Jennifer Duqué and Dr. Rachel Cope, Department of Church History
My project focuses on Mary Sturlaugson’s memoirs, and discusses how the memoir genre allowed Sturlaugson to both faithfully and subversively voice her position on the LDS Church’s denial of salvational ordinances to Black people. The ORCA grant has generously subsidized my research, providing the financial assistance that allowed me to focus on my project during my last year at BYU. My mentor, Dr. Rachel Cope, and I have carefully inspected Sturlaugson’s memoirs and historically contextualized them using primary sources and existing literature regarding Black Mormon history. I anticipate submitting the manuscript to A|B: Autobiography Studies, the Journal of Mormon History, and other journals that concentrate on Mormon studies or memoir studies by April 2014.
I believe that this is a timely project for me to work on: on December 6, 2013, Church leaders released a statement that traced the ban to Brigham Young’s teachings (rather than to Joseph Smith’s), officially repudiated the racist folklore that sought to justify the ban, and acknowledged the historical milieu that influenced the ban.1 This generated much excitement and, for many, relief. Understanding Black Mormon history remains crucial within Mormon discourse, and continuing to add additional insight to the discourse is imperative.
As the first Black woman to serve an LDS mission, Mary Sturlaugson was a significant “first” in Mormon history. I argue that her memoirs are extensions of her missionary work, in ways that might not be immediately obvious. In A Soul So Rebellious2, He Restoreth My Soul3, and Reflection of a Soul,4 she presents an ostensibly straightforward faith-promoting narrative recounting her poverty-stricken childhood and former hatred for the Church, as well as her eventual conversion process, missionary service, marriage to a white man, and overall experiences as a Black Mormon in a predominantly white church. Written and published shortly after the Church allowed worthy Black members to receive temple covenants and Black men to hold the priesthood, her memoirs are directed to an audience still accustomed to racially segregated privileges within the Church. Although the most obvious conversion process Sturlaugson depicts is her own, her memoirs also serve as missionary tools to “convert” white Mormons away from racism, and towards inclusivity.
One of the main methodological quandaries Dr. Cope and I faced was whether or not to contact Mary Sturlaugson herself. When I first began thinking about this project, I envisioned interviewing her and her surviving family members in order to compare their first-hand accounts with Sturlaugson’s more self-consciously mediated memoirs. In short, I thought I could (and should) make a distinction between the “self” Sturlaugson constructed in her public image, and her “actual” self. After discussing the matter extensively with Dr. Cope and familiarizing myself with memoir studies, however, it became clear that it was far more important to examine the narratological implications of her self-presentations—how, given her historical context, they give her credibility, rhetorical sway, etc.—rather than undertake the impossible task of discerning the “truthfulness” of her narrative. Hence, as is expected in the research process, my thesis and theoretical framework shifted in response to the material studied and tentative drafts considered.
Dr. Cope and I determined that it would be advantageous to contrast Sturlaugson’s memoirs with the memoirs of other Black Mormons, written shortly before or after the ban was lifted in 1978. In so doing, Dr. Cope and I noted a key difference: while other notable memoirists such as Wynetta Martin,5 Alan Cherry,6 and Joseph Freeman7 laboriously try to justify and make peace with the ban, Sturlaugson does not. This led to another observation: while Sturlaugson’s memoirs contain a straightforward conversion narrative, her religious doubts and confrontations with racism in and out of the Church remain a central tension throughout. Although her status as a significant “first” can be interpreted to represent progress within the Church, Sturlaugson also uses her public platform to draw attention to the ways in which the Church still needed to improve their race relations.
Sturlaugson’s memoirs offer key insight into the conflict between believing in the Mormon religion, and struggling with its engrained reputation for anti-Black sentiments. The 1978 revelation did not fix everything, and in the interest of historiographic integrity, it’s important to confront this fact. Sturlaugson’s navigation through this conflict is unique and instructive. She repeatedly emphasizes that although she’s joined the Church, she hasn’t become an “Aunt Jemima,” or in the words of her brother, “a rotten traitor to [her] race and to [her] family.”8 Rather, she submits a narrative wherein both seemingly irreconcilable allegiances are attainable. In so doing, she rebels against the boundaries imposed onto her by her own family and by Mormons, and demand the right to be proud both of her Blackness and her religion.
Sturlaugson’s memoirs are much more complex than they’re given credit for, and my project seeks to do them justice. Delving into the complexities of Sturlaugson’s memoirs was highly enriching, as well as challenging. I’m glad I was able to have this opportunity to scrutinize these texts, look beyond the surface meaning, and write about what I found there.
- “Race and the Priesthood,” lds.org. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-thepriesthood?lang=eng
- Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1980.
- Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1982.
- Nashville: Randal Book Company, 1985.
- See Wynetta Martin, Black Mormon Tells Her Story (Salt Lake City: Hawkes Publishing, 1972).
- See Alan Cherry, It’s You and Me, Lord! (Grenada, MS: Trilogy Arts Publication, 1975).
- See Joseph Freeman, In the Lord’s Due Time (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979).
- A Soul So Rebellious, 44.