Tuesday, April 26, 2011

No Respecter of Persons

Sunday night I dreamed that I overheard a conversation being held in whispered tones between my grandmother and some other women in my family. They had apparently just discovered that my grandfather's father had been a man of African ancestry. This was, to them, a scandalous discovery.

In my dream, after overhearing this conversation, I found a photograph of my grandfather and studied it. I thought, his nose did seem rather broad, his lips rather full for a man of northern European ancestry. His skin seemed a bit darker than my grandmother's, whose ancestry was mostly Swedish. Now, with this new information, looking at his face in the photograph I could see it. He obviously had some African ancestry. Which meant, so did my father, and so did I.

In my dream, this provoked intense reflection on my part. Had this been known, my father and my grandfather would not have been permitted to hold the priesthood. Had their priesthood been invalid? My father baptized me in 1971. He ordained me to the priesthood in 1975. (Three years before individuals of African ancestry were permitted to hold the priesthood in the LDS Church.) If my father's priesthood had been void and invalid because of his race, did that invalidate my baptism? Had I ever truly been a member of the Church? Had I ever actually held the priesthood? What about the people I baptized before and during my mission? Were they no longer members of the Church? What about those they may have baptized and/or ordained, and so on?


In my dream, these reflections didn't upset me. They merely left me with a sense of awe at how totally this little bit of previously buried information could upend what I thought had been the major foundations of my life and identity, and that it could have such far-reaching ramifications for so many other people in my life. I was not who I thought I was, and fundamental truths about my life, it turns out, were not true.

Actually, the more I reflected on it, I found myself experiencing a strange kind of delight at the fact my husband and I did not, after all, have a "mixed race" marriage. (My husband is African American.) I love Göran's family in Memphis and am in awe of his heritage, in awe of the struggles of his ancestors for freedom and dignity. At some level I found myself feeling satisfied that we could now share this heritage in a deeper way.

As my sleeping consciousness merged into waking consciousness, other interesting thoughts danced across my brain. My grandfather was born to a woman who became a plural wife after the Manifesto. (This is actually true.) Now for the first time, I found myself wondering about my legitimacy in relation to that fact. The first wife in that marriage had lived in "the big house" with my great-grandfather, while my great-grandmother (the second wife) had lived in a smaller house out on the farm (also true). I had actually learned about this as a teenager, overhearing a hushed conversation between my grandmother and some of my aunts. Somehow that (true) event merged into the dream reality; the farm house my grandfather had been raised in had become slave quarters, and I had become a descendent of slaves.


What is the meaning of this dream? Do I have a secret wish to have my whole Mormon history somehow declared null and void, so that I can experience a deeper intimacy with my husband? (When I told Göran about this dream, I thought he'd laugh at me, but he was actually fascinated by it.) This dream, as I said, provoked in me a kind of awe. This was one of those dreams that sort of haunted me throughout the day. It left me feeling prayerful. And in the stillness as I prayed and reflected on it throughout the day, the Spirit instructed me.

I was impressed with the wickedness of the world. The more I pray and ponder on and think about the ban on ordaining African Americans that began some time after the death of Joseph Smith and ended in 1978, the more I see it as a product of the racist attitudes that saturated American culture during roughly that same period. There is a constant danger that human beings, rather than letting the revelations of God challenge our conventional understandings of the world, will assimilate the word of God to our own ways and our own understandings; and that we will fashion idols out of them. Attitudes of racial chosen-ness and superiority is one of the more common idols...

I was impressed with the fragility of my ideas of who and what I am. My identity, my self-understanding, is so wrapped up in worldly ideas. This is why, I suppose, after the Lord revealed himself to Moses, and then showed him "the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created," Moses' response was, "Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed" (Moses 1: 1-10).

I realized how precious God's presence in my life is. I realize how easily I could lose that presence if I let myself get caught up in pride, if I start thinking too much of what I think I am. God is no respecter of persons.

I am grateful that, if I turn to him, I can hear his voice whispering to me through the veil, every day, every minute if I will. That, I realize, is the true foundation of my life. Everything else is like a dream that will fade away when we wake up at the final dawn.

1 comment:

Mind Of Mine said...

Wow! Dreams can do that to you!