Heavenly Mother is a Black Woman: Exploring a Mormon Womanism

Janan Graham-Russell is a writer and graduate of the Howard University School of Divinity. Her research focuses on womanist theology in Mormonism and identity formation in racial communities. Her work has been featured in two books: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, and A Book of Mormons, as well as The Atlantic. She will begin attending Harvard University in the fall of 2017 to continue her research within the PhD program in The Study of Religion. When she’s not working, she enjoys watching movies, playing XBox with her partner, and making music videos with her one year old son.

Janan gave these remarks at the 2017 Faith and Knowledge Conference, held Feb. 24-25, 2017 at Harvard Divinity School.

Before I begin, I wanted to read an excerpt of remarks given by then-Church president Brigham Young, in 1852, to give context to my own remarks this afternoon.

What is that mark? you will see it on the countenance of every African you ever did see upon the face of the earth, or ever will see . Now I tell you what I know; when the mark was put upon Cain, Abel’s children was in all probability young; the Lord told Cain that he should not receive the blessings of the priesthood nor his seed, until the last of the posterity of Abel had received the priesthood, until the redemption of the earth. 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, for the curse on them was to remain upon them, until the residue of the posterity of Michael and his wife receive the blessings , the seed of Cain would have received had they not been cursed ; and hold the keys of the priesthood, until the times of the restitution shall come, and the curse be wiped off from the earth, and from Michael’s seed.

In its history, policies, and culture, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a complex relationship with members of Black African descent. The presence of Black women in the LDS Church is distinct and has been marked by both invisibility and hypervisibility. Examples of this can be found in the former priesthood and temple restrictions, as well as underrepresentation at the highest levels of women’s leadership in the Church. Womanist theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher writes, “It is important to consider Black women’s embodiment of the sacred in their everyday lives. Because both Blackness and womanhood historically has been disparaged as evil, such reflection is important to an understanding of what it means to be human.” [1]. In an effort to challenge these historically destructive images of Black women and Black bodies, and their manifestations in present time, I would propose the development of a Mormon womanist framework to examine and contextualize the sacred found in Black Latter-day Saint women’s individual religious experiences and expression of spirituality.

Within this framework, Black women can find meaning and fulfilment in seeing themselves in the divine. If we conceptualize Heavenly Mother as a Black woman, not just in physical features, but as one who identifies with the visibility of Black women, this reveals Blackness, or Black existence, as an eternal attribute. Blackness in this manner- devoid of notions of curses or a lack of valency- counters destructive social, political, and theological hierarchies that have existed within and outside of Mormonism, and in turn, opens up larger dialogues about how socio-political contexts can inform perceptions of the divine.

In her work, In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, Alice Walker identifies several characteristics that describe a “womanist.” For Walker, a womanist emerges as an answer to the gaps in theory and understanding of the multidimensional issues faced by Black women and non-Black women of color often missed by second-wave white feminists. While Walker alludes to a womanist spirituality in her original definition, Christian theologians adopted the term “womanist” to recognize a vision of salvation and Christology that spoke to the physical, and spiritual lives of Black women. Womanist theologians such as Delores S. Williams, Jacquelyn Grant, and Kelly Brown-Douglas reimagine Christ, in word and body, as one who offers an alternative vision to the hierarchies created through the presence of ethnic suffering. This type of suffering is mal-distributed, enormous, and non-catastrophic. To counter ethnic suffering, salvation in this context, is to seek new ways of understanding God and Christ that create a space in which Black women may self-actualize. It is in this that salvation lies at the center of a Mormon womanism.

My initial consideration in developing a Mormon womanism relied on examining how ethnic suffering manifested within Mormonism. The priesthood restriction offers the most salient example of ethnic suffering: it was mal-distributed in that it applied only to members of black African descent, it was enormous in social, cultural, and theological impact, and it was non-catastrophic in the way its impact passed on from one generation to the next. What is unique about the circumstances regarding the temple restrictions for women of black African descent is that they came about through not only their racial lineage, but further, their relationship to the priesthood through men. Mormon womanism, then, must address a suffering that is both ethnic and gender specific, recognizing that when the revelation came to then-LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball in 1978, it only accounted for men of black African descent to receive the priesthood and the blessings that extend from it. This indirect result of the restrictions and subsequent revelation poses an arguably difficult question that Mormon womanism attempts to answer in this context: how can black women reconcile their racial and religious identities within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

