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Neither Black Nor White: The Messiness of Racial Categorization and Black Mormon History

By: Amanda - February 27, 2013
Grandpa with his first wife

My Great Grandfather Antonio Alejo Aguilar with his First Wife

When I was ten years old, my great grandfather died.  He was ninety-six years old and had been one of the main objects of my affection since I was a toddler.  When we visited his house, he fed us cups of apricot nectar and regaled us with stories of his childhood in Mexico.  He told us about sucking the juice out of fresh cactus fruit, sneaking into the kitchen of his house and watching the maids cook, and attending medical school in Mexico City.  The stories from his adolescence were much darker.  When grandpa was sixteen, he had joined a regiment of federales and had fought in the Mexican Revolution.  A cannon ball came close enough to his head to shave off his hair, leaving him mostly bald for the rest of his life.  He also watched as Pancho Villa rode into one of the border towns of the United States and Mexico and shot a man he expected of sympathies with the Mexican government while the man’s wife bawled and cried for his life.  As a result of the stories that my grandfather told, I thought of him as being completely Mexican.  It was only after his death that I was realized how complicated that identity had been for him. 

Throughout his life, my grandfather had written poetry expressing his thoughts about immigrating to the United States and living as a Mexican man in small Idaho town.  After his death, my family gathered his poetry and published them as a small volume for the family to read.  A small coffee-stained copy of that volume lays on my coffee table at home.  My grandfather asked that his writings never be made publicly available or I would share excerpts here.  In his poetry, he expressed the difficulties that he had fitting in, in the United States.  As a man from the upper castes of Mexican society, he felt that his skin was too white to fit in with the Mexicans he knew and too dark for him to be considered white.  He saw himself as existing uneasily between races.

Reading his letters and writings made me more attuned to the ways in which racial identity is always constructed.  Although most Americans think of race as being something that is either/or, Mexican or white, Black or Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander.  The reality, however, is that people exist in-between these categories and that the categories themselves are constructed.  The malleability of racial categories became even more apparent to me as I undertook my graduate work.  Historians like Tiya Miles, Anne Hyde, and Martha Hodes have demonstrated that the racial tapestry of the United States is complicated.  The Cherokee adoption of chattel slavery in the nineteenth century created an Indian nation whose members included men and women whose heritage was a mix of African, Indian, and white ancestry.  Similarly, in the American West, the desire of fur traders to extend their influence caused them to take Indian wives whose familial connections provided them with access to wealth and resources.[1]

Initially, a variety of responses existed to relationships, even illicit ones, between white men and women and people of color.  As racial attitudes hardened in the nineteenth century and the ability to classify individuals using race, ethnicity, religion, and gender increasingly became a technology of power in imperial spaces, the existence of mixed race people became a problem for those involved in the project of classifying people.  Children who were neither white nor black, neither red nor brown, were a problem who wanted to argue that racial difference was natural and immutable.  The colonial project, however, did not just involve making divisions between white and non-white people.  It also involved making distinctions between black and brown people.  African Americans and Native Americans were treated as fundamentally different within nineteenth-century America, especially in regards to racial mixing.  In his article “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Patrick Wolfe argues that the fact that Native Americans stood in the way of white settlement and African Americans were a potential source of labor fundamentally changed the way that white settlers treated racially mixed children from each group.  Indigenous identity was seen as mutable– the more distant someone’s relationship to their native ancestors, the less likely it was that they would be identified as a Native American.  A single drop of African blood, however, rendered someone black and thus, a potential source of labor.[2]

As I have been reading the series this month, one of the things that has jumped out at me is how much we accept the categories that were once malleable as given.  Everyone knows what we are talking about when we talk about black history within the Mormon Church, or at least we think do.  The question of who should be included in the category of blackness, however, has not always been so clear.  Mormons have traditionally identified Pacific Islanders as being descended from the original group of Israelites who traveled to the Americas in the Book of America.  Whether that identity is Nephite or Lamanite is contested.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, it was not clear what the heritage of Pacific Islanders was.  Many contemporary commenters assumed that the people of the Pacific Islands could be classified into at least two categories: Polynesians who had lighter, copper-colored skin and Melanesians whose skin was almost black.  The Protestant missionary John Williams assumed that Polynesians were descended from an Asiatic people whereas the people of Melanesia were most likely descended from Africans.  Some even went as far as far to call the residents of Melanesia “Polynesian negroes.”  Although most ethnologists separated Melanesians from Polynesians in the nineteenth century, others thought that both groups were a mixture of Asiatic and African blood.   This idea sometimes crept into Mormon thought and articles.  In 1897, for example, the Deseret Evening News published an article arguing that Polynesians were a mixture of different races and that some of the mixture undoubtedly came from African blood. The author, a Mormon living in Auckland, NZ, argued that the difference in skin color and facial features were similar to the variety found in Africa itself and evidence of the partial descent of Pacific Islanders from African peoples.  For the author, however, the presence of African blood did not diminish the fact that Pacific Islanders were descended from Israelites.  He ended his article by pointing to tattooing and Polynesian ideas about uncleanliness as evidence that the relationship between Polynesia and Israel was as close as that between Britain and America.

