Womanist theology and Mormonism, with Janan Graham-Russell [MIPodcast #65]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. When you think about your religious beliefs, your theology, how much consideration have you given to your race? How has the color of your skin affected your understanding of God, Jesus Christ, or your religious community? Maybe you’ve never thought much about it. But if you’re a black Latter-day Saint in America, you virtually can’t escape these kinds of questions. Many black American Latter-day Saints know that questions about the color of their skin and their faith are deeply intertwined, that they have a long history. Add the component of gender and the questions only multiply.
Janan Graham-Russell visited the Neal A. Maxwell Institute here at Brigham Young University this summer  to talk about a type of theology called womanist theology—thinking about God from the perspective of black women. As a writer and a graduate of the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington DC, Janan’s research focuses on womanist theology in Mormonism, and identity formation in racial communities. Her writing has been featured in two books—Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings and A Book of Mormons, as well as in The Atlantic. Janan is continuing her research now at Harvard University.
In this episode, she discusses race, identity and theology. Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute podcast can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and please take a moment to rate and review the show in iTunes.
HODGES: Janan Graham-Russell, welcome to the Maxwell Institute.
JANAN GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
HODGES: Let’s start off by talking about identity. There’s an author named Gabriel Garcia Marquez who wrote a book called Love in the Time of Cholera. There’s a quote from it that I wanted to ask you about. It says, “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers gave birth to them. Life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” Does that quote resonate with you?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: It really does. Growing up, I always look at adulthood as this final destination, that I’ll get to the end point, but as I’ve been learning and exploring, it’s more of a process than a destination. It reminds me of this poem by Jamaica Kincaid called “Blackness.” If I could read that—
HODGES: Yes, please do.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: She says, “How soft is the blackness as it falls? It falls in silence and yet it is deafening, for no other sound except the blackness falling can be heard. The blackness falls like soot from a lamp with an untrimmed wick. The blackness is visible and yet it is invisible, for I see that I cannot see it. The blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own being. The blackness cannot bring me joy but often I am made glad in it. The blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand outside it. The blackness is not the air, though I breathe it. The blackness is not the earth, though I walk on it. The blackness is not water or food, though I drink and eat it. The blackness is not my blood, though it flows through my veins. The blackness enters my many-tiered spaces and soon the significant word and event recede and eventually vanish: in this way, I am annihilated and my form becomes formless and I am absorbed into a vastness of free-flowing matter. In the blackness, then, I have been erased. I can no longer say my own name. I can no longer point to myself and say “I.” In the blackness my voice is silent. First, then, I have been my individual self, carefully banishing randomness from my existence, then I am swallowed up in the blackness so that I am one with it.”
HODGES: That’s a beautiful poem.
You’re a woman. You’re an African-American. You’re a Latter-day Saint—you have a lot of different identities—you’re a student, a daughter, a friend. This poem focuses particularly on blackness. Talk about that as a lens through which you view your identity.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Absolutely. When I think of blackness, I think about black culture. I think about black people. It’s important to look at the different cultures rather than just a black culture. Especially, as an African-American, there’s the tendency to think, well, there’s this singular way to look at blackness. But when we’re talking about blackness, we have to recognize people in Jamaica, in Ghana, in Australia. And when I’m looking at this poem and thinking about blackness, it’s hard to put one—there’s no one term for blackness, and when I read this poem from Jamaica Kincaid, and she’s talking about what it means to be black she’s saying that it’s indescribable, but it’s a feeling. I’m not saying a feeling like Rachel Dolezal kind of feeling, like quote-unquote “transracial,” but it’s an experience, and it’s a feeling. I think she conveys that in her poem very well.
HODGES: Yes. It’s almost an unfair question, because the poem itself does the work and I’m asking you to sort of unpack what perhaps only her poetry can really communicate. I’m asking you [laughs] to unpack something that, maybe, has to be expressed through the kind of language that she uses.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Mhmm. Lots of imagery and lots of metaphors.
HODGES: All these different identities that you have as an African-American, Latter-day Saint, student, daughter, friend, a mother, how did you come to add Latter-day Saint as an identity?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Growing up, I was raised in the Methodist Church. My mother is a non-denominational Christian, but I would attend Methodist Services, my dad–
HODGES: Is it AME specifically, or a different…?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: It was a different sect. And my dad, actually, he practices Islam. My way to Mormonism was kind of a curvy up-and-down road. I wasn’t really into church when I was growing up. It didn’t feel right to me. There was just something that just wasn’t speaking to me. I grew up with a lot of very—like the fire and brimstone God eternal—[laughs] wanna make sure I can say eternal damnation!
