Q&A with Laura Rutter Strickling for On Fire in Baltimore: Black Mormon Women and Conversion in a Raging City September 11 2018
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.
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.
 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.
by Newell G. Bringhurst
Available April 10, 2018
Q: When it was first published (1981), was Saints, Slaves and Blacks the first comprehensive book-length study published on the topic of race within Mormonism? Give us a timeline and little information behind your decision to write the book?
A: Yes, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks was the first comprehensive book-length study published on the topic of race within Mormonism. Although an earlier monograph, Stephen G. Taggart’s cursory Mormonism’s Negro Policy: Social and Historical Origins published in 1970, postulated that Joseph Smith implemented the black priesthood ban during the 1830s in response to Mormon difficulties in the slave state of Missouri. My own work which rejected Taggert’s limited “Missouri Thesis” is much more comprehensive. It took eleven years to complete, going through a two-stage process. The first stage involved producing a doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Davis, with the research and writing taking five years to complete, from 1970 to 1975. The second stage involved transforming the dissertation into a publishable book. This process involving further research and extensive re-writing that took another six years, from 1975 to 1981. Prompting my 1970 choice of this topic for a dissertation was the intense controversy surrounding the LDS Church’s priesthood and temple ban on black members, during the turbulent decade of the 1960s.
Q: What was the initial reception of Saints, Slaves, and Blacks when it was first published? Did its reception change over time?
A: Initial reception of the book can be best described as “mixed.” It attracted limited notice both within and outside the Mormon community. The Mormon Church’s owned-and-operated Deseret News completely ignored it, as did all other official LDS publications, including the academically-oriented BYU Studies. The book was the victim of bad timing given its publication a mere three years following the Church’s 1978 revelation that reversed the policy on race-based priesthood and temple restrictions. Mormons of all stripes were anxious to forget the now-embarrassing practice of black priesthood and temple denial, previously promoted as essential doctrine.
Reviews of the book were also mixed. On the negative side, one scholar, an active Latter-day Saint, who had written on black slavery in Utah, excoriated the volume for what he perceived as its “extreme anti-Mormon bias” claiming that it “continually [berated] Mormonism for blatant racism.” By contrast other Mormon academics offered a more measured response. Stanford J. Layton, then-editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, praised the volume’s “heft and feel of scholarship …apparent on every page,” and a second, Lester E. Bush, Jr., who had written extensively on blacks within Mormonism, affirmed the validity of its central thesis—i.e. that the priesthood ban was the product of an emerging sense of Mormon “whiteness,” as contrast to the blackness assigned Cain, Ham, and other so-called Biblical counterfigures. Non-Mormon scholars also weighed in with generally positive evaluations pointing to the work’s “wealth of primary research,” and its “full discussion” of the “origins and development of Mormon racial doctrines.”
More recently other scholars who have written on race within Mormonism have affirmed the validity of the volume’s central thesis that the black ban emerged largely as the byproduct of an emerging sense of Mormon ethnic whiteness, wherein Latter-day Saints viewed themselves as a divinely chosen lineage—the literal descendants of the House of Israel, while proclaiming blacks a divinely cursed race given their alleged descent from accursed Biblical counterfigures—Cain, Ham, and Canaan.
Q: Briefly explain Mormon shifts in views on slavery from the time of the of the Saints sojourn in Missouri in the 1830s down to early 1850s in the wake Mormons’ migration to Utah or the Great Basin?
A: Latter-day Saint views on slavery dramatically shifted over the period from the 1830s to the early 1850s. Initial views on slavery as manifested through the pages of the Book of Mormon were in opposition, specifically asserting that “it was against [Nephite] law…” to hold slaves, while it was the dark, idolatrous Lamanites who practiced slavery.
From the formation of the Church in 1830 until 1844, Mormon attitudes toward slavery went through three distinct phases. Initially Joseph Smith and other Church leaders avoided any and all direct discussion of this increasingly controversial topic during the early 1830s. No mention was made of those Book of Mormon verses condemning slavery and/or human bondage. By the mid-1830s, however, the Church affirmed support for slavery in an official 1835 statement. Such change reflected an increased Mormon presence in the slave state of Missouri, a desire to carry the Mormon message to potential converts in the slaveholding South, and also by a desire to avoid identifying with the fledgling abolitionist movement.
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 abortive 1844 campaign for president. Motivating this change were two major factors. First was the Mormon’s forced expulsion from the slave state of Missouri in 1838–39. Second, the vast majority of church members hailed from non-slaveholding regions north of the Mason-Dixon line and from Great Britain, whereas a relatively limited number of new converts were drawn from the slaveholding South.