In a letter addressed to the First Presidency regarding her request to be sealed to her family, one of the first Church members of Black African descent Jane Elizabeth Manning James asked: “Is there no blessing for me?” Though the restrictions are often described as a policy, its implications were deeply social, cultural and theological; impacting relationships members of black African descent maintained with God, the Church, its members, and themselves. Mirroring the distorted images of black people that one may find in American discourse, the restrictions presented black bodies as unworthy and inherently guilty. For Black women, the restrictions furthered misconceptions about black female bodies, already stigmatized by concepts of “true womanhood” found in literature and popular culture. Poised at the intersection of race, gender, class and sexuality, African American women have been confronted with understanding themselves in the midst of contrasting, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives on what “womanhood” entailed. Suffragist and one of the founding members of the NAACP, Mary Church Terrell explains,

Not only are colored women…handicapped on account of their sex, but they are almost everywhere baffled because of their race. Not only because they are women, but because they are colored women.

White patriarchal authority continues to dominate ideas about women’s roles in public and private spheres. Even so, white womanhood has historically been elevated above black womanhood. According to the Cult of True Womanhood, “true” women possessed four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Elite white women and those of the emerging middle class were encouraged to aspire to these virtues. African American women were influenced by both these and a differing set of racialized images. These images were often aided in the economic and sexual exploitation of enslaved black women. The depiction of African American women as mammies, Jezebels, Sapphires and as Patricia Hill Collins notes, the “castrating matriarchs” and “welfare mothers” served to further distort and silence black women. With these ideas about blackness and womanhood in the background, black LDS women have had to create an alternative vision for themselves that is not only life-affirming, but also, challenges existing notions of their personhood.

When social, cultural, and theological hegemonies present incomplete representations of black female bodies, the response is a Mormon womanism that is invested in the salvation of black LDS women through the wholeness of individuals and communities. In its history and theology, Mormonism shares a profound relationship with community. In the 10th article, Joseph Smith recognizes the building of community as a precursor to the restoration of a utopian earth: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” So too must a Mormon womanism be based in a belief that community is essential to salvation.

Because of the historically destructive images of persons of black African descent, another aspect of Mormon womanism recognizes that in order to achieve wholeness, individuals must seek imagery that counters these theological perspectives. In wards, chapels and temples across the US, portraits of the old testament prophets, Christ and God are depicted as white Europeans. One of the defining moments of my faith journey, was when I went to the temple for the first time and came upon a portrait of Jesus Christ in the Celestial Kingdom, surrounded by angels. What struck me was the fact that in this depiction, both Jesus Christ and all the angels were white. In seeing this, the question that was raised is, how do my fellow members see me in the eternities? How do I see myself?

Because there are no concepts of blackness and womanhood that extend beyond previous understandings of black bodies, I look to the divine feminine found in Afro-Atlantic religion.

As author Teresa N. Washington explains, “Most traditional African belief systems honor a Mother Creator, a melded Mother-Father creator, or male and female deities who work cooperatively.” [2] “They are identified as Awon Iya Wa (Our Mothers), Awon Iyami Osoronga (The Great and Mysterious Mother), Yewajoba (The Mother of All the Orisa and All Living Things), Àgbàláàgbà (Old and Wise One), and Aye (Earth).” [3]. All of them are connected through Àjé, the representation of female power in Yoruban life. These belief systems travelled across the Atlantic Ocean during the transatlantic slave trade, with evidence being found in Santeria and Haitian Vodun. Included in this belief is a cosmology and a pantheon of female entities known as orishas. Another female figure in the Yoruban religion is Yemonja. She goes by several names in the African diaspora, but she is notably titled as Yewajobi, Mother of All the Gods and All Living Things. In Yoruba religion, both blackness and womanhood are eternal and in that, black women can recognize the power of finding oneself in the divine.

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 does not provide a system of thinking to better understand the place of a black woman, in society or God’s kingdom. Mormon womanism is a developing theory where LDS black women can fill these gaps in understanding by finding their relationship with the divine. In reconciling their racial and religious identities, black women can reconstruct themselves in a Mormon womanism that builds community and seeks images of themselves that reflect and celebrate their individual experiences. As LDS black woman build community, it will strengthen their own faith and expand the idea of what it means to participate in the LDS faith. In doing so, we can begin to understand the intersections by which Latter-day Saints express their faith.

——————————————————-
[1] Baker-Fletcher, My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-Talk, 150
[2] Teresa N. Washington, Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts: Manifestations of Ajé in Africana Literature
[3] Teresa N. Washington, The Architects of Existence: Aje in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology, and Orature

Comments

  1. Kristine A says:

    A few years ago I sat in an auditorium at the University of Utah where I was attending a scholarly conference, Black, White, & Mormonism. I had one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life: I witnessed the spiritual strength of black Mormons, specifically in a group/community.