HODGES: [laughs] You could say all sort of stuff, actually.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Okay! Eternal damnation, and so it never felt right to me. I subtly shifted away from the church. But I think it was around my undergrad, like my senior year, I felt like something was missing. That led me to want to explore how people looked at faith. That was kind of the beginning of my academic pursuits as well, but it was more—
HODGES: Was this also at Howard or is it someplace else at this point?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: This was at Purdue. I went to, did my undergrad at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. So I looked at Judaism. I looked at Islam, because that’s something I still had my roots in. I came across Mormonism. I knew a lot of Mormons in my high school years but I was like, “Oh, I’m not going to…” They were super nice, you know. I didn’t really talk to them very often when I was younger. But I did some research on Mormonism and I came across two sister missionaries—or they found me, actually, when I was doing some work at the University of Colorado, Boulder. We just started talking about faith and what we believed. I really loved what I heard, especially, about the different kingdoms. I thought that was really important to me, especially because there are people who don’t have the opportunity to be able to learn about Christ and learn about God. And so how can they be sentenced to eternal damnation if they don’t know?
HODGES: Just sort of opening up that afterlife picture, that appealed to you?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes, that was a huge appeal. Also, the work with families. I’m pretty close with my family. Something that I loved to do when I was growing up was every Thanksgiving, Christmas, we would come together and we would look at family pictures and just talk about our history. That aspect of family history really resonated with me. Finding your ancestors and establishing and maintaining those connections was really important. That’s what really lead me to the LDS Church.
HODGES: As you went through, you eventually were baptized, you became a member of the LDS Church. At what point in that journey were you introduced to some of the complexities? I’m thinking about, for example, the LDS Church’s relationship to race throughout its history, including a ban on African men from holding the priesthood and women from being endowed in the temple, that sort of thing. At what point in your journey were you introduced to some of the complexities, which probably contrasted with some of these other interesting ideas that appealed to you?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes, so I was aware of the priesthood restriction—priesthood and temple restrictions, rather, before I joined but I wasn’t aware how complex they were until I was baptized and I was going to the temple. I looked around in the temple and all I saw were white faces. To me, it was, “We’re in this holy place and I don’t see anyone who looks like me.” That’s really what began that journey, was not seeing any church leaders that looked like me or any black or brown faces in going to the temple. That was a really powerful experience.
A story that often talk about is going to the temple for the first time and seeing this portrait of Jesus in heaven. I wish I knew the name of the port—Do you know the name of the… it’s like it’s Jesus with angels and they’re all in heaven and they’re just with their trumpets and there’s this bright light—
HODGES: He is probably coming down. Is he descending? Because there’s one where there’s like a desert landscape. There’s angels on both sides and he’s standing arms out, descending…
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: I think he was descending. I mean—
HODGES: I think it’s a Harry Anderson portrait or something. [Harry Anderson, The Second Coming.]
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: It’s a beautiful portrait either way. But I saw the angels and he was surrounded by white faces and white people.
HODGES: Yeah, they were all white.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: They were all white. For me, what does that mean for the eternities? Do people, do my fellow brothers and sisters see me—is this how they see me in the afterlife? Where does that leave me in the present? If this is what you think the eternal perspective is, then, what does that mean for the temporal experience?
HODGES: Have those questions, then, gone on to inform the kind of work that you’ve ended up doing as you pursued higher education?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes. That’s really what started me on this path, was not seeing that representation, not only in artwork but also the theology. If we think about theology of darkness and black skin, it’s related to the curse of Cain. There’s never really been any kind of theology [in Mormonism] to undo that.
That’s something that I really strive for is, when you see a theology that is oppressive, there needs to be a theology to undo it. And so far, there isn’t any theology to really undo what was done with the policy and its subsequent theology. That’s really the driving factor between the work that I do with black liberation theology and womanist theology within Mormonism.
HODGES: Let’s talk about theology, specifically. There’s this interesting quote from a Catholic Theologian, Karl Barth [n.b., Barth is a Protestant theologian!]. He described theology as something that the Christian church does—”the Christian church is subjecting herself to a self-test through theology.” What do you think of that description?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: I mean, it takes me back to my divinity school days, its basic point in theology is “faith seeking understanding.” When we’re talking about theology, it’s understanding ourselves. It’s understanding each other. I don’t think we talk enough about the interconnectedness between theology and culture.
And so if we look at what’s going on culturally, we can go back, just go back to our theology and ask, “who do we say that God is?” Because that really informs what we do socially, politically.
HODGES: I’ve used this metaphor of pressure points. It’s this idea that, I feel like theology sometimes emerges as the result of some kind of itch that we, humans, need to scratch.
For example, thinking about the priesthood restrictions, the policy was that members of black African descent weren’t to hold the priesthood or receive endowments and so forth. And it feels like that is something that demands an answer, and so there’s this pressure point that then results in some kind of theology. The fact that the LDS Churches lifted that restriction now, perhaps for a lot of members they feel like—they don’t sense a pressure point anymore. Whereas, in your experience, there is a pressure point still there because some of those ideas that came up to explain that theory, maybe some of them are still around. They’re still hovering around and nothing’s really came into to replace those.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Absolutely. LDS Church culture tends to be very white and Ameri-centric. So when you’re talking about multiple theologies, whether it is Chicano theology, if you’re looking at black liberation theology, looking at any sort of theology that’s not necessarily white and European, it has a lot of trouble being absorbed into LDS culture and faith.
