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Line Upon Line, Precept on Precept

By Melonie Cannon

“Not only is they lines, but you know good as I do where them lines be drawn.”
Aibileen shakes her head. “I used to believe in em. I don’t anymore. They in our heads. People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there. But they ain’t.”…”Lines between black and white ain’t there neither. Some folks just made those up, long time ago.” The Help, Kathryn Stockett

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The first African-American man I ever saw, other than on television, was a doorman at the Hotel Utah, now currently known as the Joseph Smith Building. He was in his seventies with silver hair and a wide smile. He seemed tall to me. He put his hands on his knees when he bent down to look in my face. I have a picture with me standing next to him, but I don’t know who took it or why.

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The first polygamists I ever remember seeing, besides in family ancestor photos, were a bunch of children playing near a farmhouse. My Dad had gone there to help them with legal business and my sister, my brother, and I had accompanied him. I sat on their swingset, watching the group of dressed-alike children stare at me as long and hard as I was staring at them. I remember feeling uncomfortable in my capsleeves. A small girl, in a light blue dress walked toward me holding out a grey kitten. “Would you like to hold it?” she asked. I jumped off the swing and ran away.

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There was a single African-American boy that came to my high school my Junior year. I would see him in the halls and wonder how he felt. He graduated that year. I never spoke to him.

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Charleen pulled me into a beauty salon in downtown Florence, Italy. She was a Southern goddess and she didn’t mind telling that to everyone she met. Her hot pink fingernails and matching dress shone against her skin. She was the first black woman I had ever talked to. I was twenty. The Italian beauticians swarmed around her like butterflies, touching her hair. They had never felt a black woman’s hair before. I translated to Charlene, “They don’t know how to do your hair. They are afraid they might ruin it.” She snapped her fingers and told me to translate back.

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I heard my parents talking about him. He had been shot right in his office. He hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve it. He was just a polygamist. His name was Allred.

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Three years of being Rita’s visiting teacher and she never once let us in her house. Every month we would call, leave Ensigns, the Church News, cookies, or a letter. Eventually she started coming to Sacrament Meeting. She wore a dark pantsuit and would sit in the back. She would slip out before I could get to her. After eighteen months or so, she agreed to meet in our homes, never in hers. We became fast friends. A year after my companion and I moved away, we came back to be with Rita. We sat in the temple as her escorts. Her 48-year old black hand curled around mine.
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He sat on my parents’ kitchen stool last Sunday, eating the remains of my Dad’s birthday feast. He is eighteen and living in the back room indefinitely while he takes missionary discussions. He’s from a polygamist family and the rules require him to not be at his home influencing his siblings with his decision to leave polygamy. He says that he has friends already married and he thinks he is too young. He’s from the group of Allred – the same man who’d been shot when I was young. His friends and family still live in fear of being jailed or shot. I’ve never talked to a polygamist. It’s my chance to ask questions other than the ones I’ve heard asked on Oprah.
“What are the doctrinal differences between you and Mormons, besides living polygamy?” I ask.
“Only two I can think of,” he answered confidently, “We believe in the Adam-God theory. We also believe that black people should not have gotten the priesthood because they’re Canaanites.”
“Canaanites?” I respond, confused.
“Yes. Descended from Cain.”
“Oh,” I mutter, shaking my head.

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I think back to that very same morning in Relief Society. Kristy sits beside me. She adopted Milo who is now the same age as my boy. She has adopted her second African-American child – a baby girl she named Noelle. I ask to hold her and she is passed to me like an unwrapped present, swathed in pink, with a bow in her curly, dark hair. We play, smile at each other, she chews on my watch while I listen to the lesson about the Priesthood. “Through the keys of the priesthood, we can access all of the powers of heaven.” I hold her up and she dances lightly on my thighs.
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We all have experiences that make us draw boundary lines. I’ve had to ask myself over and over where my lines are drawn and why. The lines have become more fluid over the years- sometimes invisible, sometimes deep. But I ask myself, “Should they exist at all?” What are your experiences that have given you insight into your own boundary lines?

