April 13th, 2010 by admin


Healing A Racial Divide

Healing A Racial Divide

Margaret Blair Young

At A Glance

April 4, 2010, Provo, Utah

Margaret Blair Young teaches Creative Writing at Brigham Young University. In addition to authoring novels, articles and essays, Margaret co-produced Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, a documentary film shown on PBS and at film festivals. Margaret is a mother of four children and a grandmother to three. She became president of the Association for Mormon Letters in March of 2010.

One of your goals is to recognize international Mormon literature and art. What life experiences have made you reach out to the international community, to go beyond Utah and beyond the United States?

I was raised by a globetrotting linguist father and a patient mother, and often had people from various cultures in my home when I was growing up. When I was nineteen years old, Dad took us to Guatemala, where he taught missionaries to speak the Mayan dialect, Cakchiquel. I always had a sense of other cultures and have traveled extensively, usually with my husband and children. Because of this, I recognized that the images we present in most of our church literature and media show white families with a First World context.

I always had a sense of other cultures and have traveled extensively, usually with my husband and children. Because of this, I recognized that the images we present in most of our church literature and media show white families with a First World context.

Jacob Chirwa, a member of the church who is a professor and actor/poet from Zambia, articulated the issue well in an email to me:

“I have always felt that there hasn’t been enough encouragement for local artists to showcase their talent. I have noted with concern some performances that some sections of the church have put up when they have activities but the bottom line has been that there has not been a desire to take the work seriously. One reason for this is the belief inculcated in the people that the only approved art manifestations are the ones coming from Utah. And so we sit to watch videos of stories of conversions as our missionaries do their work. This is well and good but I feel that watching a local missionary at work in any outside place would impact positively on our youth. I work in situations that expose me to a lot of challenges vis-a-vis the perception of the church in the eyes of the outside community, but all they see is me with no back up information in both print and electronic media.”

In Jacob’s words, I hear a call to do better, to go further and to enlarge our borders. I want to answer that call.

You co-produced a film with Darius Gray, who was an original member and past president of the Genesis Group, the Church’s social organization for African-American members. Your film, Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, has been very successful, airing on PBS and at film festivals around the country. Did you expect this kind of reception?

Yes—and we expect still more. The title suggests why: NOBODY KNOWS this story! Mormons, black and white, are often surprised that there has been an African/African-American presence in the Church from the very earliest years. African Americans generally think that Mormons did not permit blacks to join the Church until 1978—or later. The most common response to our books about black pioneers or to our film is, “Black Mormon pioneers—you mean there were some?” We find that audiences who were troubled by the priesthood restriction are eager to learn more about the history, and that non-Mormons—blacks in particular—are intrigued by the fact that blacks participated in the Mormon migration and played a significant role in settling the west. Some of the most successful events when we were publicizing our trilogy, Standing on the Promises, were with non-Mormon African Americans.

Mormons, black and white, are often surprised that there has been an African/African-American presence in the Church from the very earliest years.

You are the president of the Association for Mormon Letters (AML). What is AML and why is it important?

Our mission statement says: For over two decades, the nonprofit Association for Mormon Letters has worked for a literature by and about Mormons that is both authentic and of high literary quality.

We have an annual conference focused on LDS literature. At the conference luncheon, we award the best works in various genres of literature—including film and theater. We also publish a literary journal, Irreantum, drawing some fine stories and poetry from prominent LDS authors and from a literary competition, which yields marvelous discoveries of yet unsung talent. Our aim is to support truly excellent work, not necessarily the most popular works. We honor works by anyone who is now or has been a part of the Mormon tradition, including inactive or former Mormons. Regardless of how they interact with the faith now, their work is still informed by the ways Mormonism has impacted them.

What other projects are you currently working on that address racial issues?

Several friends of mine are working on re-staging my play I Am Jane, about black pioneer Jane Manning James, (to be performed in the summer of 2010). Darius and I continue to do events in which we talk about blacks in Mormon history and show our documentary. We have also recently filmed an interview with Darius’s uncle, Russell Jones, an African American soldier who served in the segregated army in WWII. Russell told us, in that interview, about landing on Iwo Jima. Black soldiers were stripped of their artillery—all but one clip—and were told to simply pick up more bullets from dead soldiers after the battles. White soldiers were far better armed. Russell also told us about going home on furlough and then returning to the Pacific, and discovering that every one of his fellow black soldiers in his division had perished. They simply did not have adequate weaponry. Eventually, we’d like to film blacks who participated in the Korean and Vietnam wars and further address integration in the military.