I think that’s something that we often struggle with, is that the potential for liberation theology working with Mormonism is there. Joseph Smith talks about… you could say that he talks about liberation theology in D&C 121, but I feel like it’s just right at the cusp, but there’s just that fear of what that means if individuals were to say, “You know what, this was kind of racist. This theology was kind of racist. What does this mean for our prophets? What does this mean about our theology? What does this mean about our scriptures?”
HODGES: Yes, so these other pressure points start getting poked, for example, like the role of a prophet or that sort of thing. This idea that theology is an ongoing exchange, it happens whether we consciously do it or not, and it’s very tied to individual perspectives. So as you mentioned, the church is very white and sort of Ameri-centric, and so lot of the common ideas or theologies or even the questions that people ask are going to be filtered through that lens. We’re missing out on a wider spectrum of —[laughs] a “whiter” spectrum? I should say a broader spectrum of theological perspectives that could benefit the entire church.
Some people might push back—and I’m interested to hear your response to this—and say, “Well, theology should just be for everybody. Why do you have to have these different kinds of theology?” You mentioned Chicano and this sort of thing. “Why not just have theology that covers everyone?” How would you respond to that?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Right. All theology matters, right? [laughs]
HODGES: [laughs] Yes, all theology matters.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Hashtag that on Twitter!
So, theology really speaks to where we are, not only our identities, our collective identities. And so if you’re having this singular narrative that you often see within the LDS narrative, that you’re not really gaining these outside perspectives. And so to be…We talk about Mormonism, it’s this community. If we think about salvation, that it’s a community effort. So if we’re not attuned to what’s going on on the other side of the mountain or the other side of the river, then what is salvation, truly? What is it? What is getting to Heaven? What is getting to the Celestial Kingdom if you’re not helping your brother or sister get there?
HODGES: I think it’s important then, the work you’re doing, to introduce people to these different approaches to theology. Let’s drill down into some of these. We’ll start with kind of the broad umbrella of liberation theology. I’m thinking of Jacquelyn Grant who’s a scholar who talks about black theology, but she’s situates it within this broader context of liberation theology. How would you describe liberation theology to someone who hadn’t heard of it before?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: I would say that liberation theology is focused on the justice of God— not necessarily the fire and brimstone aspect of some Christian’s beliefs, but it’s more centered on, like I said, justice, ethical behavior. One question that comes to mind when thinking about liberation theology is, “what is it that God asks of us within the text?” whether we’re looking at the Book of Mormon, we’re looking at the Holy Bible. And what messages is Christ really telling us about the marginalized? Those who are struggling? When I look at Liberation theology, it’s how do we make sure those at the margins achieve, work toward salvation. And not just in the next life, but looking at in this life. We often talk about salvation as when you transition and you go to one of the Kingdoms, or whatever your belief is, your heaven, hell—
HODGES: Sort of afterlife, post-mortal—
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Post-mortal life. Yes, that’s a great way to say it. That salvation can happen in the here and now. That’s something that liberation theology really focuses on, especially, black liberation theology is, how do we talk about salvation and hope in this life, and talking about justice. And that’s a big… that’s like I said, I keep saying justice but it’s a key theme within liberation theology is that—
HODGES: I like that you pointed out the idea that it’s not justice in the sense of like this judge with a gavel sort of thing. It has more to do with equality, and has more to do with this “preferential option for the poor.” Basically, it’ll focus on key biblical texts from the New Testament and many from the Old Testament that talk about God wanting his creation to be fruitful and equal and to not have these inequalities, basically, and in Christ calling people, commanding people to seek out the poor. One of the things he talks about is, “when I was in prison you visited me, when I was sick you came.” That sort of thing was really what he focused on. Those are the kinds of texts that liberation theologians will sort of latch on to, in contrast, with classical theology which didn’t seem quite as concerned with some of those questions. Is that fair to say?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes, I would say so. There’s a book called God’s Long Summer and it talks about… There’s a preacher, His name was Douglas Hutchins. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He was down in the south in the 1950s and 60s. He was more of a traditional theologian where justice was not something you spoke about. There was always order, though. It’s like what MLK [Martin Luther King, Jr.] said about the white moderate being more committed to order than justice. That’s what was going on in God’s Long Summer, this particular preacher was very focused on order. When you’re looking at liberation theology, it’s not necessarily looking at order because if we looked at order—you can think about Brigham Young saying that eventually, black people will get the priesthood after everyone else has received the priesthood.
HODGES: There’s an order to that, yes.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: There’s an order to it, but justice is, “No. Everyone is one of God’s children and that everyone…the priesthood will be available to everyone.”
HODGES: That’s a good way to show how sort of a liberation theology critique could be applied to sort of what Brigham Young did in terms of policy.
Let’s talk about Black theology, then. This is under the umbrella of liberation theology. James Cone is one of the leading black theologians. He’s written about black theology. He said, “The task of black theology is to analyze the nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of oppressed black people so that they’ll see the gospel as inseparable from their humiliated condition, bestowing on them the necessary power to break the chains of oppression.” Expand on James Cone and that sort of approach of black theology.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Oh, yes. James Cone, he is one of my favorites. He’s one of my problematic favorites, actually [laughs].
