Faces of LDS Women: A Conversation with Margaret Blair Young

By Shelah Miner

I first got to know Margaret Blair Young—writer, BYU writing instructor, and co-creator of the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons—in the fall of 1996, when I was a student at BYU’s London study abroad program. Back then, I knew Margaret as “Sister Young,” wife of Bruce, a Shakespeare professor in charge of shepherding our group, and mom to a teenager and three energetic red-haired little kids, all of whom had come to spend six months living in a small flat attached to the study abroad house. During the four months we lived in the same building, I often saw Margaret pushing a stroller through the London streets, reining in the kids’ enthusiasm during evening devotionals, and doing laundry in the basement. You can check out Smart foundation systems to upgrade for quality basement remodeling services as they’re best around the area. In other words, I saw her as a mom.

A few months later, back in Provo, I saw signs around campus advertising an upcoming play, Dear Stone, written by Margaret Young. Soon I began to notice her name other places—in the bylines of short story collections, personal essays, and novels. Whenever I saw her name, I’d think back to our time in London and say to myself, “Wow, I wish I’d known about her writing career when I saw her every day.”

When I recently asked her about that time, she admitted she didn’t broadcast who she was and what she did.

Instead, she spent most of her six months in London trying to help her kids soak up a once-in-a-lifetime experience without letting the intensity of spending all of her time with her brood pull her under. It was in London that Margaret discovered Margaret of Anjou (1430–1482), wife of King Henry VI of England, whose de facto rule of the country during her husband’s bouts of mental instability incited the Wars of the Roses.

“I have a really active mind and needed to do something else [in addition to caring for the children],” Margaret says. “I latched on to Margaret of Anjou and Bruce said, ‘Why don’t you go to the British Museum every Wednesday?’ So every Wednesday I’d take the bus to the museum and I could go through the primary documents. By the end of that I really knew Margaret of Anjou and I wrote a play about it. It kept my sanity.”

Margaret and Bruce met when Margaret was a BYU graduate student and single mom to a young daughter and Bruce was a newly-minted professor. She says, “Bruce has been my number one cheerleader. He’s just absolutely supportive and I hope that I have been with him too. But it’s also kind of nice that we haven’t been competitive—I’m doing creative work and he’s doing academic.”

Over the years, the Youngs have learned a few things about balancing relationships and children and careers. She says, “When we were both teaching we would trade off with babies. He actually cleared a space in his office for the baby carrier so we could both take responsibility for our babies, which we felt was a good example for the students.” Bruce’s new book, Family Life in the Age of Shakespeare, was published at roughly the same time Nobody Knows was released, and the Youngs have spent the last few years balancing both projects. Margaret says, “That’s been a huge long journey. I’ve often suggested that he needed to be away from family for a long time, like for a month, for him to really focus on the book. He’d go to the Widener Library and I’d take the kids. And then I’m off showing the documentary—of course the kids are now old enough that it’s not a huge burden. We’ve loved it when we’ve been able to go places together. He’s come to film festivals with me and again is the head cheerleader. And I’ve gone to Shakespeare conferences with him.”

Margaret’s writing career grew out of her experiences as an actor. She says about those early years, “I had always wanted to write, but in my twenties I started getting really serious about it. I was pretty bad at it. I wasn’t in college anymore, so I was self-tutoring and I didn’t know how to do it. I was reading good things. They tended to be older things like Herman Melville. I read Moby Dick three times. Good stuff, but to be a writer today, you really need to read the contemporary stuff. When I finally came back [to school] one of my professors introduced me to the contemporary writers and I just hit them really hard.”

For Margaret, as for many writers, reading continues to be an integral part of mastering the craft. “When I was in fullthrottle, I was reading two short stories a day and part of a novel to really keep things fertilized and producing. I always had a few things on the burner.” Margaret’s sowing as a reader has produced a great harvest as a writer, as she has more than sixty published works to her credit.

