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Q&A with Laura Rutter Strickling for On Fire in Baltimore: Black Mormon Women and Conversion in a Raging City September 11 2018

On Fire in Baltimore is more than just the personal stories of Black women who converted to Mormonism. Against the background of a city known for its racial and economic inequality, these devout women of color tell stories of drug addiction and rape, of nights spent in jail and days looking for work, and of single motherhood and grief for lost children. Yet, their stories are also filled with visitations from heavenly beings, dreams of deceased mothers, protection from violence, and missionary messengers. They share how they reconcile their membership in a historically White church that once denied them full membership because of their race. Laura Rutter Strickling takes the reader on an intimate journey where Black and White racialized lives meet, where she is compelled to question how her own whiteness has impacted her perspective, and where an unquenchable spiritual fire burns bright in a raging city.

 

Available October 9, 2018, in print and ebook

Pre-order your copy



Q: Will you give us a little background into your formal education and how it relates to this book.

A: I received an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University way back in 1977, then, twenty years later, completed post-baccalaureate work in Spanish at Augusta State University. In between this time, our family of six lived in southern Spain for seven years where the kids attended Spanish schools in Rota, across the Bay of Cádiz. Later, back in the States, I taught high school Spanish in North Carolina until our four kids left home, then went on to do graduate work. I received an M.A. from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Intercultural Communication, and a Ph.D. in Sociocultural Linguistics. My doctoral research focused on the impact of educator's attitudes toward students who speak African American English, and I developed a model that explains the process of reframing a linguistic mindset. This model shows that standard language ideology (in this case, the belief that Black English is poor English, instead of a language variation) is not easily modified, but requires incremental training, and the implementation of linguistically aware practices followed by analysis. I also completed a two-year post-doctoral position in Urban Education in Baltimore where we evaluated the efficacy of Turnaround interventions in low performing schools. In terms of writing On Fire in Baltimore, my academic preparation provided me with an interdisciplinary theoretical foundation regarding language, race relations, and intercultural difference; and living in the city provided me with day to day experience in an interracial neighborhood.

Q: How did this study come together and what were your goals with it?

A: Well, come together is probably a good description because it implies a process. Qualitative research can be fluid and take on twists and turns as the research unfolds. I began a study focused on recording the life and conversion of the African American women in my congregation—an endeavor that spanned over ten years and resulted in twenty-five recorded interviews and four hundred pages of transcription. But the interviews were more than data collection; they opened the door to sisterhood and sojourn into the Black community. Sitting side by side in their living room or at the kitchen table, these women would draw me into their narrative with Black vernacular, laughter, and tears. More than once I would find myself holding their hand as their eyes welled up from painful memories or smiling at their sarcasm as they described a family member. And my association did not end with the interviews; the women would invite me to family celebrations and birthdays or ask for rides across town to pick up prescriptions. They would call me out of the blue because they “had a feeling,” then tell me another story about their lives. These church sisters also let me know that they were interested in my work. “How are the stories coming?” some would ask as they passed me in the church halls. “We are praying for you,” they would tell me as the unfinished book advanced from months to years.

But our time together was not always easy; sometimes there were tense moments that were difficult to navigate. Sometimes I would find myself in a racialized snare that I could not resolve by intuition. A feminist theoretical approach obligated me to be mindful of these emotions and enabled me to adopt a reflective process aimed at exposing my biases and questioning my responses. It provided me with the theoretical underpinning to acknowledge that, as a researcher, I would naturally affect the research I do, but also, in the process, I would be affected by it. Keeping this in mind, I documented the evolution of my thoughts as I interacted with these Black women and as I attempted to peel back the layers of my racialized assumptions.

Q: You mentioned that what began as a linguistic study quickly turned into racially-entangled conversion narratives. Can you explain that a little further?