HODGES: Theologians tend to do that to each other, yes [laughs].
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: I mean, we’re not perfect? What are you talking about? [laughter]
James Cone in the 1960s, he worked a lot with Union Theological Seminary. The approach to black theology was, “Who was Christ to the black man?” For some time, the theology that was coming out of—I mean, even if you rewind back to Richard Allen in the AME Church [African Methodist Episcopal. This history is explored in the MIPodcast interview with Julius Bailey.].
Those are the kind of the beginnings of black theology. But James Cone was really the one who put pen to paper and created the theory behind black theology. Essentially, black theology looks at the life of Christ as if he were a black man, and through the lens of blackness and black people. Essentially freeing Christ from this white, European, theological face that he’s always—up until that point or until the last century or so, leading to the creation of the AME and Richard Allen—freeing him from that prison. That description of Christ, this long hair, blue-eyed, white man, someone who looks like your oppressor. What does he have to say to someone who is being oppressed?
HODGES: So black people are coming from this context of the history of slavery, history of oppression, and still economic inequalities and all sorts of things that different black communities are dealing with. Then they have this picture of white, blue-eyed Jesus, which is not only historically inaccurate, but also looks like the face of the type of people that would have owned your ancestors?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Right. It’s the people who are, you know, burning crosses on your lawn and not allowing you to have jobs. And so, creating a dialogue around, “how can we build a faith and build a spirituality that speaks to us in our condition?”
And not necessarily—It’s not just an oppressed state, that’s something I want to make clear is, that’s why he’s my problematic fav, because we often look at black people, black bodies only in terms of oppression, but it’s also good to look at the achievements, to also look at, not only what black people have done to survive, but also to thrive. And that’s an aspect of black theology that you don’t get to speak about very often.
HODGES: That’s really interesting. I haven’t read enough of the literature to see that, but with theology, you’re always going to find people that find a new avenue or find a new question or find something to say, “But wait a minute!” That’s very interesting that you’d like to see it broaden and focus more—not just on the oppression, which is real and which is on-going and which has to be engaged, but also the flip side of that coin, so to speak.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes, absolutely. Because Cone deals a lot with theodicy, but if you look at the womanist writers, womanist theologians, like you mentioned Jacquelyn Grant, she speaks a lot about Christology—
HODGES: Theodicy, the problem of evil or suffering, what do you do?—why is there evil? How is God related to that? Why is there suffering, so on and so forth. Most of his focus is sort of on that question?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: On theodicy, yes.
HODGES: And that’s a big question for people who, you look at, especially throughout history, the slave trade, you look at some of these terrible things have happened. Where would God be in all that? That’s a pressing question, right? So that’s Cone. And then who’s this other figure that is looking at Christology?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Jacquelyn Grant, as you mentioned before. Jacquelyn Grant. She is of the school of black women who came up after James Cone. They also went to Union Theological Seminary. They’re sitting in class and it’s like, “this black theology is great, but it’s not really speaking to me as a woman.” So, you have Jacquelyn Grant, Emilie Townes, Delores S. Williams, and there’s just so many—Renita Weems. I’m just name dropping everybody and then drop the mic—
HODGES: And Janan Graham-Russell will soon be joining the ranks—
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yeah, just slip under there, right? And so you have this school of womanist theologians who adapted Alice Walker’s original term “womanism” to speak to black women’s experiences.
HODGES: One of the things Jacquelyn Grant asks in a piece that you sent me before the interview is, “where are the black women in black theology?” You just named a number of them. What happened there? Tell us more about the situation for black women who are interested in theology and how that’s taken shape and how that’s changed what black theology is?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Womanist theology stems from some of the foremothers of the black church, see a Jarena Lee, who was one of the first black woman preachers. You have Rebecca Jackson who was one of the first black Shakers. And you have these writings from black women speaking about their experiences in the black church and being silenced, essentially. That’s a similar—it’s…
HODGES: By black preachers? By men, right?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: By men, yes. So I mean the LDS Church and a lot of black churches have a lot of similarities in that sense, where women aren’t allowed to, or are not able to…
HODGES: Hold ecclesiastical office and that sort of thing.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Exactly. And so that’s where you have this emergence of black women preachers and theologians saying, Hey, this patriarchal theology is not really speaking to my experience. This is not talking about class, this is…it’s talking about race somewhat, but it’s not talking about gender, about sexuality, about all the different intersections.
So this is where you have the Jacquelyn Grant’s, the Delores S. Williams’s coming up. Actually, Delores S. Williams is the first…She coined the term “womanist theology” in 1987. So they started this dialogue. The 70s and 80s was this renaissance period for black women’s voices. You have Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Polly Marshall, talking about spirituality. Alice Walker’s the person who coined the term womanism, but it’s this… I don’t want to say regaining, they were speaking about their own personal experiences. And some of it was supernatural, some of it was just stemming from their own faith. So that really transferred into theology.