After more than a decade of teaching and writing short stories and essays, Margaret felt pulled down a new path in the late 1990s that she still finds herself walking today. She says, “I really wanted to find something that would make a difference, not just stuff that people who subscribed to literary journals would read. It was actually a matter of prayer for me. I started writing about black pioneers without any experience at all. I didn’t even have any black friends, but very soon after I started writing, a black woman moved into my ward, and her daughter became one of my really dear friends. Out of the blue I met Darius [Gray] and he read the first hundred pages of what I had written and said, ‘Hey I can help you with this.’”

That was in 1998, and it marked the beginning of a partnership between Margaret and Darius, which has produced three novels (a trilogy on black Mormons titledStanding on the Promises); a short documentary film about Jane Manning James, a black Mormon pioneer; and the new documentary, Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. “We’ve really gotten to see ourselves as missionary companions,” Margaret says.

Working in the medium of film was a new experience for Margaret, but she found that her skills as a writer translated easily when she was making the documentaries. She explains, “I did know how to find a story. I transcribed all the interviews and as I was listening to them I was thinking, ‘Oh this can go here, this can go here,’ dividing it into the different segments.”

Margaret believes it’s easier to make that “instant connection” in film than it is in writing. She says, “You can bring in actual visuals, whereas in writing you create them with your language. We [also] brought in a lot of the traditional music and instead of creating a character, people tell their own stories, and there is a sense of connection that your audience is going to have. Some of my short stories have offended people because I go to some interesting places that some people aren’t quite ready to go to, but when it’s just somebody telling their story, it’s hard to take offense.”

Another skill Margaret brought to the making of Nobody Knows is the writer’s desire to hear stories. She says the stories shared by the interviewees were never scripted, and she and Darius purposely asked open-ended questions so they could hear the stories people wanted to tell.

“You ask open-ended questions where they can go wherever they want, and you want it to be personal. I love the fact that we have Armand Mauss and Newell Bringhurst, who are both great scholars, telling their own personal stories. There were a few times when I’d suggest that they might want to tell a particular story, but generally with the open-ended questions they would just tell what their experience was.”

Margaret stresses that she hoped the independent nature of the project, with neither official LDS Church sanction nor anti-Mormon bias, would foster open and honest discussion of the history of black Mormons. “We’re inviting you to tell your story and we don’t want you to hide,” she says. “There’s no General Authority looking over your shoulder and there’s not an anti-Mormon agenda.”

Margaret and Darius found that having people tell their own stories was a way to nudge at some of the less pleasant aspects of Mormon history. “Ultimately, the last several minutes are people telling why they’re LDS, but we go to some hard places. We talk about the fact that there is no record of any revelation to Joseph Smith [about blacks holding the priesthood]. We don’t have the narrator say that, but the scholars talk about it. Actually for people who have been in the Church a long time, the suggestion that there was a policy in place for that many years which may have been based on popular culture and tradition, not revelation, could be threatening.”

Part of the reason Margaret found it so easy to draw the stories out of African-American Church members is that over the last decade, she’s become part of the community. “By the time I did Nobody Knows, I knew the history really well and I had deep, abiding friendships. My best friends are black and we had shared so much. It’s family. I don’t really like the idea of [being] color blind, because I do think it’s important to recognize and celebrate differences, but I have never felt like anybody in the Genesis Group or the black LDS community sees me as trying to take over a part of their territory.”

When I spoke with Margaret she was busy publicizing Nobody Knows and working to get PBS stations around the country to show the documentary. But she recognized that in the near future, the film would become another baby raised and she’d be searching for a new project. So what would it be? “There’s nothing I haven’t loved doing. I’d love to get back on another novel, but what I’m doing right now is just feeding my creativity. I’ve kind of stagnated a bit in my writing. I can still judge writing and I can still teach creative writing, teach people how to do good stories, but I haven’t really started a story. I have some in my head that are just about ready for me to start. I’ve been going through my normal process: reading, reading, and then finally starting to write. I’ve just revised an old short story of mine that will be in a forthcoming anthology of LDS short fiction.”

Regardless of where she goes next, Margaret will embark on her new projects with writing skills she’s developed and honed over the years, and the support of her family and the friends she has made along the way. To follow her journey withNobody Knows, including upcoming programming schedules, visitwww.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com. Readers can also access Margaret’s current musings at the group blog By Common Consent (www.bycommonconsent.com).

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

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