A: What I’m saying is that intersectionality became clearer to me. By intersectionality, I mean that socially constructed categories such as, race, class, and gender-hierarchy interrelate and come together to impact the degree of marginalization or healthy acceptance into a society. You cannot separate these Black women’s marginalized lives from their conversion stories. For example, Delilah talks about “the worst time in her life” when her husband pushed her to the floor, then held a gun to her head. After that, he beat her up, so she left him. Alone and without food for her children or electricity for the house, she went to her Baptist Church seeking help. Instead of help, she ended up losing twenty dollars. In anger and without resources, she yells at God, telling him that she would not go to church anymore—God would have to send a church to her. A few days later, she says “two White boys came knocking at my door, and I wondered, what are these White boys doing in this Black neighborhood?” Delilah says that her life changed after baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ.

But once Black women join the Latter-day Saints, they also have to reconcile that the Church denied them full access to full membership before 1978. Their membership was yet another layer of marginalization. The women in On Fire in Baltimore each have their own way of explaining the reason for this lack of access. Delilah, for example, researched the story of Black Mormon pioneer, Jane Manning James, and found comfort in Jane’s fortitude.

Q: Can you provide one or two specific examples from the book of stories that stood out to you in particular?

 A: Every one of these Black sisters’ stories impacted me, but I can offer two examples. The first is found at the beginning of the book and was an experience that left me deeply reflective as to where I would take my work. In this excerpt, I am interviewing Ruth:

"I love doing these interviews," I explain, taking a stab at getting the interview started, "because I feel like the sisters are with me every day when I listen to their recorded voices and transcribe their words." Ruth smiles at me and nods her head, and I'm feeling confident in the work I'm doing. But my satisfaction is short lived, and I am quickly reminded of how fragile the interview process can be. With my next comment, I fall from academic grace onto uncertain interview ground. I tell Ruth that I have run across colleagues who were surprised to learn that there were African American Mormon women in Baltimore, and that they were interested in hearing their conversion stories. Without a hint of accusation and with her customary mild voice, Ruth asks, "Are you only interviewing African American women? Because I'm not African American. My father was White and my mother was Native American."

I catch my breath for one speechless moment as a wave of panic washes over me. I had assumed Ruth's racial identity. After years of theoretical study regarding the hegemonic construction and social complexities of identity, culture and race--how had I done that?

This experience sent me on a four-month journey researching race--in particular, the racialization of America and the formation of whiteness.

The second excerpt is found toward the end of the book and shows the reader how this work is more than a series of interviews or a collection of conversion stories. It illustrates how my life became intertwined with the Black sisters in my congregation. At the time of this story, I was the choir director and Clara was a member of the choir:

“[A]s I went to sit down Clara appeared out of nowhere. ‘Could we meet together for ten minutes some time?’

Thinking that this must be a question about the choir, I answered, ‘How about now?’ and followed her out the chapel door into the hall. But when she kept on walking, I realized that she must have wanted to meet more privately. Clara led me into a classroom and closed the door.

‘Can we have a prayer?’ She was asking me. In the split second that I automatically said yes, I was also wondering which one of us would be praying and for what purpose. But I was not left to ponder long because Clara immediately grabbed my hands, facing me. She pulled me close and started praying out loud in a strong voice. But she had crossed her arms in front of her chest so that she was holding onto my hands, right to right and left to left. I did not hear what Clara was saying at first, because I was trying to figure out the meaning of this hand position.

She was praying for me. ‘Heavenly Father, thank you for Sister Strickling. She was inspired to come today. Help heal her with the treatment she is going through. Thank her Heavenly Father. Heal her. Heal her Heavenly Father.’”

Q: In what ways did this study challenge your view of whiteness, and how race impacts your own perspective?

A: Generally, we do not become “raced” until we experience a racialized encounter. In other words, because race is a social construct, we are not aware of our whiteness, blackness, or browness, until someone’s behavior points it out. Several of the Black women in this book told me that they did not realize they were Black until they got their first paycheck and went shopping only to be told that Black people could not try on clothes in that store. Growing up in rural Oregon, I did not have many racialized experiences, and living in Spain, I viewed my day to day encounters with Spaniards in terms of cultural or linguistic difference. Baltimore was a good place for me to learn about racialized behaviors.