About Melonie Cannon

Melonie has surrounded herself with beautiful words for as long as she can remember. This led her to find a home with Segullah after writing an essay published in the May 2006 Segullah issue. She was invited to join the staff and has been a part of Segullah in various capacities since, including being the creator of the “Words Fall In” podcast.  She received her M.Ed from the University of Utah and was a certified Secondary English teacher before becoming a Mom of four. Over the years, her focus has been on natural healing modalities and becoming a sacred sound healing practitioner with a focus on the drum, rhythm, voice, and vibration. She is finishing her PH.D. in theology and metaphysics to further these studies and help women to connect to the divine within themselves.

22 thoughts on “Line Upon Line, Precept on Precept”

  1. I love how your lines got smaller and smaller–both the ones on the page and the ones in the stories. Beautiful piece.

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  2. Very nice post.

    That whole Cain/Canaanites thing has been the source of a lot of misunderstanding. Those words aren't related at all. That they look similar is just an accident of transliteration. A more accurate rendering of Cain would be Qayin, and of Canaan would be Kena'an. They derive from two completely different roots. The name Qayin has to do with metal smithing, and the name Kena'an means something like "Westland."

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  3. Cool information, Kevin. Thanks for sharing that. (I'm going to make a note of it in my scriptures.)

    Experiences? I met Darius Gray when he was a cameraman working for KSL and I was getting ready to start my first year at the University of Utah. And I have loved and admired him ever since.

    Recently, while visiting a daughter in northern Virginia, I was on the Washington DC metro, and I realized that I was riding in a car full of African-Americans. I hadn't even noticed until then, and I hoped it meant that such a thing was a mere detail and not that important in my heart.

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  4. Reading The Help enlightened me. I needed that. I did not have any good experiences with black people growing up. I simply 'knew' so few of them so naturally what few I did know, I lumped them all together. Probably what people do to us as Mormons.

    I don't remember any in my grammar school. But I do remember one night watching from an inside window, a black teenager come into our back yard and steal my brother's bike. I remember a black woman in the bus depot scaring us when she asked my Mom for money one day. And 3 black men came into my husband's shop back in 1996 to rob him and instead, killed him.

    As I sat through my husband's murder trial, not far from me, was the mother of one of the accused and later convicted. She sat there clutching her Bible as tears fell into her lap. I never spoke to her. I so wish I had. It was at that moment however that I saw her as a Mom…a Mom grieving for what her son did and a Mom scared of what his future would be. She loved her son. I could relate to that. I sat there too thinking of her son's children which I learned through the trial that he had several.

    My sons had lost their father to death. Her son's children would lose their Dad to life long prison. I knew my sons still had me…they had the gospel, they were surrounded by many many loving supportive people. My sons future looked so much brighter than the the children of the man who killed my husband.

    And so the cycle goes. Reading The Help gave me just a tiny glimpse to what the black culture has had to endure. Not the privileged life I have had, that is for sure. Where much is given, much is expected.

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  5. Ashley,
    I was afraid no one would notice that…thank you!

    Paul,
    I wish we all had more contact.

    Kevin, I didn't correct the young man when he said it, but I SO wanted to explain that the two "C" words were not related at all. However, he did saw that the missionaries explained how his earlier beliefs were misguided. Thanks for your insight.

    Kathleen, thanks for sharing. Speaking of riding public transportation…my Dad says that you and he have had great conversations over the years on the bus…do you know Richard Cannon?

    and finally, Jill. I really have no words to say to explain my feelings when I read your comment. Please will you write about this and submit it to the blog or Segullah? I can't imagine what your feelings might have been or still are. It was very brave of you to share with us. God bless you.

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  6. Jill, I'm impressed that you are trying to understand those who took away your husband. Bless you.

    My Dad is a construction worker and often told "colorful" jokes around the dinner table, but I don't remember him treating anyone differently because of the color of their skin.

    In Jr. High I spent the night at my Latino friend's house. Her mom wasn't home and she invited two Latino men over. She and her guy went into the bedroom and I was supposed to "be friends" with the other guy who spoke no English. I called my Dad to pick me up ASAP, and he did, no questions asked. After that experience I steered clear of Latin men, believing they were driven by sexual impulses and would at any minute take advantage of me.

    Four years ago we moved into a Spanish branch. Thankfully it was an opportunity to change false paradigms.

    Two weeks ago when I received a biting, hateful forwarded email about immigrants from a member of my ward I sent a response to educate her about stereotypes and the necessity for us as Christians to love all of our brothers and sisters.

