“I will always be black,” says Tamu Smith, an actress and member of the Mormon Church. “I don’t mind defending the Church to black people. I do mind defending my blackness to the Church.” And with that, Smith lays out a dilemma facing many black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and one explored in Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, premiering on Documentary Channel on 21 February. Even as white Mormons have become increasingly visible in popular culture, thanks to Big Love, Mitt Romney, and Matt Stone and Trey Parker, black LDS members continue to grapple with a difficult history. That is, from 1849 to 1978, the Church refused to ordain black priests, that is, it refused them the status granted to all other LDS male heads of households. Leaders claimed they were awaiting a “revelation” to overturn their policy.
Darius A. Gray and Margaret Young’s documentary follows a standard sort of format, with archival imagery and interviews with historians and Church members, in order to look back on this fraught history, and to ask this question: why would any black individual become a member of the Mormon Church? The film looks back on early black LDS members, including the elders Walker Lewis and Elijah Abel, and Jane Manning James, the first documented black woman to come to the Utah territory as a Mormon pioneer (she traveled with a group of women, traversing some 800 miles on foot). When her husband died, James was assigned an unusual “sealing” ordinance, whereby she was “attached as a Servitor for eternity to the prophet [and Church founder] Joseph Smith.”
In 1872, Brigham Young took over leadership and decreed polygamy (an issue not addressed in this film), as well as the restriction against black male priesthood, based on what historian Ronald Coleman calls the “so-called biblical rationale,” whereby black bondage is based upon sin and disobedience, with support from “the Cain and Abel bit.” The struggles over this policy continued though the 20h century, including the incident concerning the Black 14, University of Wyoming football players who were kicked off their team for protesting Brigham Young University. The policy wasn’t changed until 1978, under the auspices of President Spencer Kimball. As of 2008, black members numbered about 3% of the LDS total.