A: What are you hoping that readers will gain from this book?

That the last shall be first and the first shall be last. In other words, I'm hoping that these stories will inspire readers of all races to question their assumptions. Lorraine Hansberry, author, and the first Black playwright to write a play that was performed on Broadway, said: [Do you want to know about] love . . . and life? Ask those who have tasted of it in pieces rationed out by enemies . . . Ask . . . those who have loved when all reason pointed to the uselessness and fool-hardiness of love. Out of the depths of pain we have thought to be our sole heritage in this world—oh, we know about love! Perhaps we shall be the teachers when it is done.[1]

Today, social discourse on race and racism persists, in the news, on talk radio and social media, but how do we go about being the teachers and the students that Hansberry described? What quality of relationship would foster this reciprocity? This book is really the beginning of that discussion.

__________

[1] Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: A Portrait of Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, 104. Hansberry (1930–1965) playwright and author, wrote A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and was the first Black playwright to write a play that was performed on Broadway.

 


Preview a sample of On Fire in Baltimore


Upcoming speaking and signing events:

Tue Oct 23 at 6:30pm | Weller Book Works (SLC) | RSVP
Thu Oct 25 at 7:00 pm | Writ & Vision (Provo) | RSVP
Fri Oct 26 at 6:30 pm | Thunderbird Books (Ephraim) | RSVP


Newell G. Bringhurst Speaking Events April 13 2018


Author Newell G. Bringhurst will be traveling to Utah and speaking at several locations about the history of race and Mormonism, including Mormonism and slavery and how the development of a Mormon ethnic identity affected early-Mormon views on race.

 

All events are free to attend. Please RSVP through the links below.

 

EVENTS
Date & Time Location
Tue April 24 at 5:30 PM Benchmark Books, SLC
Thur April 26 at 7:00 PM Writ & Vision, Provo
Fri April 27 at 5:00 PM Main Street Books, Cedar City
Sat April 28 at 4:00 PM Home of Doug Bowen, St. George

NOW AVAILABLE

“An excellent treatment of an important part of American religious life. Bringhurst succeeds in showing the Mormons as a microcosm of the American population.” — The American Historical Review 

“In many regards Bringhurst established the terms on which subsequent scholars would engage race and Mormonism”  W. Paul Reeve, author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness

 


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Five Times Mormons Changed Their Position on Slavery March 28 2018

  

Mormonism and Black Slavery:
Changing Attitudes and Related Practices, 1830–1865
By Newell G. Bringhurst

Mormon attitudes and practices relative to black slavery shifted over the course of the first thirty-five years of the Latter-day Saint movement, evolving through five distinct phases.

Phase 1 – Opposition to Slavery in the Book of Mormon

Initially Joseph Smith expressed strong opposition to slavery through the pages of the Book of Mormon. While not specifically referring to black people, Mormonism’s foundational work asserted that “it was against [Nephite] law” to enslave those less favored than themselves, namely the dark Lamanites (Alma 27:9; Mosiah 2:13). In fact, the idolatrous Lamanites were the ones who practiced slavery, making repeated efforts to enslave the light-skinned, chosen Nephites. Lamanite slaveholding was cited as proof of this people’s “ferocious and wicked nature” (Alma 50:22). Nephite resistance to the Lamanites was described as a struggle for freedom from bondage and slavery.

Phase 2 –Detachment towards Slavery in Ohio and Missouri

Mormon attitudes toward slavery entered a second phase of deliberate detachment following the formal organization of the Church in 1830. Through the pages of the Church’s official newspaper, the Evening and Morning Star, Joseph Smith and others avoided discussion of this increasingly controversial topic. No mention was made of Book of Mormon verses condemning slavery. A major reason for such deliberate detachment was the establishment of Mormonism’s Zion in Missouri, a slave state. Church officials sought to disassociate themselves from the fledgling Abolitionist movement.