    I have been a lifelong member of the church and have never before nor since witnessed such quiet spiritual strength. Thank you for sharing this, Janan, and for being an example I can pattern my spirituality after. It’s amazing what you can learn from the margins.

  2. “Black women can find meaning and fulfilment in seeing themselves in the divine. If we conceptualize Heavenly Mother as a Black woman, not just in physical features, but as one who identifies with the visibility of Black women, this reveals Blackness, or Black existence, as an eternal attribute”. Your post is profound, Janan. It is helping me think in new ways about Mormon cosmology and every day acts and thoughts. Thank you.

  3. Thank you Janan.

    As a point toward your argument if “invisibility and hypervisibilty” the conference issue coming out this week has over 20 photos of Black men and Black women scattered throughout the issue. I’ve never seen that many. Ziff should do a comparison. Someone flipping through the magazine would think the church had 30 percent Black membership.

    Then you get to the general authority/auxillary chart and it’s overwhelmingly white men.

  4. As one who was just today conceptualizing Christ as a nursing mother, I feel slightly better prepared (than I was yesterday) to hear this message. Several responses:
    1. Thanks. Good writing. Important thoughts.
    2. Brave and challenging. Reconciling a racial and religious identity for black women in the LDS church strikes me as a tall order. God speed. (Genuine, heart-felt, god speed.)
    3. With every inch forward for the LDS church with respect to race, gender, or sexuality (beginning in my life experience with 1978 and continuing to the present), I have every time felt that the Church has a huge problem in the world of (what I think is called) intersectionality. The logic and the process and the proclamations in one area seem to further challenge the others. If we now (sometimes) conceptualize god as without a defining skin color, He is most definitely male and straight.

  5. I love this. Thank you for writing this, it adds to my appreciation of our belief in Heavenly Mother.

  6. James Stone says:

    Looking forward to the day we can look at each other simply as children of God instead of by worldly categories such as race, ethnicity, etc.

  7. Janan, I love you. Your words are full of truth and power and goodness. Brilliant! All of this. You’ve found your calling and we are blessed because of it.

    For what it’s worth, my image of Heavenly Mother is a black woman. Has been for quite some time. The first time I met Cathy Stokes I thought, “Yep. There She is.” Thank you for sharing this. God bless.

  8. Great article.

    In seeing this, the question that was raised is, how do my fellow members see me in the eternities? How do I see myself?

    I read the last three paragraphs a number of times and did not see the answers to your questions. Do most members believe that all people will be white when they receive their perfected bodies? I would say that the majority of members believe this. As you pointed out, our art portrays that and certain verses in the Book of Mormon surely would lead them to such belief. I hope for the day those verses are removed.
    I am more interested in the second question of how you see yourself in the eternities.
    On a side note, it would have been lovely to have been present when Brigham Young realized his heavenly mother was a black woman.

  9. There’s a subtlety here that I missed until the third read and some of the comments. As I read the address (first and last time), “Mother in Heaven” is a full fledged diety–in my not-Mormon-traditional terminology, an “aspect” or “face” of God, I especially resonate to Yewajobi–Mother of All the Gods and All Living Things. However, in some Mormon thought “Mother in Heaven” is a silent partner, perhaps one of many (the shadow of polygamy), and not part of the creator-lawgiver-savior roles that we valorize. I would suggest that imagining such a subordinate “Mother in Heaven” as a black woman is exactly the wrong way to go.

  10. There is so much to think about here. I’ve re-read this several times (and have read a couple of the pieces cited) and there is so much for me, a white Mormon feminist, to learn. Part of me wants to holler with joy over these ideas, another part of me is aware that I must not appropriate things that are not mine, and another part of me is looking for the intersection where black women’s lives and white women’s lives in with the ribbon of Mormonism we are all trying to follow. It’s hard, but I am invigorated that we are talking about it and I have hope for our collective futures.

  11. Janan, truly, thank you for your voice and the work you are doing. What an important piece of writing and body of work you are pursuing. I hope that we can all be a part of moving it forward. I don’t know that you’d have an answer, but I would be interested to know how I, as a white woman, can both aide in this process for black women I know, but also, how can I incorporate these ideas in my own life, as I think they are so powerful. Either way, thank you!

  12. As a white, priesthood-holding male, I am like Tracy, wary of appropriating something that is not mine. But the concepts presented here are a catalyst for expanding my understanding of both our Mother and Father in Heaven, and the pervasive cultural blinders and myopia that that restrict our understanding of our relationship to the divine. But also, I am reminded of John 3:2 [NRSV, with my own revisions in brackets]: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [she] is revealed, we will be like [her], for we will see [her as she] is.” That is a truly challenging thought, with all sorts of potentially wonderful implications for so many. Thank you for this post.

