Standing On The Promises
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The Last Mile of the Way is the third and final volume in Margaret Young and Aidan Gray’s trilogy of historical novels about black Mormon pioneers. Standing On The Promises is an award-winning series that begins with the miraculous journey of blacks who join the Mormon Church, settle in Nauvoo and push forward across plain and prairie in a quest for Zion. As Book 3 opens, they are enjoying the evensong of their lives. For their posterity, however, there are still big rivers to cross.
The stories of our most triumphed black pioneers are deeply affecting. Young and Gray develop characters that reach out to bridge separation and connect willing hearts. Brazen and noble in spirit, these faithful individuals held tightly to the promises they made to God. Their proving ground was harsh. As I learned of their struggles, the prejudice and the trials, my blood began to boil a bit. Even now, my heart pounds as I picture the faces of those who stayed true. I cannot stop thinking about them and their unyielding faith. Immersed in their stories, I came to know them and love them. They moved me in marvelous ways.
25 years ago, a long-awaited revelation was received, allowing all worthy males to hold the priesthood of God. It is fitting that in 2003, Young and Gray would publish their final novel, a book that spans almost a century of black pioneer heritage.
A Unique Narration
The authors’ note indicates a deliberate change in the narrator’s dialect in this book from the previous two in the series. Margaret Blair Young, professor of Creative Writing at Brigham Young University and Darius Aidan Gray, former journalist and current President of the Genesis Group, wanted the dialect to reflect the actual speech of blacks coming up in society in the 1900’s.
“Many parents of color insisted that their children learn and use the grammar accepted in white society, which would symbolize their station, education and progress. Sadly, many blacks became ashamed of using flat talk,’ in public and used it only in family settings.”
Use of this “flat talk” makes the narration soar. It makes the book real, adding humor, perspective and rhythm, helping readers feel the pulse of the black race and its people. The narrator’s voice is that of a seasoned black woman or man (I never could tell) who is etched deeply into the black community, eager to pass down the stories old eyes lived long enough to see.
“By now, I’ve told you the stories of many pioneers of color. This book begins in the twilight of their lives. Several great ones have already gone to glory. Pretty much all what’s left are Jane James, Lew Manning, Sam and Amanda Chambers, the Leggroans, and Green Flake – and at this point, they’ve shriveled up. Their bodies have, anyway. Still, there’s something of splendor in and old, creased face. When you gaze deep, you can almost see through the years, like you’re looking down a well. You can’t help but love them and stand in some measure of awe.” (1)
Young and Gray have grounded the book in true life-accounts and personal histories, matching dates, people and places with actual experiences and feelings. Where many LDS novel series tell the story of fictional characters interacting with a few historical figures in real settings, Young and Gray’s books are unique. They tell the story of real historical figures in real settings, who interact with a few fictional characters. This strengthens the book’s message, simply because it is more true.
It is obvious that meticulous research was done to make the book historically accurate. Endnotes are lengthy and detailed, placing written letters and statements in actual context, providing readers with a litany of insightful background. The book’s title and chapters are from Negro spirituals or traditional Christian Hymns like “Heal my Wounded, Broken Spirit”, “Standing in the Need of Prayer”, and “Coming for to Carry me Home.”
Jane Elizabeth James Manning
“Black Jane” becomes a familiar character to the readers of this trilogy. Her story carries the series forward. While I served as a missionary in Nauvoo, a favorite pastime of mine was to walk with the other sisters through the streets of Old Nauvoo around dusk. We loved to tell Jane’s story, how she lived with the prophet Joseph and Emma, how she walked 800 miles to reach Nauvoo, how she worked with her own hands to build a temple she would never enter. She was one of our favorite church-history heroines. Young and Gray use Jane’s story to introduce early in the novel the issue of race within Mormonism. Her denied petitions to church leadership set the stage for numerous disappointments that follow – Monroe Fleming, Len Hope, and Aidan Gray all brandish their own wounds, their own prayers, their own sacrifices upon the altar.
Although the book is light-hearted at first, it quickly presents some heavy themes. Jane Manning’s letter to President Joseph F. Smith is quoted in part. She asks to obtain her endowments and be adopted into Joseph Smith’s family. “I am anxious for My Welfare for the future…I was requested to write to you – Hoping you will please show kindness to me.” She signs the letter, “I remain Your Sister In the Gospel Jane E James, Elizabeth” and then this declaration, “I am Colored.” She set the stage. Generations will come and go, asking the same question of the Lord’s prophets, forced to accept the same answer – the time has not yet come. The next chapter is ironically titled, “I’m going to Heaven anyhow.” Resilience like this makes the novel indelible. Many blacks looking beyond the pains of limitation and waited for promises they could only glimpse from far away.
The Len Hope story is one of the most exciting in the book. Len was baptized in secret but word spread quickly that he had joined himself with a white religion.
Night Riders called at his cabin one evening.