HODGES: I guess you could say, based on their experiences and their own spirituality, they then turned to the practice of theology, which is a little bit more formal, involves writing, involves interacting and dialogue with other people. Is that kind of how it took shape then through the 80s and 90s, sort of this community of theologians that began to produce work more formally than before?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes. Womanist theology, it’s based in womanist ethics. There’s a book on black womanist ethics by Emilie Townes. She uses the work of Zora Neale Hurston as a framework for womanist theology. Essentially, when you’re looking at womanist theology, you’re looking at black women’s writings. You’re looking at—I had mentioned a couple of authors before. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, you have this renaissance of black women writing. They’re talking of their spirituality. They’re talking about oppression. They’re not just talking about oppression, they’re talking about how they’ve been able to survive and thrive through these different things. That’s really where womanist theology stems from, is not only from the Jarena Lees and the Rebecca Jacksons, but also the 70s and 80s authors.
HODGES: How would you contrast with it feminist theology? There’s feminist theology, there’s womanist theology…
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: If you look at Alice Walker’s original definition of womanism, she says that womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender. I think that’s a perfect descriptor of feminism. I think feminist theology has done a lot of work, especially dealing in terms with sexism, sexuality within theology. But I’d say the difference is that womanist theology is centered on black women’s experiences.
The original term “womanism,” Alice Walker describes that a womanist is a feminist of color. So it is possible for women of color to be feminists, but the theory, the framework has been constructed by black women. That’s more of the difference between the two. You have black feminism. You have black feminist theology. But people like myself tend to shift more towards womanism just because of the negative connotations with the feminism. I agree with a lot of feminist ideals, but just the history of Third Wave Feminism, some of the stuff you see today with feminism—the commercialization of it, makes me lean more towards womanism and womanist theology.
HODGES: So are you saying feminism can be a label that people can just adopt without doing much lifting or anything like that, and womanism maybe, for you and your project, is more engaged, and as a label, seems to fit your work better than how feminism would fit?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes. It fits my work a little bit more. There are a lot of especially Mormon feminists who are doing the heavy lifting and they’re doing a fantastic job. But for me and especially at the stage where I am with my work, working with black women’s voices and being able to center those voices—that’s the only critique I really have of feminism, is that it’s centered around whiteness and womanism is not.
HODGES: Do you think it’s mostly because of the practitioners of feminism as much? Like they’re attending to the things that directly concern them and if you’re white, then, usually, you kind of see the world through those lenses. You put yourself as the default of the world, sort of a thing. And so their work will reflect that perspective. And then black women will see that and say, “Well, it doesn’t really fit with what we’re seeing. That’s through your eyes. Here’s something that we’re seeing through our eyes.” Is that…?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yeah, so I feel like womanism gives black women another opportunity to not only engage each other, but themselves, and what faith and spirituality mean to them. You do have intersectional feminism. I’m not going to—we have lots of feminists who are doing a lot of great work and that’s something that’s really going to be very near and dear to me. I don’t know, it’s just, womanism, I could talk about it all day [laughs].
HODGES: Some of these boundary wars are—for an outsider who’s not really involved in it, it can be disorienting, or it can be confusing. But from what I am picking up from what you’re saying, you’re sort of trying to be fair to these different types of practices, and seeing good things in a lot of different approaches. But the one that really resonates with you, that you’re pursuing, is womanist theology. You’re seeing other work going on around you and people are welcome to their tasks but, for whatever reason, you feel called to this part of the garden. This is kind of where you’re cultivating?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: It is. That’s actually a great metaphor for—I mean, I’m cultivating my garden in the womanist field, I guess. Yes. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing. And getting to listen to black women’s stories, that’s been very important to me. I had mentioned before, family gatherings and talking about family history and just, what did people do to survive and to thrive and to be able to read those stories and read— especially as a Latter-day Saint, reading Jane Manning James’s autobiography and how she stayed in the church despite all of these things that were thrown her way, all these challenges, and all these—
HODGES: She was an early black Latter-day Saint who was denied temple ordinances, but who kept appealing for them…
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: She did, yes. I mean her story is a perfect example of a black woman in America, that we’ve often been denied many things but we know—we’ve been able to cultivate a sense of hope within our own community, and to cultivate a sense, or cultivate joy. That’s what womanism is for me, is not only looking at the justice-seeking Christ as a black person that understands black theology, but also what does joy look like in my space?
HODGES: One thing that just reminded me of was Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens wrote the Crucible of Doubt. There’s a chapter in there that talks about seeking wisdom and goodness at a lot of different wells. Like a well of water kind of a thing. It sounds to me like, well, you’re a Latter-day Saint, you are also drawn to a lot of different wells from which you draw water to be spiritually nourished that are from outside the LDS tradition. Is that fair to say?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: It is. I draw a lot of inspiration from the black church, it’s something that I grew up with. I draw a lot of inspiration from womanist theology. From my own family. I love family history. I can talk about family history all day [laughs]. And I’ve been doing a lot of geology work in just coming across the folklore and the traditions that people in my family would do.
