled down to all black members, including women and children.
No endowments (temple rituals), no sealings (temple marriages) for couples or to their children, no eternal families — the crowning rites of Mormonism.
Even a white Mormon man, who had the priesthood, could not be sealed to a black woman in the temple, Smith says. “If the purpose of the endowment is to prepare us for the highest degree of [heaven], then black women were being denied that right.”
Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James repeatedly petitioned LDS leaders to be allowed into the temple for the faith’s ceremonies.
In the 1840s, James worked in the home of LDS founder Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma, who asked her if she wanted to be sealed to them as a member of their family, but she declined. Decades later, in Utah, she was sealed to Mormonism’s first couple as their servant, with a white person standing in for her. After 1978 — and the end of the ban — James was posthumously sealed to her children and enjoyed full temple blessings.
“People think that because she wasn’t a man, Jane wasn’t affected,” Smith says. “But they are wrong.”
While disturbed by the well-meaning but sometimes-offensive comments of fellow Mormons, these black women respond with grace, directness, laughter and lots of straightforward advice.
A recent blog post, dubbed “Five Things Mormons Should Stop Doing,” included edicts to “stop telling single saints they’ll get married in the next life; stop claiming that Mormon celebs don’t have to serve missions; stop fighting on social media.”
Their motto — “A relief from sobriety, where hilarity never faileth” — is a play on the church’s slogan for the women’s Relief Society.
And it sums up their approach.
A playful partnership • Smith and Vranes joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as children.
Smith, a mother of six who lives in Orem with her husband, came in with her grandparents in Southern California in the early 1980s,” while Vranes’ parents were baptized before she was born and then lived in Trinidad and Tobago, Utah and Georgia. Currently, Vranes is married and lives in Boise.
The “sistas” became fast friends in 1997 after meeting in Utah at a monthly gathering of Genesis, a support group for black Mormons. After Vranes moved out of state in 2009, they decided to blog together as a way to keep in touch.
Thus was born their online “Sistas in Zion.” They decided not to blog about anything personal — except, well, faith, perhaps the most personal topic of all — and to do it in their own sometimes-irreverent voices and vocabulary.
Smith took on the handle Sister Beehive (what the LDS Church calls its youngest teen girls), and Vranes became Sister Laurel (after the eldest teen girls).
“Nobody was interested in being Sista Mia Maid [the middle teen girls] ’cause with maid in their name,” they write, “they might get mistaken for the help.”
A few years later, the two launched a Sunday night radio show on a faith-based channel. They interviewed LDS athletes and other figures as well as those from various denominations (one Pentecostal fashion blogger told them she had never worn pants a day in her life, even went to elementary school and took physical education classes in a skirt).
Now they’ve moved into the book world, with a title playing off a Tyler Perry film, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” and which was published by Ensign Peak, a branch of the LDS Church’s Deseret Book.
The book is part memoir, part Ebonics lesson, part advice column, part sermon.
There are stories about shoplifting, telling lies to a teacher, being the designated driver, accepting gifts, defending the church, and not tattling on a spouse. And then there’s the one about seeing your mama homeless.
Through it all, black Mormon mothers and grandmothers rock.
And are rocks.
Prayer warriors and “Modeas” • Historically, black women have had to be strong to hold together their families in the midst of slavery. A black family was mere property, which could be torn apart in an instant. If you removed a woman from a home or village, you would disrupt the whole society.
They developed survival skills and a spiritual strength that has been passed down through the centuries.
Each of the authors was reared by a determined mother or grandmother, whose word was final and whose faith was undeniable.
“Knowing that my mama was a prayer warrior was a blessing to me,” Sister Beehive, aka Smith, writes. “When I got married and moved out of my parents’ home, I knew that no matter what, whether I needed it or not, my husband and I were getting prayed for that day. ... She prayed like she knew he was listening, and she waited, expected him to answer her.”
The authors also found a “Modea” (a Mormon version of Perry’s Madea), a wiser, older black woman, who is not their mother.
Her name: Catherine Stokes, a former public-health professional who joined the LDS Church in Chicago in 1979 and now lives in Utah.
Stokes praises the book’s authentic voice and wit, even as she dishes out words of wisdom.
“You cannot come from a heritage that includes slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and priesthood bans without knowing God,” Stokes says. “The more successful people have an intense sense of humor, which is a gift.”
But Stokes also laments how things might have been if the LDS ban had ended earlier.
