America, as they say, is browning. Latino/as recently surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group in the United States, and the Church is experiencing that browning along with the rest of the nation. “According to Church statisticians, the future of the Church does not lie in Europe, Canada, or the United States but rather in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and among the ethnic groups in this country.”
Yesterday was Joseph Smith’s birthday. I wonder sometimes how important it is to us in the 21st century that he was born in Vermont, given that the narratives we use to discuss Joseph usually skip his birthplace altogether and fast forward to New York.
In his recent (and excellent) book, Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes, Paul Reeve examines the contact and interactions between the three groups mentioned in his title in southern Utah/eastern Nevada during the last four decades of the 19th century. Although Reeve uses the word “frontier” in his title, he is not using it in the same way as Frederick Jackson Turner, who saw the frontier as succeeding waves of Anglo-American civilization moving relentlessly across the continent.
The way we see and define who we are is usually closely related to how we understand the past. Most of us have overlapping identities that require us to negotiate compromises between them and these compromises shape our narratives of history. African American members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have two dominant identities, black and Mormon, and as such, they have the burden of negotiating a compromise between these identities in relation to their understandings of the priesthood ban.
In April 2005, I spent two weeks on assignment for the Joseph Smith Papers Project in Missouri and Illinois, visiting court houses and archives searching for documents pertaining to early Mormon history. On the second evening of my stay in northwestern Missouri, I drove down a lonely dirt road to a desolate place that had significant meaning for me as a Latter-day Saint. When I arrived, I found only a small creek surrounded by trees, grass, mud, and a small plaque that identified the site of the Haunâ€™s Mill Massacre…