For example, my mom always used to wear this coin around her ankle. I was like what is going on with this coin? So I did some more research on it and I found a slave narrative from my great- great- great-grandmother talking about how this coin was used for protection. So people might look at that as like, “That’s witchcraft.” But no, this is how, when you’re living, when you were enslaved, and after reconstruction, you couldn’t just go walk into any hospital. A lot of people had to come up with their own solutions. And so that’s what we call folklore or traditional folk medicine, these are things that people had to do.
In a lot of ways, I’ve incorporated those beliefs into my Mormonism. Because like when you were speaking about identity, like that’s a part of my identity. It’s not just Janan the Latter-day Saint. I’m a black woman. I’m a Latter-day Saint. I’m a daughter. I’m all of these different things. Part of that womanist story’s theology narrative is incorporated into that.
HODGES: I don’t know why it does, but it reminds me a little bit of Joseph Smith and the seer stones. I mean this is, today, Latter-day Saints look at that as a strange practice. It might be called “folk magic” or sort of different. But for him, it also ended up holding some religious significance, which he then integrated as part of his religious experiences. So to hear you talk about being connected to this history of slavery and your mother having this coin, and then having these—not just as something to remember the past by, but as something that carries its own value in some way. That’s really interesting.
And I agree—I like that you pointed out that this isn’t some kind of like witchcraft or like something to look askance at, but a way to integrate your family history into your religious faith in a way that brings them together. Are you the only Latter-day Saint in your family?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes, I am.
HODGES: How do they feel about that? I mean, you’re Latter-day Saint but you’re also seeking higher education in theology. What do they think about that?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: What am I doing with my life, yes! They were a little bit hesitant at first, especially my mom’s side just because of that background, the Methodist background. But they’ve seen the changes that I’ve made in my life and the way that I’ve been able to incorporate family traditions into a Mormonism. It’s made it a lot easier. The transition has been a lot easier.
HODGES: Yeah, it’s not like you had to draw this line in the sand and sort of cut yourself off. And they’ve become kind of more… I mean, I guess, they had to get used to it, right? Because you’re still here [laughs]
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes, you know, I mean and they had to get used to my husband, so it just kind of came with the package [laughs].
HODGES: That’s cool. How about the academic side of things? And not just for your family, but how about in the religious community? Because it’s kind of unusual for any Latter-day Saint to pursue higher education in theology.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: I’ve really enjoyed the experience. When I was at Howard University, it was an experience, I’ll say [laughs], because I was the only Mormon, only black Mormon there. So, there was a lot of curiosity behind that. But it was a great learning experience being able to engage these other Christian faith traditions.
Within the LDS community, I haven’t had a lot of issues or a lot of pushback. I’ve gotten a lot of the questions, especially, with womanist theology because I mean, talking about black liberation theology, womanist theology, it’s like “what is this?” You know—
HODGES: What is this, yes.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Is this Mormon? Was this Christi—? It is. This is what black people—We haven’t necessarily used the terms black liberation theology or womanist theology. But what black people did during slavery, after slavery, and now, it created the framework for those different theologies.
HODGES: Do you see it as an avenue, especially, for black Latter-day Saints, as they become more familiar with church history, they kind of learn some of the more difficult things about the past. Is black theology—could that become more of a resource within the church? I think for black Latter-day Saints to engage and confront the history of the LDS Church and perhaps engage in better ways with the tradition, instead of maybe feeling alienation or only some of the pain that comes along with learning about that history?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes. So I would love to see it integrated more into the mainstream theology, especially for black saints. There are aspects of black liberation theology and womanist theology that are difficult to navigate or to interconnect with Mormonism. Especially with the idea of the cross. Culturally, the cross is not really…
HODGES: Yes. It’s less emphasized in Mormonism
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes. And for—not all, but I say, Hashtag not all black people! [laughs]
HODGES: Yes [laughs].
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: —that the cross has a very special meaning. It’s not just recognizing his death on the cross, but also his resurrection. If we’re thinking about Cone, he talks about Christ overcoming death. For black people, that’s something that really resonates—
HODGES: It’s a powerful symbol.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: A very powerful symbol. And so taking that aspect of black liberation theology and trying to include in Mormonism is very difficult. As so as much as I would love to see the integration—or not even the integration, because integration is a tricky word because we look at integration now and it’s like you lose focus of what was originally being integrated, if that makes any sense?
HODGES: It kind of blurs all down into—It’s an erasure—
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: —It blurs it, it’s like colorblindness.
HODGES: —instead of a celebration or a collaboration.
HODGES: This is where I think it might be difficult for any religious organization that sort of puts together teaching materials or anything like this, is to be able to integrate—to use that problematic word again—a lot of different perspectives. And so I think Latter-day Saints have been pretty averse to imagery of the cross, for example. But it can hold a different meaning for people with a black background, or coming from different traditions, or coming with a different understanding of what the cross can mean. I think it would be pretty neat to see people have the opportunity to share that in a church lesson or in an LDS sacrament meeting talk or something like that, where they can say, “This is how we Mormons usually talk about the cross. Here’s something else. Here’s something else to consider. This is what it means to me.” It’s almost a form of “testimony bearing” in a way, because testimonies are personal.