After 1844, Mormon attitudes toward slavery changed yet a fifth time, assuming a pro-slavery stance. Following the Mormon migration to the Great Basin, the Mormon-dominated Utah territorial legislature legalized the practice of black slavery, doing so at the direction of Brigham Young in 1852. Young’s rationale was driven by his belief in black racial inferiority, further reflected in his fateful decision to implement a ban of black priesthood ordination and temple ordinances.
Q: What were the primary reasons behind Brigham Young’s decision to impose the priesthood/temple restrictions on black Latter-day Saints?
A: Two major factors drove Brigham Young to implement the Church’s black ban by 1852. Most important was a developing sense of Mormon “whiteness,” wherein the Latter-day Saints identified themselves as divinely chosen people, reaffirmed by a belief that they were of Abrahamic descent, specifically the favored linage of Ephraim. Conversely these same Saints viewed blacks to be a divinely cursed race due to their alleged descent from the accursed Biblical counterfigures of Cain, Ham, and Canaan. The second factor motivating Young was his embrace of black slavery, which he considered divinely sanctioned. Thus, as Utah Territorial governor he called for its legalization—this occurring in 1852, thereby making Utah the only western territory to legalize black slavery. Furthermore, Young in calling for this statute claimed a divinely-sanctioned link between black servitude and black priesthood denial.
Despite the abolition of black slavery following the Civil War, the Church continued to deny its black members priesthood ordination and access to temple ordinances, such practice continuing until 1978. Several factors enabled Church leaders to both justify and perpetuate the practice. First, and perhaps most important, was acceptance of the historical myth that Joseph Smith was the actual author of the ban—such process starting immediately following the death of Brigham Young. Second was the use of the Pearl of Great Price as a scriptural proof text to justify the practice, specifically the crucial Book of Abraham verse suggesting that blacks were “cursed as pertaining to the priesthood.” A third factor was an increased sense of the Mormons’ ethnic self-identity as an “Israelite people” most favored by God. These same Saints further believed that they stood at the top of a divinely sanctioned ranking of all the lineages of humankind. Whereas blacks, as the accursed “seed of Cain,” stood at the bottom.
Q: What factors led to the rescinding of the priesthood/temple ban for black Mormons in 1978?
A: Several factors led to the lifting of the priesthood/temple ban in 1978. First of all, the ban was undermined by the Civil Rights movement, which gained momentum following World War II, reaching its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Civil Rights activists assailed the ban in protests during the 1960s. A second factor involved the emergence of prominent critics within the Church who raised their voices in opposition to the ban. Particularly prominent were sociologist Lowry Nelson and Sterling M. McMurren, a University of Utah Professor and U. S. Commissioner of Education under John F. Kennedy. Thirdly, the increasingly offensive ban came under intense scrutiny thanks to the prominence of three Latter-day Saints as national political figures. They were Michigan Governor George Romney—a Republican Presidential contender in 1968, Stewart Udall, who served as Secretary of Interior from 1961 to 1969, and US Congressman Morris Udall, a major Democratic Presidential candidate in 1976.
Of primary importance in ending to the ban was a fourth development—the dramatic growth of Mormonism abroad, particularly in non-white regions of Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America. The diversification of Mormonism’s racial ethnic composition undermined traditional Mormon white ethnocentric ideas and concepts used to justify the ban. The final push for change arrived with the emergence of Spencer W. Kimball as LDS Church President. Kimball was increasingly concerned about the Church’s limited ability to expand into those parts of the world with large non-white populations, most especially Brazil with its large bi-racial population and sub-Sahara Africa, overwhelmingly black. Thus, all the elements facilitating the lifting of the ban were in place by June 1978.
Q: How have Mormon attitudes on this topic changed over the past few years? How is this reflected in contemporary scholarship?
A: In recent years, Latter-day Saints of all stripes, from the Church’s top leaders all the way down to rank-and-file members have become increasingly willing to confront various aspects of Mormonism’s problematic racial past. The Church’s official “Race and the Priesthood” Gospel Topics essay issued in December 2013 reflects such openness. The essay ascribed the priesthood/temple ban to racism rather than divine revelation. It singles out Brigham Young as the primary author of the ban, motivated by the “racial discriminations and prejudice” of his day. The essay further repudiates the Church’s decades old teachings of divine curses placed on black people, and white racial superiority, and condemnation of interracial marriages.
Such openness has been further reflected in the flood of books and articles dealing with varied aspects of Mormonism’s problematic racial past; such works produced by a corps of outstanding scholars both within and outside of the Church. Most notable is a continuing stream of seminal studies produced over the past forty years. Among the most outstanding are those written individuals both within and outside the Church, most especially: Jessie Embry, Armand Mauss, Russell Stevenson, Angela Pulley Hudson, W. Paul Reeve, and Max Muller. The outpouring of significant scholarship on this topic shows little signs of abating any time soon.