The origins of Pacific Islanders, especially Melanesians, were an open question.  Mormon leaders were uncertain how to treat men and women who had joined the church in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and New Caledonia.  The frequency of intermarriage between these people and Polynesians further complicated the question.  If someone who was Tongan married someone from Fiji, how should their children be classified and treated?  Should they be allowed into the temple and receive their endowments?  The question was equally complicated in other parts of the world.  In Brazil, for example, it was difficult to tell which individuals had African ancestry and which did not.  The Philippines also had a small population of people whose dark skins caused others to identify them as African.  Called the Negritos, considered darker than other Filipinos and had short, curly hair.  In 1958, David O. McKay decided that these people did not belong under the priesthood ban and could receive their temple endowments.  His decision effectively narrowed what had been an international issue to an American one.  It also simplified the category of blackness for Mormons.  When asked what is an “African,” the answer essentially became a black person in the United States or someone from Africa.

Although McKay’s decision answered the question of who would count as African for white American Mormons, it doesn’t erase the fact that such decisions are arbitrary or when we talk about black history and focus on American stories that we are erasing the messiness of the question.



[1] Tiya Miles, Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006); Anne F. Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800 – 1860 (New York: Ecco Publishers 2012); and Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999)

[2] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research Vol. 8, No. 4 (December 2006): 387 – 409.



12 Comments

  1. Fantastic post, Amanda, and an important reminder for all of us who study the intersections of racial and religious identities. And thanks for including the intro about your great grandfather.

    Comment by Christopher — February 27, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

  2. Fantastic post and important points, Amanda. This is a fitting post toward the end of our series as it points to the potential future(s) of racial studies in Mormon history, especially 1) the malleability of “race,” 2) the social construction (and thus, the social ramification) of racial identities, and 3) the widened net of who should be included in racialized studies.

    Great stuff.

    Comment by Ben P — February 27, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

  3. Oh yeah, and thank you for the touching and poignant anecdote about your great-grandfather; I really enjoyed it, and it exemplified in a very personal way the stakes involved with these questions.

    Comment by Ben P — February 27, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

  4. Great post, great points.

    Comment by Saskia — February 27, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

  5. Such wonderful material! I want to know about the poetry books. Can we see them? Are they in Spanish? This is part of our untold history, and we need to know it in personal ways. Thank you, Amanda. This also reminds me that someone ought to get _And Should We Die_ out of the LDS Motion Pictures vault and digitize it.

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 27, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  6. One of the striking things about examining Joseph F. Smith’s Hawaiian mission diaries was his treatment of race. While he always viewed native islanders with a colonial arrogance, they were still potential converts, and he cherished some of the spiritual experiences he enjoyed with them. He drew the line at interacting with people of African descent, however.

    When on the island of Molokai in 1857 he spent a great deal of time working on the farm of a German transplant, Rudolph W. Meyers, whose black spouse was not in favor of allowing the missionaries to stay with them. Joseph F. Smith recorded in his diary, “She commenced railing and jawing fit to kill, [and] said we had been talking mean of [about] her ever since we had been here, a verry little reason or Judgment on her part would have taught her better, as we do not make a practice of taking [talking?] too long about Collared [colored] folks….we finde it hard to even finde time to talk of [to?] white folks of respec[t]ability & good sence.” (JFS Diary, 3 July 1857)
    What struck me was the twofold dismissal–on the one hand, that they “did not make it a practice” to talk to people of African descent (though they were not prevalent in the islands, they were present); and the assumption that any they did talk to would not possess “respectability & good sense”.

    Comment by Nate R. — February 27, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

  7. And, as always, thanks for the insightful and great post, Amanda!

    Comment by Nate R. — February 27, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

  8. Thanks so much for this thoughtful piece Amanda! Great way to almost finish up the series!

    Comment by Natalie R — February 27, 2013 @ 10:36 pm

  9. Thanks, Amanda. That is a great photo as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 28, 2013 @ 5:38 am

  10. Thanks, Amanda. Lots of good stuff here, from your grandfather’s story, your discussion of Wolfe and the different racializations of blacks and Indians under settler colonialism, and your discussion of changing ways that white Mormons racialized Polynesians. Joel, a JI perma, has written some quality posts looking at Mormon Asians and racialization that would fit well here: http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/author/joel/

    Comment by David G. — February 28, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  11. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Margaret, I don’t feel comfortable giving out my grandfather’s poetry because he specifically requested that they not be shared outside of the family. At one point, however, Pocatello’s public library did interview my grandfather and many of the Mexican immigrants in the area. I assume those public histories are either in the Bannock County Historical Library or in the Marshall Public Library.

    Nate, that scene is one of the ones that sticks out in my mind from JFS’ diary. JFS is an interesting character. A couple of weeks ago I found a comment by JFS about concubinage in one of his letters in which he defines concubinage as a marriage between a white and a non-white person. He delights, however, in the fact that the gospel has removed these restrictions – from everyone except those who have been cursed with black skin. I don’t know whether he would have included Melanesians in that description.

    David, Thanks for the links.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 28, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

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