Do you see any avenues for talking about different theological ideas in that way then, that maybe aren’t going to come up in formal lesson plans? But do you have opportunities to talk about that? To talk about some of these different perspectives in church?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes, I have. I am a Relief Society teacher in my ward. And actually during the month of February I got to do a lesson on black Mormons and to kind of discuss the history, a little bit of the theology. The response was…It was good. Lots of shock [laughs] on a lot of the things. I think there’s a way to have these discussions that is a faith-promoting but also a truth-telling. That’s a big thing about womanist theology and black liberation theology, is truth telling. And sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth. And so I hope—and I think there’s a way to integrate it into lessons. It just takes a lot of contemplation and a lot of just understanding what is being said, and…not necessarily diluting the message, but making it clear as far as what you’re centering on.
HODGES: We’re talking today with Janan Graham-Russell. She’s a writer and graduate of the Howard University School of Divinity. Her research focuses on womanist theology and Mormonism, and also identity formation in racial communities. Her works have been featured in two books, Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, and also a book called A Book of Mormons. She’s also written for The Atlantic. She’s going to continue her research this fall in the PhD program in the study of religion department at Harvard University. She’s joining us here in Provo, Utah at the Maxwell Institute this week for discussions on race, identity and theology.
Janan, I wanted to ask you about a recent conference for Mormon scholars that you attended and you spoke at in. You discussed how the LDS Church has had a complex relationship, especially, with members of black African descent in history, policies, and culture. Here’s a quote from that presentation you gave that I wanted you to talk about. You said, “The presence of black women in the LDS Church is distinct and has been marked by both invisibility and hypervisibility.”
Invisibility and hypervisibility, will you expand on what you meant by that?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: When I talk about hypervisibility and invisibility in terms of black women—When you think about the priesthood and temple restrictions, they’re usually called “the priesthood ban.” If you look at the original comments made by Brigham Young and subsequent prophets and church leaders, that it continually refers to men and those who are in proximity to men. And so even though black women weren’t named in these restrictions, they were affected—not just with the priesthood, but just access to the temple.
HODGES: They’re invisible in that discourse—
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: They’re invisible, yes, in that sense, and so, that’s the invisibility aspect. But when you look at the hypervisibility aspect of black women’s existence within the church, I was just in the Special Collections today looking at just different records—which I was very grateful for.
HODGES: Shout out to the Special Collections at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library! [laughs].
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Exactly. Shout out to you, guys. Thanks for your patience! [laughs] I was going through records and seeing lots of folklore and jokes, their quote-unquote “negro jokes.” And in thinking in terms of hypervisibility, it’s that people really…
In the church’s history and often in the present, that people don’t really see black people. They see caricatures or stereotypes. That’s the hypervisibility part, is where we might be the only black person in our ward. And you’ll get the questions like “how did you do your hair like that?” Or “can I touch your hair?” Or do you burn in—there’s questions—
HODGES: —do you get sunburns—
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes. Sunburns. It’s questions like that. And so that’s—you tend to stick out when you don’t really want to stick out. That’s the kind of…
HODGES: You’re hypervisible in that way.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Very hypervisible. And especially in Mormon feminism, more activist movements, that you might be the only black person or woman of color in these events—or these actions rather—and it’s a very, it can be a hard place to be.
HODGES: I’d also like to ask you to read an extended quotation from that presentation I have from you so we can unpack that a little bit more. It’s this paragraph right here.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: “Because of the church’s history with people of black African descent, black women have had to find new ways of understanding God and themselves that resist prevailing ideas of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be Mormon, and what it means to be black. These ideas often ignore the intersection of race and gender and do not provide a system of thinking to better understand the place of black women in society or God’s kingdom. Mormon womanism is a developing theory where black LDS women can fill these gaps in understanding by finding their relationship with the divine.”
HODGES: Okay, so we’ve talked about liberation theology, black theology, womanist theology, and now you’re drilling down even further to Mormon womanist theology. In context of that quote, talk about what your project is like.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Something that I’ve often heard in Sunday school or just within conversations is that, “why can’t you just be Mormon? Why can’t you just be LDS? Why do you have to be black and LDS? Black and Mormon?” And the thing about that is that my blackness informs my Mormonism, and my Mormonism informs my blackness—More-so the first [laughs] than the second. So when I’m thinking about this quote, and talking about what it means to be Mormon and what it means to be black, when I’m looking at—or in creating this framework for Mormon womanism, I’m thinking in terms of, “what does it mean to be a black woman in the LDS Church?”
There’s a lot that we can learn in LDS theology and culture that can be beneficial for black people and black women. But specifically in terms of race and gender, with Mormon womanism my intent is to create a dialogue in which black women can engage their own personal experiences amongst each other and within themselves. And so I think sometimes within LDS culture and theology—as I’ve mentioned before it’s very white, Ameri-centric, Eurocentric. Mormon womanism provides an opportunity for black women to explore life on their own terms, whether it’s dealing with oppression, dealing with sexism or racism or classism or the different -isms that exist.