Despite this, the Church found itself compelled to speak out on the issue on two important occasions. The first involved Joseph Smith’s “Revelation and Prophecy on War” brought forth on 25 December 1832 and ultimately canonized as Section 87 in the Doctrine and Covenants. In this apocalyptic document, Smith prophesized that “wars…will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina [and]…poured out on all nations” (D&C 87:1–2). It further declared that the “slaves will rise up against their masters, who shall be marshalled and disciplined for war” (D&C 87:4). Given its explosive implications, this revelation was not disclosed to the general Church membership until two decades later.

By contrast, a second Mormon statement, “Free People of Color” written by W. W. Phelps and published in the July 1833 issue of the Evening and Morning Star, received immediate exposure resulting in dire consequences. Prompting Phelps’s statement was a dramatic four-fold increase in the number of Mormons settling in Jackson County. The article’s stated purpose was “to prevent any misunderstanding . . . respecting free people of color, who may think of coming to . . . Missouri as members of the Church.”[1] However, it had the opposite effect, angering local non-Mormons who expelled the Latter-day Saints from Jackson County.  

Phase 3 – Pro-slavery Sympathies in Missouri

By the mid 1830s, Church attitudes toward slavery shifted yet a third time, Church spokesmen affirming support for slavery. In August 1835, the Church issued an official declaration stating that it was not “right to interfere with bond-servants, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters” nor cause “them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life.” Ultimately this statement was incorporated into the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 134. Eight months later, in April 1836, Joseph Smith reaffirmed Mormon pro-slavery sympathies through a lengthy discourse published in the official Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate. Smith raised the specter of “racial miscegenation and possible race war” if abolitionism prevailed.[2] He further stated that the people of the North have no “more right to say that the South shall not hold slaves, than the South have to say the North shall.”[3] He referenced the Old Testament, specifically the “decree of Jehovah” that blacks were cursed with servitude.[4] Other church spokesmen echoed Smith’s sentiments, in particular Oliver Cowdery and Warren Parrish. This Mormon shift reflected an increased Mormon presence in the slave state of Missouri during the late 1830s, along with a desire to carry the Mormon message to potential converts in the slaveholding South. But most importantly, it represented strong Mormon reaction against the establishment of a chapter of the American Anti-slavery society in the Mormon community of Kirtland Ohio.

Phase 4 – Anti-slavery Position in Nauvoo

By the early 1840s Smith and his followers shifted their position yet a fourth time, assuming a strong anti-slavery position, most evident during the Mormon leader’s 1844 campaign for U.S. president. In his “Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States” Smith advocated the abolition of slavery through gradual emancipation and colonization of the freed blacks abroad.[5] He called for the “break down [of] slavery” and removal of “the shackles from the poor black man” through a program of compensated emancipation financed through the sale of public lands.[6] Smith predicted that his proposal could eliminate slavery by 1850. Motivating this changing position were two major factors: one was the Mormon’s forced expulsion from the slave state of Missouri in 1838-39. The second involved demographics, namely the fact that the majority of church members hailed from non-slaveholding regions north of the Mason-Dixon line and from Great Britain. By contrast, a relatively limited number of new converts were drawn from the slaveholding South.

Phase 5 – Pro-slavery Position in Utah Territory

Mormon attitudes and related practices relative to slavery shifted yet a fifth and final time following the death of Joseph Smith in 1844 with the emergence of Brigham Young as the principal leader of the Latter-day Saints who migrated west. Young’s evolving position represented “a bundle of contradictions.”[7] Initially, he advocated a “free soil”[8] stance in a June, 1851, sermon, rhetorically stating, “shall we lay a foundation for Negro slavery? No, God forbid!”[9] Six months later in the wake of his appointment as Utah Territorial Governor, Young retreated from this position. Despite his assertion that “my own feelings are that no property can or should exist in slaves,” Young called on the territorial legislature adopt a form of benevolent indentured servitude to regulate Utah’s small but visible black population.[10] Two weeks later, addressing that same body, he proclaimed himself “a firm believer in slavery,”[11] urging legalization of the Peculiar Institution.[12] On February 4, 1952, the Utah Territorial Legislature passed “An Act in Relation to Service” which Young signed into law, making Utah the only Western territory to allow black slavery. Justifying his action, Young delivered a lengthy discourse in which he promoted a direct link between black slavery and black priesthood denial—the latter practice which he announced publicly for the first time. He further asserted that the two proscriptions were both intertwined and divinely sanctioned.