“If blacks had had full fellowship in the church in 1936, the year I was born,” she says, “where would our families be today?”
During a 2002 trip to Fiji, Stokes was asked to speak at an LDS seminary graduation. The stake president (who oversees a group of Mormon congregations) told her that his father had been an LDS bishop and she realized that Pacific Islanders were not restricted by the ban.
“As I looked out at the sea of beautiful faces, all faces of color, whose families had been in the church for generations,” she says, “I felt joy for them.”
But sadness for her African-American brothers and sisters, who had not had that opportunity.
“Think of all the burdens that might have been avoided,” she says, “had they had access to the things we have access to today.”
And even with the church’s December 2013 essay on “Race and the Priesthood,” disavowing past statements about blacks and declaring that the policy was rooted more in period racism than revelation, many Mormons, she says, are still “giving me justifications about why the ban happened — and put it all on God.”
For Stokes, God wasn’t ever in it.
Black Mormon feminists • Janan Graham, who joined the LDS Church four years ago, has been researching how the priesthood-temple ban has affected black women.
Graham, who is black, surveyed 43 women — 33 of them active, believing members; four inactive but believing, two ex-Mormons, and four others — who hail from California, Texas, Washington, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Utah, Canada, Kenya.
They told her how important their Mormon faith was to them (“It’s an essential part of my life, like bathing and brushing my teeth”), but also how some members’ racist attitudes and comments persist ( “people [will] not sit on the same pew as me in church” or “bishop told my parents I wasn’t allowed to wear heels to church because I walked like a stripper”).
“Church members have gone from overt racism to exhibiting microaggressions and using coded language,” says Graham, who will be studying Mormonism and black feminist theory at Howard University’s School of Divinity in the fall. “Black Mormons of African descent are dealing with racism in America, but also encounter racism in their church.”
To talk about it, she says, is often considered disloyal, even blasphemous.
But denial is unhealthy, Stokes says. “When we refuse to look and face things, they don’t go away, they just fester and become more intense.”
For Smith and Vranes, the answer is more openness and a wider embrace of cultural differences among Mormons.
LDS apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency, stated in a General Conference sermon last year that “diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this church.”
Sister Laurel, not surprisingly, puts a grittier spin on it.
Mormonism, Vranes says, is like a giant potluck dinner. “If everybody brought the same dish, that would be the lamest potluck ever.”
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Excerpts from their book
• “When Rosa Parks sat down, she was actually standing up. Because on Dec. 1, 1955, when that bus driver told her to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus, she had a choice. You see, long before that moment, Ms. Parks had decided it was wrong for blacks to be treated unequally. ... God has equipped us with all the tools to live the happiest lives possible, but he doesn’t force us to put them to use, and thankfully he doesn’t expect us to be perfect. In fact, Jesus has made it possible for us to get back up every time we fall, and you can’t tell us it doesn’t make it a whole lot easier to stand knowing God’s got your back.”
• Learning to pray is one thing, but learning to be a prayer warrior was a whole ’nother thing! I don’t know if at a certain age faithful people just get a Ph.D. in prayer, but my mama and aunts (all my mama’s friends included) got to a place in their relationship with God that they were no longer just faithful Christians praying. Guess they skipped getting their master’s, or maybe they were in the master’s program by the time I arrived on the scene.”
• “[My mama] taught me that people can either breathe life into you or suck life out of you and the blessings that God intends for you. Let me tell you this right now, my mama didn’t mind letting folks know that if they had negative breath, they couldn’t come to her house breathing all the negativity on her blessings! According to my mama, negativity is extremely contagious and very dangerous.”
• “It’s a good thing that while my mama was teaching me how to pray, she was also teaching me that even men of God can get it wrong sometimes.”
Source: “Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons: Finding the Lord’s Lesson in Everyday Life”
‘I Am Jane’ performances
P “I Am Jane,” a play about Jane Manning James, will be performed Sunday, June 15, at Weber State University for Juneteenth weekend and Wednesday, June 25, at Zions Mercantile Co. at 4801 N. University Ave. No. 350 in Provo. The latter performance will feature vignettes about James with Joseph Smith to mark the 170th anniversary of the Mormon founder’s murder.
O Authors Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes will join Jennifer Napier-Pearce on Monday at 12:15 p.m. to talk about their new book, “Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons,” and about diversity within Mormon culture.
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