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  7. I found this interesting for a few reasons:
    I was born and raised in the Deep South (Miami, Flordia)–at least half of my classmates and friends were different than me–all the colors on the planet.
    While there were the segregation issues, it seemed like an "adult problem"–my friends and I payed little attention to it.
    I joined the LDS church as a teen, and moved west to Colorado. Then married an Arizona native–whose family was absolutely ignorantly bigotted.
    They refused to let a classmate of my daughters' come into their house because she was African-American. I had to explain to my 8 year old daughter that they were afraid of people who were different than them…and what a "bigot" looks like–her granpa.
    My oldest kids have served missions–one to Montreal, where he learned "haitian creole" and the other to NJ where she learned spanish–both taught people of beautiful color the Gospel. They loved the people they served–and maybe that's the key right there, we become color-blind when we serve with our whole hearts.
    I have little personal feelings one way or other towards polygamists–it seems to be a tradition that binds families by segregating their children from anyone who different, and I wonder if my ex-father-in-law would've been just as happy being a polygamist if he'd been born into it, ya know?
    This is a topic that needs more open dialogue
    in the church and our communities, truly.
    Thanks for bringing it to the table. Melonie.

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  8. Dawn,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. Because you have two extremes in your family, I wonder how it affects your daughter. It sounds like she follows after her mother.
    I love the sentence "we become color-blind when we serve with our whole hearts." This is something we can all be reminded of.

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  9. I really like the thoughts you've shared

    I have often thought that, if there is a line that I've drawn myself, it's between education levels. It's so easy for me to say that so-and-so's problems are a result of ignorance. Hard for me to erase that line, but this post inspires me to reflect more sincerely on human-ness, rather than differences.

    (The Help is truly wonderful, isn't it?)

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  10. A beautiful post, Melonie. And I love that you quoted from "The Help"—I thoroughly enjoyed that book.

    Jill Shelley, your comment left me moved and full of admiration. I, too, would love to hear more of your story.

    I echo the idea that we learn to overcome differences when we serve others and truly open our hearts to them. I need to do more of this, so that I can see—really see—others as God would have me see them.

    Thanks for this post!

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  11. I don't know that color blind is the answer to erasing lines. I want to be proud of my heritage, even though it means embracing my stout, stubborn and pasty Danish roots in the same way I want my colorful nephews and nieces to be proud of their African-American, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander roots. That means not pretending the differences don't exist. I think it means acknowledging what differences do exist but which ones just don't matter in the conversation. For example, when my friends have adopted baby girls of color, they have needed serious training in the treatment and styling of African-American girl hair. Different products are required, different styling techniques are necessary, different choices must be made than any of those necessary and appropriate for my towhead children with their stick straight hair. But hair has nothing to do with intelligence, moral uprightness or social value.

    Along those same lines, my BIL (whose children are colorful) is trying to teach his sons which cultural traditions are worthy of embrace and which are not. (reminds me of a talk some years back by Elder Scott) His 13 yr old son of African descent comes in the house and says to his mother "yo Momma!" To which his mother replies, no, I am mom, mother or ma'am. And he replies, you wouldn't understand, it's a cultural thing. To his credit, my BIL consulted with African-American friends to check his gut feeling and was told that if charming young 13 year old had been in their homes growing up and used that sort of mouthy address, there would have been serious physical repercussions. So BIL has the job of teaching his young son that what he may see as the current social trend among young men of color in his social circles is not necessarily worthy of embrace and not because of culture, but because of universal notions of respect for your elders.

    The first woman of color I met was my 5th grade teacher when we moved from Farmington UT to Northern VA. I couldn't understand a word she said–not because she was Black, but because she was from the Deep South and her accent was indecipherable to my baby white Utahn ears. My father had to learn some difficult lessons in stereotypes. He knew far too many lazy civil servants in DC where he worked and began to shamefully think that it was a universal of race, that is until he got a job working for a Harvard educated eloquent, hard-working man of color. He altered his opinion and changed his views.

    I think it is human nature to universalize our experience. How many strange questions do we get asked as Mormons because of other Mormons people have known along the way (my favorite being why can't young Mormon men drive cars until after they are married–she had only seen missionaries in twos on bikes and extrapolated incorrectly)? In order to truly erase lines we need to embrace differences, to see color and refuse to care, to refuse to universalize one person's choices for an entire group, to love the wondrous diversity with which the Lord painted us all.

