"The Book of Mormon" musical is no longer winning Tonys, and Mitt Romney has stopped running for president (or so he insists).
Yet, two years after Newsweek dubbed it the so-called “Mormon Moment,” members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are once again in the news. But this time, it’s black Latter-day Saints leading the way.
Earlier this month, in the sweep of Republican victories, Mormon Mia Love became the first black female Republican ever elected to Congress. "Many of the naysayers out there said that Utah would never elect a black Republican LDS woman to Congress," the 38-year-old Love said in her victory speech. "Not only did we do it, we were the first to do it."
On the same night, the Milwaukee Bucks’ rookie small forward, Jabari Parker — a Chicago native and lifelong Latter-day Saint — became the first teenager in NBA history to get double-doubles in two of his first three games. Perhaps equally of interest to Latter-day Saints is that during general conference this year, President Thomas S. Monson quoted Jabari recalling his dad’s advice: “Just be the same person you are in the dark that you are in the light.”
And then there’s Ziggy Ansah. Born in Ghana, Ansah played soccer and basketball growing up. He never once witnessed American football. After converting to the church, he entered its flagship school, Brigham Young University. While there he underwent yet another conversion — this time from basketball to football. After only two and a half seasons, Ansah was picked No. 5 overall in the NFL draft. Since then, not only has the 25-year-old stood out on the field, being voted the Mel Farr Rookie of the Year by the Detroit Lions, but he’s also displayed empathy off the field.
The rise of Love, Parker and Ansah has occurred while Gladys Knight — Mormonism’s most famous black convert — is yet again climbing the Billboard charts. Right now she's enjoying her tenth week on the chart for Top Gospel Albums. Her latest record, “Where My Heart Belongs,” was released via the Mormon-label, Shadow Mountain.
To put this all in context, statistically speaking Latter-day Saints make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. While the precise number of black Latter-day Saints is unknown, in the state of Utah, where Mormons are 60 percent of the population, blacks comprise less than 2 percent. Increasingly, however, black Latter-day Saints are among the high achievers within the church.
Take for example Harvard-educated Kenyan-American Shaka M. Kariuki, who runs the investment firm Kuramo Capital; or Yeah Samake, the Malian mayor with a penchant for presidential runs (two and counting); or Cathy Stokes, the former Illinois public health administrator turned Utah community leader; or Alex Boye, whose cover of a popular Disney tune garnered more views on YouTube (54 million) than Coldplay's latest hit.
And the list goes on.
The institutional church — despite withholding the priesthood from blacks until 1978 — is embracing the spirit of its founder, Joseph Smith, who ran for president on an abolitionist platform and ordained black men to the priesthood. The church recently released new materials written by scholars and church leaders directly disavowing "the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."
Furthermore, as part of black history month, BYU put on the play, "I Am Jane" about the life of black Latter-day Saint pioneer Jane Elizabeth Manning James. Jane walked hundreds of miles barefoot in order to unite with the Mormons. The play was performed by an almost entirely black cast.
Meanwhile, Zandra Vranes and Tamu Smith, who go by the name "Sistas in Zion," released their joint memoir this year titled "Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons." Vranes and Smith are now staples on the Latter-day Saint speaking circuit, and their blog is widely read within the “bloggernacle” (the Mormon online community).
Black Latter-day Saints, famous or not, are contributing to the faith — and the broader world — in a panoply of ways. Earlier this year, my local congregation in Connecticut sent off a 17-year-old student for her freshman year at BYU. The adopted daughter of a strong Latter-day Saint Caribbean-American mother, this young woman is black, confident and incredibly bright. When asked about her potential major at college, there was no hesitation: “engineering.”
Of course, if engineering doesn't work out, she could always run for Congress.
Hal Boyd is a student at Yale Law School and co-editor of the forthcoming "Psalms of Nauvoo: Early Mormon Poetry."