Being a black student at BYU can be difficult

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27 2008 9:28 a.m. MST

BYU student Charlene Baptista paints the face of Peter Sturdivant during the annual African-American Children's Fair at BYU Saturday.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

Enlarge photo»

PROVO — While attending Black History Month events at Brigham Young University this month, many black students have spoken out about their feelings on being a minority at the university — and issues that arise from being black and Mormon.

Of the 30,426 students enrolled at BYU, 158 are black, according to BYU statistics.

Black students speaking to the Deseret Morning News at a recent Black History Month presentation emphasized they have been treated very well at BYU — by faculty and students alike. But being a minority anywhere is difficult, they said.

Niiboi Amertev, 25, a junior from Ghana, said sometimes he feels white people in Utah don't feel comfortable around him, and he can tell by their body language. "Actions speak louder than words," Amertev said.

Barima Kwarteng, 20, a sophomore from Ghana, said most people at BYU simply don't have a lot of exposure to blacks, and they don't really understand black people.

"I get the impression they think I'm here to play sports," said Kwarteng, who is majoring in computer engineering.

Catherine Spruill, 27, of Steilacoom, Wash., a senior, said, "People make ignorant remarks. They're not worth remembering. We've been commanded to forgive. The easiest way to forgive something is to forget about it."

Some black students said they wish the school would recruit more blacks so they wouldn't be such a minority.

"There should be more outreach," said Noah Morris, 29, BYU's Black Student Union president and a junior born in Nigeria.

BYU does have a national multicultural student recruitment program called SOAR. It starts in eighth grade and steers students toward college preparation. It includes a weeklong summer session on campus, with classes including preparation for the SAT exam, said BYU spokeswoman Carri P. Jenkins.

During the past few weeks, BYU's Black Student Union hosted myriad events for Black History Month.

Ahmad Corbitt, a black member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who serves as director of the church's New York Office of Public and International Affairs, spoke to about 100 students on the struggle some members have with the priesthood limitation once practiced by the church. His talk referred to the church's decision in 1978 that black male members could hold the priesthood.

A dozen students and a few guests stayed almost an hour after the presentation to pepper Corbitt with questions and concerns regarding race and their religion.

The students didn't mention any specific problems at BYU but did say they don't appreciate the folklore that they said is sometimes spread by seminary teachers or church leaders regarding blacks in the church.

One example, the students said, is when people say blacks "sat on the fence," or weren't fully committed to Christ in the pre-mortal life, and therefore are punished by the color of their skin on earth.

"Speculation about inferiority in the pre-earth life" is not part of the church's doctrine nor part of the curriculum, Corbitt said.

He advised the students, when they hear people repeating these stories, to take the matter to a bishop and/or a stake president and make them aware of what is being said.

Such folklore is definitely not supposed to be taught in the seminary program, said Thomas R. Valletta, director of the Church Education System curriculum. "That (folklore) is certainly not true, and it's not in the curriculum," Valletta said.

Several students at Corbitt's presentation said they wished church leaders would speak directly to racial problems during a general conference session. Entire talks have been devoted to issues such as pornography, the students pointed out.

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