You served with your husband Bruce at the MTC, sending missionaries around the globe. How has that affected you and your outlook?

That MTC calling was the most life changing of any I’ve had. The missionaries I hear from and write to weekly are in Cameroon, Africa. They are truly like my sons, and I have rejoiced with them when things have gone well, and wept with them when they have suffered. The truth is, most of my writing over the past two years (while I’ve been traveling with and publicizing the documentary) has been letters to these young men.

They love each other. They demonstrate the truth expressed by renowned sociologist Armand Mauss in our documentary—that the love developed between missionaries and those they serve is “the gift of the world’s people to the LDS Church.”

Jacob Chirwa’s son, Chiloba, is one of the missionaries I write to, and is particularly dear to me. In an email, which he wrote while he was suffering from both chicken pox and malaria (though he didn’t know for sure what was making him sick), he spoke of his companion: “I love Elder Wigginton and I am certain the Lord is mindful of him and always will be.”


Elder Jared Wigginton is from Riverside, California, but has fallen in love with the African people, and has become a real brother to Elder Chirwa. He wrote about the experience of serving his companion in ways he had never thought he would:

“Elder Chirwa is on quarantine for his chicken pox and malaria, and we spent four lovely days and nights at the medical clinic. We spent 96 hours together with him suffering a lot. I felt for him when they came in to inject him with a syrup-looking substance in his leg…the needle being over two inches long. He squeezed my hand and curled in pain as they sent this medicine through his quad. It was a 10 foot by 10 foot room and I had a little cot to sleep on. This time was a unique opportunity for me to really show my fraternal love to Elder Chirwa. It is rare that we are given opportunities to render this kind of service, so when it comes it is special. It was not a random, flowery occasion like a batch of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies or a shoe shine, but more of like doing everything for him he could not do himself: running his bath, tying the back of his robe, helping him into the bathroom by carrying his IV line, getting his books, etc. It was encompassing and significant for me.”

This is one example—there are many throughout the world—of the love missionaries develop for one another. The image of these missionaries—one white and one black—serving each other so selflessly is the most hopeful message I could give. It tells me we have a glorious future.

There is no question that we have a history of racism in our church, as we do in our nation. But we have a remedy in place. We have a unique initiation ritual: missionary service. Missions educate our young people, who will eventually be the church leaders, on the gifts of diversity. And it’s not a textbook education, but an utterly intimate, heart-moving one.

Missions educate our young people, who will eventually be the church leaders, on the gifts of diversity. And it’s not a textbook education, but an utterly intimate, heart-moving one.

Though we still find the racist folklore taught in some religion classes, and though right now we do not retain African-American converts well, and though we still find some appalling cases of racist language or behavior among “card-carrying Mormons,” I believe the healing is inevitable. I believe we will see an Elder Chirwa or an Elder Wigginton—and those they represent—in the Church hierarchy very soon. The blight of racism will not endure. And that hopeful message is something worth writing about.

At A Glance

Margaret Blair Young

Provo, UT


Marital status:
Married briefly to someone else; eternally married to Bruce Young

Creative Writing Instructor, BYU

Schools Attended:
Brigham Young University

Languages Spoken at Home:
English (and some French and Spanish)

Favorite Hymn:
“Praise To the Lord, the Almighty”

Current Church Calling:
I teach the 16-18 year olds in Sunday School

On the Web:
www.blacklds.org, www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com, www.aml-online.org

Interview by Marintha Miles. Photos used with permission.


  1. Sunny
    2:45 am on April 14th, 2010

    Thanks so much for such an interesting and moving interview. I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret when she and Darius brought “Nobody Knows” to my town. I was really captivated by her passion and courage. I love to see people unafraid to use their voice, to stand up and be counted for a cause they believe in, yet remain gentle, humble, and kind. This was my experience with Margaret.

    An area I would have liked to have seen addressed in the interview is what level of resistance she has met with within the church (leadership and general membership) and at BYU. I would like to know more about her experience working to break down the barriers built by folklore while retaining a sense of respect for and humility toward those who may have struggled (and still do) to accept her voice. Margaret, if you’re following this thread, would you mind speaking to that point?

