When you hear the word Mormon, you might think of abstinence from caffeine and alcohol, polygamy, or a pair of clean cut young men with suits and nametags. Chances are good that the struggles of black Mormons don't spring to mind. Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, an aptly named documentary that screens as part of the 10th Annual San Francisco Black Film Festival, uses interviews with civil rights leaders, historians, and black Mormons themselves to chronicle the history of African Americans in the Mormon church, including pioneers such as Jane James and Elijah Abel.
This history is largely unknown, says Margaret Young, who made the movie along with Darius Gray. Young grew up in the civil rights era and says she was always disturbed that in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, blacks weren't allowed to be priests until 1978 because they were said to be cursed with the "Mark of Cain."
"Holding the priesthood is everything in the LDS," Young says. "All 12-year-old boys in the church are given the priesthood and start serving and going into the temple, and to think that a group of people were excluded from that is huge and very troubling."
Because the church was so slow to change, many people perceive Mormons as racist, Young says, and Nobody Knows includes interviews with black members of the church, including Gray, about how they are challenged on their faith.
"I am a proud black man," Gray says. "And yet I embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ and I stayed in that faith for 39 years. That should say something . . . I'm not an Uncle Tom. This gospel is for all people."
Another interviewee, Tamu Smith talks about how she doesn't mind explaining her faith to blacks, but she does not like defending her race to members of the church. But Smith, who was raised Pentecostal, says she felt at home the first time she visited the Mormon church as though "the Savior was standing in the doorway."
The interviews with individual church members are most compelling when interviewees explain how the strength of their faith makes it possible for them to reconcile the church's past. And as an African Methodist Episcopal pastor notes in the film, "to find a religious organization that does not have a dark corner when it comes to diversity is indeed to find a very unusual one."
Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons screens on Saturday, June 14, 2008 at the Museum of the African Diaspora at 685 Mission Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sfbff.bside.com.