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  12. This post gave me the shivers…thank you!

    (BTW…could someone parenthetically tell me what the Adam-God theory is? I don't want to hijack the comments.)

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  13. I loved this, Melonie. Beautiful writing, and great questions. I'm still thinking about it from yesterday when I read it.

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  14. "The Help" was a wonderful book. I just finished it last week and it was fresh in my mind.

    I grew up in Wyoming and had little experience with people of color. When I was about 15, I visited with my cousins in Chicago. My cousin took me out to lunch to a nearby Subway. When we walked in, I was suddenly very aware that I was white. She and I were the only white people in the entire restaurant. It was unnerving for me and I had my first taste of what it might be like to be the minority.

    We also had one African-American in our high school. He was a novelty of sorts. I would say hello to him in the hallways, but I never did have an actual conversation with him.

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  15. Melonie, Richard Cannon is your father? Cool! He is a delightful man, and it's always a joy to run into him. Thanks for saying something, and please tell him "Hello!" for me.

    Angie f, I am totally with you on appreciating and being excited about our different heritages. When I was growing up, my uncle was closely involved with the Tongan people (as a teacher–before missionaries were allowed to go there–as mission president, and then as temple president), and whenever he would come to Salt Lake, the Tongans here would have a big party for him and his family (so I got to go). I loved it so much.

    A few years ago, my husband and I served as support missionaries for a small ward in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley (they call it the Inner City Mission, but it covers much more than the western half of the valley). There we were able to work with refugees from both sides of Africa (Sierra Leone as well as Rwanda), and to learn a tiny bit about the huge diversity that exists there.

    I remember when I was in high school and the Black Power movement started (see, now I've dated myself). I thought it was a great idea (for the most part–please, people, violence is not an answer), and I did my own heritage appreciation by wearing a little badge that showed the words "Irish Power" inside of a shamrock (it was the best I could do).

    It really is a small world (see Melonie's father and my connection), and there are so many wonderful and exciting people in it with so many interesting things to share.

    Sometimes, when I am sitting in a crowded area with lots of people all around me, I try to open my heart so that I can feel Heavenly Father's love for all of those people. And sometimes, I manage to open it enough that He can let me feel a portion of that great love.

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  16. Beautiful post, Melonie.

    I grew up in California and I remember after kindergarten playing with a black girl and her black dolls (the kind that were just heads and you did their hair). I had Asian friends and Hispanic friends too.

    In sixth grade we had a boy from Ethiopia move in. He told me he appreciated that I could pronounce his last name right (Tesfahsgee-sp?).

    In high school in Sunnyvale, Ca we only had about 30 black students. One, Levi, was popular with everyone (we used to write notes to each other pretending we were married and we'd make up names for our kids). Now he's a hs coach and was instrumental in reconnecting about 400 people from our school on facebook.

    At BYU I had the opportunity to dance with Kevin Gibbons (I think that's his last name). He is wonderful. Last time I saw him he was married to a beautiful and strong black woman and they had 4 kids (I think).

    I also had positive experiences with students at BYU from Africa who seemed humble and hospitable.

    So, long comment summed up-I think exposure to diverse peoples is beneficial, but I prefer a color blind-or united-approach over one that emphasizes uniqueness. It seems to me that there is more division now among racial groups than when I was growing up in late 70's to 80's. (But that might just be ignorance on my part).

    Thanks for giving time to think about this topic. I also love The Help. I think those lines happen because of lack of exposure and attitudes of people around you.

    Kathleen-I love that you shared how you open your heart to the people around you. We should all do that.

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  17. i don't know if being color blind is the ideal. i think that we have to let people decide for themselves how they identify and see themselves. i think sometimes in america we have this tendancy to want everyone to assimilate and leave behind their heritage. my husband is palestinian and the other day my sister said she doesn't think of him as palestinian just as an american. my husband thought that was funny because he sees himself as a palestnian-american. why not celebrate our differences instead of pretending we don't see them?

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  18. Excellent piece. I loved reading it and all of the comments. The visual effect really added to it as well.

    (I also love that now I can picture a face with your name:)

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