  13. Tracy M & Ashmae,
    I think we can both acknowledge the presence of a divine feminine in the Universe and that it may manifest in differing ways. The problem is, that presence is often presented in a single way that 1.) limits its potential and 2.) can be quite oppressive for those at the margins. When you don’t see yourself represented, or the predominant theology is one of exclusion, I think the future must be a theology that is based in wholeness; one that recognizes the interconnectedness between the body, spirit, and the community. That is where we meet…recognizing that pursuing wholeness is essential not only for ourselves, but also for others salvation.

  14. Jason K. says:

    Thank you, Janan, for these powerful and provocative arguments. I believe that without the kind of work you describe here, the body of Christ cannot reach the full measure of its creation.

  15. J. Stapley says:

    I’m a bit late here, but just wanted to thank you, Janan. This is tremendously thought provoking and I can already think about ways that this will influence my research and writing.

  16. That is where we meet…recognizing that pursuing wholeness is essential not only for ourselves, but also for others salvation.

    That’s really the key, isn’t it? We are all more fully realized when we are all included.

  17. Not a Cougar says:

    Sister Graham-Russell, thank you for post. I confess that I don’t fully understand what you mean by, “find[ing] new ways of understanding God and themselves,” (I think multiple readings and contemplation are in order) but your piece did make me think about the consequences of the Church’s issuance of the Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood. If that essay has, more or less, officially swept away the racist ideology behind the priesthood ban (though it likely hasn’t changed the beliefs of some in the Church), then is it too much to expect the Lord’s prophets to speak and fill the void left in the ban’s absence? Is race an eternal characteristic, or is it simply a result of humans’ biological reactions to different environments over thousands of years that is meaningless in the eternities? If eternal, then why? If not, why are we not more vocal on racial injustice? I see huge issues with either answer, and perhaps that is why they don’t speak.

  18. This is a treasure trove, Janan. So looking forward to seeing more of your work in your new PhD program.

  19. Another late comer to this post who was inspired by it. Thank you, Janan.

  20. Kristine N says:

    “However, in some Mormon thought “Mother in Heaven” is a silent partner, perhaps one of many (the shadow of polygamy), and not part of the creator-lawgiver-savior roles that we valorize. I would suggest that imagining such a subordinate “Mother in Heaven” as a black woman is exactly the wrong way to go.”

    I suspect the suggestion here is more that we look to the images of the Orishas to tell us more about the feminine divine rather than overwriting the Black feminine divine with our ideas of a subordinate Mother in Heaven.

    I will sheepishly admit that I feel a sense of loss thinking of Mother in Heaven as a black African woman. That doesn’t mean I disagree–simply that I’m challenged by the idea. I would guess that all of my sisters of color feel some degree of the same sense of loss when they’re forced to acknowledge the white/Nordic Mother in Heaven the church occasionally teases us with. It’s a provocative thought that we should abandon that woman, who is really no more than a shadow anyway, and look for the divine feminine elsewhere.

  21. Thanks for all of your comments. They have given me a lot to think about as I continue to develop this theory.

    The overarching message, which I allude to in my remarks, is that we should move towards a Heavenly Mother (HM) and divine feminine that are not based in an oppressive ideology. Imagining HM as a Black woman points to HM’s invisibility…because white Mormon women, though facing their own challenges…are afforded a level of recognition because of their whiteness that is not afforded to women of other races.

  22. Rabbi Sandy Sasso wrote that it’s required to look in the faces of all people to catch a glimpse of the vastness of the divine. I think there’s so much truth in that, and whatever the nature of God, he/she/they certainly are more than the sum of all of humanity. When LDS religious art and media depict Heavenly Father and Jesus as white, and Heavenly Mother (if she’s depicted at all) as white, I think we not only oppress people of color, but also reinforce a limited and inadequate concept of God. I say art and media because I’ve never, that I can think of, come across “God is white” in religious writings — that idea is communicated through art in my experience. Though certainly the assumption is there between the lines in the written word.

    Personally I am very happy to imagine Mr. and Mrs. God as black, and sometimes do, but what I imagine personally isn’t what matters. I think what the Church could really do with is more humility and acknowledgment of our own limitations in comprehending God, and therefore more readiness to depict a variety of human features in our religious artwork. Knowing that none of them show Father, Son, or Mother as they really are, but that all of them are needed so that none of God’s children have to constantly do mental corrections to include themselves in the family of beings who will inherit God’s salvation.

  23. Thank you, Janan. Thank you.