HODGES: Within Mormon womanism, within this project, what are some interesting questions that are going to come up and that are going to be explored as you embark on this project? I assume that you’re hopefully going to be joined by a lot of people that can be engaging these questions, as well. But what type of things are going to come up? What type of questions are we going to see being raised within this theological approach?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Well, I hope people do join the conversation. One of the basic questions, I believe, in Mormon womanism is to ask how texts engage blackness and dark skin—especially as a black Mormon, a black Latter-day Saint, it’s a pertinent question. It’s part of your being a Latter-day Saint, is this hovering idea, this overarching idea of what blackness has meant in the LDS Church since the mid-1800s or early 1800s, rather. That’s one question.
Another question that Mormon womanism asks, is “how does the text treat women?” We look at, a perfect example is in the Old Testament. We look at Abraham and Sarah and the story of Hagar. There’s a tendency to look at Abraham as the oppressor. But through a womanist lens, you look at Abraham and Sarah as oppressive. This is not like “hashtag allwhitewomenareoppressive” [laughs]. But what Mormon womanism looks at, it’s an intersectional look at our theology, Mormon theology.
HODGES: You’re going to be examining scriptural texts, histories, and this sort of thing. You mentioned looking at…Are you looking at oral histories? Are you doing any projects pertaining to more contemporary sources at all?
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes. My big project—I’m sure it’ll evolve over the next five to seven years—is to look at healing traditions, womanist healing traditions within Mormonism, and doing a comparative study between the United States and Haiti or Cuba, some part of the Caribbean. And look at how folk traditions, healing traditions, cross over into Mormonism. Do black Mormon women retain those healing traditions? Or do they take on more traditional prescribed beliefs about the culture?
So going back to the idea of quote-unquote “witchcraft” or folklore or the coin I was speaking about before, it’s like, do those traditions that people have in their families for generations, do they keep them or do they discard them when they become Mormon? And so it’s a bit of an ethnographic post-colonial project. Definitely doing oral histories. But that’s part of Mormon womanism, is to look at these stories of black women and to be able to tell those stories and tell the truth about ourselves. That’s something that I don’t believe—Even if we look at the autobiography of Jane Manning James, it was written by a white woman. We do have biographies from Sistas in Zion. You have Wynetta Martin, among others. But when you hear about black people, especially black women, it’s either not there, or it’s told by white men or white scholars. And I’m not against that work, but I also think it’s very necessary for black people and black women especially in the church, to be able to talk about ourselves, just because our narratives have always been outside looking in.
HODGES: I mean even this interview is being driven by a white guy—
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yeah, what’s going on, Blair? [laughs]
HODGES: Sorry! It’s all I can do. [laughing]
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Yes, I appreciate it.
HODGES: Well, I really look forward to seeing what you come up with as you pursue your degree at Harvard, and as you continue this project. Before we go, I wanted to also mention something I saw in the book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which seems to me to be kind of an extended meditation on identities. We started off this conversation talking about identities so I thought we could close on that, too. In the book, he wrote this quote:
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
As we wind the conversation down, I wanted to hear your reflections on identity, and discovering who you are, and freedom.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: So there’s the act of “nommo” in West African cultural belief systems, it’s the act of self-naming. For black people, for African-Americans, depending on how you want to identify yourself, naming has always come from outside sources. We always knew who we were. Black people knew that we weren’t cursed. But that was something that others imposed on black people. And so when we’re able to tell our own stories, when we’re able to highlight those narratives, that’s when we’re truly free. I love that quote from Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. It’s an incredible book.
But I think as black Mormons, there are a lot of black Mormons who are telling their own stories and as that happens, as more black Mormons tell their own stories, our culture is there, our histories are there, and our narratives are there. And it’s just waiting for black Mormons to put it out there. The work is there. We’re doing the work. It’s just, having a platform to be able to speak on our own terms. There’s sometimes a tendency to whitewash because it’s not quote-unquote “faith-promoting.” The story of African-Americans, the story of black people is not always going to be faith-promoting. And it’s being able to sit down and have honest conversations about the theology of blackness within the church and what black people in the church are doing to push back against those narratives.
HODGES: That’s that Karl Barth idea of theology being a self-test, a way to kind of look at our tradition in the way that race has played such a role within the tradition. There’s a lot of work to be done.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: There is! There is. And it’s important to let black people do their work. White people need to do their own work in their own spaces. But also, you know, listening to black people, that is always appreciated [laughing].
HODGES: Yeah, that’s a good start [laughs].
HODGES: Well, good. Thank you so much, Janan. This has been a great conversation.
That’s Janan Graham-Russell. She’s a writer and graduate of the Howard University School of Divinity. She joined us here today at the Maxwell Institute. She’s preparing for PhD program at Harvard in the study of religion department there.
Thank you so much for being here, Janan.
GRAHAM-RUSSELL: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)