Four factors prompted Young to promote “An Act in Relation to Service.” First, the measure represented a response to the presence of sixty to seventy black slaves in the territory belonging to twelve Mormon slave owners. Among the most prominent were Apostle Charles C. Rich, William H. Hooper (an important Mormon merchant who served as Utah’s Territorial delegate to Congress), and Abraham O. Smoot, Salt Lake City’s first mayor. Second, Young hoped to secure southern support for Utah statehood. Young noted that there were “many [brethren] in the South with a great amount [invested] in slaves” who might migrate to the Great Basin if their slavery property were protected by law.[13]

Of crucial importance in motivating the Mormon leader was a third factor: his strong, unyielding belief that blacks were inherently inferior to whites in all respects and thus naturally fit for involuntary servitude. He accepted, uncritically, the traditional biblical genealogy that present-day Africans came through the so-called accursed lineage of Canaan and Ham back to Cain, thereby providing divine sanction to their servile condition. Further legitimizing black inferiority was the denial of priesthood ordination to black males, which Young affirmed as “a true eternal [principle] the Lord Almighty has ordained.” He stated: “If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain, I know they are, I know that they cannot bear rule in the priesthood.”[14]

A fourth, seemingly counterintuitive factor activated Young: his desire to discourage slaveholding in the territory. A careful reading of the statute’s provisions indicates that it consisted primarily of rules to control and restrict slaveholders, and only, incidentally, proscriptions on black slaves themselves. For example, the act required Utah slaveholders to prove that servile blacks had entered the territory “of their own free will and choice.”[15] It also stated that slaveholders could not sell their slaves or remove them from the territory without the so-called servants explicit consent. In general, “An Act in Relation to Service” contrasted sharply with Southern slaveholding statutes in that it was more akin to the practice of indentured servitude. Later that same year, Young reflected on the act’s impact, claiming that it had “nearly freed the territory of the colored population.”[16] Ultimately, Utah Territorial slavery was completely outlawed through a federal statute enacted in 1862, affecting not just the Mormon-dominated region but all other federal territories as well.

Conclusion

The LDS Church’s ever shifting encounter with the institution of black slavery during the thirty-five years from 1830 to 1865 represents a complex, often contradictory odyssey. This perplexing journey profoundly affected Mormonism’s relationship with black people in general. While the number of blacks that Latter-day Saints actually held in bondage was miniscule, the fact that Brigham Young sanctioned the practice of black slavery in conjunction with his imposition of black priesthood and temple denial underscores slavery’s seminal impact on the now-defunct proscription on black people—such practice viewed as Church doctrine for over one hundred and twenty-five years.


Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism, 2nd ed.
By Newell G. Bringhurst


Available April 10, 2018
Pre-order today


[1] Evening and Morning Star, July 1833.

[2] Joseph Smith, “Letter to the Editor,” Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate, April 1836

[3] Smith, “Letter to the Editor.”

[4] Smith, “Letter to the Editor.”

[6] Smith, “Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.”

[12] Peculiar Institution is another term for Black Slavery.

[13] “Speech [sic] by Gov. Young in Counsel on a Bill relating to the Affican [sic] Slavery.”

[14] Brigham Young, Discourse, February 5, 1852, Bx 1 Fd. 17, Brigham Young Papers, LDS Church Historical Department.

[15] “AN ACT in relation to Service,” Acts, Resolutions and Memorials of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah (Salt Lake City, 1855), 160–62.

[16] Brigham Young, “Message to the Joint Session of the Legislature,” 13 December 1852, Brigham Young papers.