    Thanks again for the great interview.

  2. Margaret Blair Young
    3:32 pm on April 14th, 2010

    Hi Sunny!
    We had essentially no resistance within the church leadership, and we showed the documentary to a number of general authorities. But that other question… Oh, the barriers are still there, sure. I think your question is how I deal with people who still believe in the racist folklore–namely, curses and the idea that those born into African lineages were “less valiant” than others in the pre-existence. Frankly, I have a hard time dealing with them. My paradigm in trying to be patient is founded in the words of General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Union officer in the Civil War), who insited that the Confederate soldiers be shown respect while they surrendered. I KNOW that racist folklore will be surrendered like the guns of the Confederacy. Racism cannot really co-exist with the true gospel, though it might put up a fight and leave a few battered soldiers. I teach my children that God is no respecter of persons, and we celebrate diversity in our own home. I do not allow anyone anywhere to make a racist statement without some response from me–I hope it’s a civil response. Sometimes, I have simply gone to a bishop with concerns rather than directly confronting a teacher.
    Otherwise, I blog and write and make movies and write plays to provide a positive voice on the subject. My philosophy is generally to address the folklore quickly and forthrightly, dispense with it, and then move on to the far more important issues of living lives illuminated by the light of Christ. I don’t stop to focus on the weeds–though I don’t pass them without uprooting a few. My goal goes far beyond the weedy patches and into a place where the glory of God makes every good thing blossom, and every bad thing wither. I am eager for the time when discussions of race (which is really a false construct anyway–we’re all one race) cease to be relevant, because we’re so engaged in caring for the poor and downtrodden and in working towards the good of all that those other conversations seem archaic and only worth visiting out of interest–in the ways we visit the ruins of the Aztecs, for example.

  3. Tatiana
    11:01 pm on April 20th, 2010

    Ah, Margaret’s one of my favorite LDS sisters. I love particularly her stories she has written for Meridian Magazine. She’s a great choice for this project.

  4. Teresa Whitehead
    8:22 pm on May 3rd, 2010

    So glad to see this interview. I have long admired Margaret Young, and her husband was one of my all-time favorite (life changing) professors at BYU. Margaret guest-lectured in my LDS literature class when we read Standing on the Promises. I still clearly remember her talking about how we choose to live, then pausing and saying, “And if we do it right, we learn to love.”

  5. Nikki
    10:17 pm on May 20th, 2010

    Margaret, your dear father was my mission president in the Baltics. Your mother is an angel. It was touching and refreshing to hear of all you are doing to remind church members of the gift of diversity. As a young missionary, your parents taught me the joy of diversity in language, custom, and culture. An invaluable gift bestowed. This notion of diversity has impacted my life in meaningful ways.

    Like parents, like daughter…..

  6. Margaret Blair Young
    12:20 pm on May 21st, 2010

    Thank you, Nikki. I just sent your comment to my parents. Their three years presiding over the Baltic States was such glorious for them–and for those they served and served with.

  7. chester lee hawkins
    4:57 pm on July 12th, 2010

    I would like to say that I enjoyed reading your splendid interview with Margaret Blair Young immensely. I have not yet met her, but I hope to meet her some day. I am African-American member of the Church, and have been for over 32 years, and I have had some experiences with racism and expression of the Folklore by some members of the Church. I appreciate her expressing her strong support for racial tolerance, and greater understanding for Diversity within the Church. I am very happy to see it my own Ward and Stake here in Northern Virginia. It is such a beautiful setting. Missionaries have done a great job in searching for new Africans and African-Americans Converts into the Ward. I take it upon myself to lend a hand of welcome and support to them. Because they need all the support they can get, in order to stay active. We must not kid ourselves that keeping them as members, can be hard work. But we must continue working on their Retention as much as we can, because the retention rate among African-Americans in the Church is low, and we must do all we can to reverse that trend. I think Margaret Blair Young’s words are so telling, that you have to commit ourselves to helping educate the Saints to appreciate the colorful history of people of color in the Church. Anyhow, let me say that I appreciate responding to your splendid article. Give my high regards to Margaret.

    Have great day, and remember that “love for others” should be a goal for each of us exhibitin our every day experiences.

    Chester Lee Hawkins

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