” Len heard horse hooves from a distance, like the hammering of hail. From the window, he could see white-robed riders…They were vengeful ghosts, tearing through the cornfield and trampling the crop…They weren’t going to hurt the boy, Boss Ghost said. They only wanted to talk a word or two…Seem to me if they wasn’t goin’ to hurt me, they’d leave they guns at home’ Len whispered. A white hood showed through the back window when Len flicked a glance that direction. There was no escape. He walked onto the porch. Straight off, Boss Ghost boomed through his sheet: What happened here, boy? You went over the seas and you learn a few things about the white folks and you want to come back here and join ’em, is that it?’ No sir’ Len said. He could see one rifle aimed at his heart. I been lookin’ into the Saints church from way before I went over the seas. Done decided it was God’s church so I came back and joined. That’s the whole of it.” (165-166)
Len Hope was an admirable hero who often stared into the face of adversity. Eventually, he settled with his wife in Cincinnati, Ohio, but the prejudice followed, even within the walls of LDS chapels. The following excerpt describes their first Sacrament meeting.
“As the Hopes’ voices rose, other voices eased off. Len sang, ‘Come to Zion’ but quieted when it seemed everyone else had stopped short…For years, Len had improved his acquaintance with the Holy Ghost. That sweet gift would cause his deepest, best feelings to swell inside him. Right now, every good feeling was shriveling and shrinking. Len knew when the Holy Ghost was present and when it was not. He knew the Holy Ghost had quit this room.” (236)
The sacrament was passed to everyone in the chapel except the Hopes. Soon after, the Branch President visited them, asking the Hopes not to return to church. They were disappointed but did not resist. They knew it would not have helped. Later, Hope forgave the behavior of church members with this insight, “Some people are just stuck in cold molasses, that’s all. That’s what bad traditions are. Nothin’ but cold molasses. More cause for pity than anything else.”
Young and Gray deal gracefully with the issue of race within Mormonism because black members like Len Hope dealt gracefully with it first. Still, readers are urged to ask hard questions about the timing, history and purpose of such trials. Church sentiment (both positive and negative) is accurately depicted as the authors openly write of the hurts and inequality blacks faced as minorities within a predominantly white church.
Integration of American Black History
The book is greatly strengthened by an integration of American black history. This additional piece of the story broadens the scope of black plight from church building to national uprisings. Young and Gray weave black history into almost every chapter, including figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, and other prominent black leaders, who helped raise an army of blacks willing to fight for equality.
At this point in the novel, our seemingly soft-spoken Narrator finds a louder voice – an impetus that yields empathy and understanding to the passion most blacks felt. The state of the nation is described in this way,
“Jim Crow ruled the roost in many states, dividing train cars and busses and nesting between neighborhoods…Lynch parties were like the convulsions of a disease. Some lynchers called the dead man a devil and never realized the truth: the real devil was alive and gorging himself on the blood in their own hearts. Oh, that devil is sly. He loves worming meanness into the appearance of honor and weaving hate into as many heartstrings as he can thrum. He adores division. And he rejoices in war, for it divides more people and destroys more souls than anything else.” (124)
The narrator continues, offering commentary on whites’ perpetuation of inequality,
“I doubt many whites wanted to admit the nature of the struggle, its cause, its rightness, or its goal. To see what was really happening, they’d have to examine their own hearts and history, and maybe they know what they’d find. But the battalion of blacks had to understand. Every one of them knew what is was to be diminished. It was worse than being shot or lynched, for it never ended. Diminishment got passed down the generations. Every one of our men knew what it was to be called boy.” Every one of our women knew what it was to cherish a child who the larger part of this nation would disregard or despise. (142)
Perspectives like this have been powerfully written, giving the novel momentum and fervor. The inclusion of American black history is wise and enlightening as it provides the reader with a timeline of concurrent events within Church and American history.
The Struggle to Understand the Priesthood Revelation
While reading the novel, I continued to ask myself one underlying question. Will this book ever satisfactorily answer the question of God’s timing with blacks and the priesthood? Deep in my heart, I was looking for a solid answer to the whys. Why so long? Why did it have to happen in the first place? For any reader who has grappled with such questions, this book is a must-read. Answers are not supplied in full, but the keys to understanding them are there.
In the final pages of the novel, most stories come full circle. Aidan Gray’s story is of particular interest. In the end, he finds himself a worthy priesthood holder attending the Nauvoo Temple Dedication. The narrator, now like an old friend, recalls the faithful who walked there, imagining Jane James, Elijah Abel and others pondering one great truth. “God has been in charge all along – but He will force no man to any change…can’t push love into nobody’s heart.” Maybe Black Jane says it best, “All Jesus can do is set his breath in the wind and whisper.”
The Last Mile of The Way
What a journey these faithful Saints have tread.
What trials. We ought to hail them for their commitment to the gospel and their ability to endure. Young and Gray are to be congratulated on a fine literary work, brimming with education and truth. Their calculated facts bring historical characters into living reality. Real people with real hearts, broken open in sorrow, healed with joy.
No accounting of black LDS history has more emotionally, inspirationally and truthfully been written. The Last Mile of the Way is a tremendous literary accomplishment – a fair perspective of how it was, with great hope for how it is to be.