Margaret Young hasn't been the same since Jane Manning James entered her life.
Already an accomplished writer, Young's study of the pioneer woman set her on a course that eventually defined her career and continues to enrich her life professionally, personally and spiritually.
Over the past 30 years, Young's resume of short stories, novels and plays has been adorned with awards. However, her work became more focused through her study of James, a black woman whose conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints led her to join the Saints in Nauvoo, Ill., and eventually settle in the Salt Lake Valley. Young is now best known for portraying the lives and struggles of black Latter-day Saints, both past and present.
"I'm associated with this and I always will be," Young said. "And I don't see this ending any time soon."
Young, who was raised as the daughter of a Brigham Young University professor, has had a lifelong association with the Provo school. She earned both bachelor's and master's degrees from BYU and began teaching there in 1984. She's also married to Bruce Young, a professor in BYU's English department.
While most of her life has been set in Provo, Young had several experiences that sensitized her to multicultural issues. One incident occurred when, as a seminary student, she heard a teacher use a racial slur in class. Young said she was offended at a deep level and dropped out of seminary.
During one summer, Young helped her father teach Peace Corps volunteers in Central America, where she was questioned about the church's priesthood restriction for black members. Young also recalled reading an article on the issue written by Lester E. Bush Jr. in Dialogue magazine.
"The issue mattered enough to me that I was already looking for the history when I was that young," she said.
Young has always loved history and says multiculturalism has a place in all her work. The foundation for her defining project was therefore already in place when she felt the desire to write something of significance. The lives of two black pioneers, Jane Manning James and Elijah Abel, became the inspiration and impetus for a historical-fiction project.
There was, however, one problem.
"I was entirely unqualified to write this," Young said.
In 1998, the first book already was under way when Young gave a presentation on the 20th anniversary of the 1978 priesthood revelation allowing males of all races to hold the priesthood. In attendance was Darius Gray, president of Genesis, a group that represents black Latter-day Saints. Young said Gray approached her after the presentation and said, "Let's write a book."
With Gray's help, Young's concerns about her own inadequacies were alleviated. Gray, who joined the church in 1964, provided expertise on the subject of black pioneers and their descendants. The collaboration produced a trilogy called "Standing on the Promises," with the final book, "The Last Mile of the Way," published in 2003.
"He really became the voice of what we did," Young said. "He came with a personal knowledge. By the time we got to the third book, we were really not in fiction anymore."
Young said that a black man and white woman who are "both very stubborn" made for an "interesting dynamic." But the results were award-winning novels and a project that would venture well beyond historical fiction.
Young also wrote a play called "I Am Jane" and a screenplay for the film "Jane Manning James: Your Sister in the Gospel." Gray and Young then co-produced and directed the film "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons." Gray had previous experience with filmmaking, but for Young it was a more difficult undertaking. She eventually "fell in love with the whole process" of combining the written word with visual imagery and music.
"It was just bringing so many things into the picture than I was used to having in just my writing," Young said.
Young considers the novels, play and films part of one big project the most fulfilling venture of her professional life. The rewards of the work, however, transcended her career.
Young has been witness to a "deeper understanding" of the history of blacks and the LDS Church. She said the film "Nobody Knows," which was shown at the LDS Film Festival in January, addresses difficult issues and "lingering folklore." The result has been self-reflection for viewers, she said.
"We learn as a people and as a church," she said.
Young suggested that the relationships established through this project have influenced her family for good. Her children, she said, have been raised in a multicultural environment and have gained an understanding of important issues. They've all benefited from the faith, testimonies and experiences of black church members."It's been a gift to my whole family," she said. "The strength that I've observed and been able to be a part of, to have my best friends from the circle of black Latter-day Saints ... It's not only been life-changing for me but for my whole family."