Janan Graham-Russell, the 2021-22 University of Utah Mormon Studies Fellow and a Harvard Ph.D. candidate, hopes to tell the history of Haitian Latter-day Saints. (University of Utah)
SALT LAKE CITY — Janan Graham-Russell joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2010 at the age of 21 while working as a graphic artist.
Her artist’s eye has led her on a years-long journey exploring depictions of Black people in church spaces and inspired her to write about her experiences in the faith.
During one of her first visits to the temple in Washington D.C. — a city with one of the highest populations of Black people in the U.S. — Graham-Russell, who is Black, noticed a portrait of a white Jesus surrounded entirely by white angels.
“In my opinion, art is so, so much, a sort of manifestation of cultural attitudes — oftentimes subconsciously,” Graham-Russell said. “If something like this could be hung in these sacred places for Mormons, you know, what does it mean?”
Shortly after her baptism, Graham-Russell had questions about the church’s policy and culture decisions involving Black members. Church founder Joseph Smith was against slavery and a few Black men were ordained to the priesthood during his life. “In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of Black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter Blacks continued to join the church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost,” the church’s website says. That limitation ended in 1978.
“I’ve always tried to engage with the history of loss,” Graham-Russell said of her experience as a Black member of the church. “You know, unfortunately, that history in the church has really mirrored what happened in the U.S.”
“I wanted to help tell those experiences about Black people in the U.S.,” she said. “I think it helps tell a more complete picture of what it means to be Black, not only in the LDS Church, but also in the United States — and how those two things are intertwined.”
Graham-Russell’s interest in race and religion led her to a master’s degree at the divinity school of Howard University, a historically Black college. Then, she became a doctoral candidate at Harvard University and began working on a dissertation about the history and culture of Black Haitian Latter-day Saints.
Graham-Russell’s work is bringing her to Utah — more specifically, the University of Utah’s Mormon Studies program, which awarded Graham-Russell with a nationwide graduate research fellowship. The fellowship gives doctoral students a year of funding and access to local church archives and resources.
“The University of Utah special collections, the LDS church history library, the LDS church family history library, Utah State archives, BYU special collections, Utah State University — you know, all of those are within driving distance,” said Paul Reeve, the Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies at the U. “It’s really access to those sources that, you know, those Ph.D. students who apply for our fellowship are most interested in and excited about.”
Graham’s Russell’s project, titled “Churched Bodies: Embodied Practice and the Maintenance of Mormon Identity Among Haitian Latter-day Saints in the United States,” focuses on the role of the physical body in devotional practices — and, more specifically, how immigrant members are assimilated into the body of the church.
Graham-Russell said her study with the University of Utah will focus on Haitian Latter-day Saint communities in South Boston, Florida and hopefully Haiti. Her research will include archival work with church documents and a research method known as ethnography, which focuses on learning about a community and culture by integrating into it.
In the South Boston congregation that Graham-Russell will focus on, services are conducted entirely in Haitian Creole or French. “Language comes with certain mannerisms, certain ways of approaching topics — it comes with cultural or traditional beliefs,” Graham-Russell said, noting that traditional language was useful to Black Haitian Latter-day Saints in framing relationships between members and religious experiences with Heavenly Father.
“A lot of members also come from Catholic backgrounds,” she said, “so that is something also is sort of incorporated or integrated into Mormon practices as well.”
Graham-Russell sees her work as putting various Black identities within the church into conversation with each other instead of competition. “I think that’s important to put in conversation — especially as the church is having conversations about racism and white supremacy,” Graham-Russell said. “You have Dallin H. Oaks talking about Black lives matter and they’re really driving the point. … You know, Black lives come in a lot of different forms.”
President Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in an address at BYU in October of 2020 that the idea that Black lives matter is an eternal truth that should be universally accepted.
Asked how the church can support its Black members, Graham-Russell said, “If there are these aspects of (church) history, they are then translated into its present and that impacts members spiritually — and if it’s impacting them spiritually, it’s going to impact them emotionally, physically.”
She said church members have commented about her hair or skin tone. She encourages members to listen to Black people when they share concerns, and to have “an honest conversation about race.”
“I really want to drive home is it is important not to flatten the experiences of Black people — whether it’s African Americans, Haitians, Haitian Americans, Nigerians … there are very important stories there,” she said.
“The work that I do, my hope is that it helps me widen the door” to more Black stories, Graham-Russell said. “There are already Haitian members who are telling their own stories, but my hope is to enable and support that in any way that I can.”