How We Misinterpret "Black" and "Curse" in the Scriptures: Insights from an African American Convert

Shortly after African American Sandra Bland was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, and 10-year police veteran Darren Goforth was ambushed and murdered at a gas station in Cypress, Texas, Marvin Perkins stood in front of a stake in Houston, Texas, speaking on the topic of race and division.

Perkins was not a stranger to speaking on sensitive or divisive topics. In fact, Perkins was one among six presenters—including Sharon Eubank, now first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency—sent to Kungsbacka, Sweden, to strengthen Latter-day Saints in that region as they grappled with difficult gospel questions after former Area Authority Seventy, Elder Hans Mattsson, publicly left the Church.

Standing in front of this community torn apart by racial violence and conflict in 2015, Perkins delivered his message about race and the priesthood, finding unity in the gospel, and loving each other as literal brothers and sisters.

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Marvin Perkins presenting in Kungsbacka, Sweden. Image courtesy of Marvin Perkins.

After his presentation, a couple approached Perkins. “They were both sobbing, almost uncontrollably. When they were able to compose themselves, [the wife] admitted that she and her family are racists and have been racist all their lives. She mentioned that they use the N-word every day. She cried, ‘No one ever told us this!’” Perkins says. “She was ashamed of how she had lived her life up to that point, in how she had thought about, spoke about, and treated other children of God. I remember the penetrating words of her husband. He stated, ‘I value my word. And good people taught me those things, and I believed them and taught them boldly to others. I can’t believe I hurt so many people with things that were just not true.’”

That day, Perkins witnessed what he had seen on countless occasions—the way incorrect teachings or misinterpreted scripture can warp people’s understanding of the gospel and each other. But he also witnessed how the truth and our Savior’s grace can transform our understanding and our hearts—a transformation he knows from experience.

Converting to the LDS Faith

“I had a definite advantage when I investigated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in that I knew who God was,” Perkin says. “I knew that Jesus Christ died for all in the human family and that God was no respecter of persons.” When Perkins began investigating the Church in 1988, he says members “were lovingly telling me that I was cursed, was less valiant in the pre-existence, and could not inherit the celestial kingdom but should join anyway because there were some blessings for me.”

Perkins had no doubt these teachings didn’t resonate with what he already knew about God and what he learned about the gospel. “It really started to dampen the desire I had to join the Church, but God reminded me of the powerful spiritual witness He had given me in answer to my prayer asking Him if this was truly His restored gospel,” Perkins says. “No sin, fault, or unkind word, no matter how long perpetuated, could change that from being true, because God had told me. . . . With that reminder, I joined in faith that He would help me to find the answers that I could then share in helping to build His kingdom.”

Since that time, Perkins has been able to reach Latter-day Saints throughout the world with uplifting truths from the scriptures and break down misconceptions concerning race and the priesthood through presentations, firesides, Church-sponsored events, the African American Outreach Program, raceandthepriesthood.org, and blacksinthescriptures.org.

Misunderstanding the Scriptures

Much of the misunderstanding Perkins finds among Latter-day Saints stems from reading the scriptures using modern definitions of words and idioms instead of understanding them in their ancient context.

“Like most, I grew up using the term black in reference to people of African descent, because it was widely accepted by all cultures,” Perkins says. “So it’s understandable that many would read the scriptures and associate the word ‘black’ in all of its forms, relating to man, in the same way they believe it to be fact in our society. The Saints, and those of other faiths as well, instinctually assume that this word is in reference to race, nationality, or color of skin. . . . The LDS version of the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon help us to understand that the word black is actually a Hebrew idiom, meaning gloomy, dejected, or spiritual darkness, and has nothing to do with skin tone. Though we have this clarity in the scriptures that we carry with us daily, few members are aware that this insight is there.”

He continues, “We see in Jeremiah 8:21, the LDS version of the King James Bible footnotes the word ‘black’ where it is defined as a Hebrew idiom, dealing with the mental, emotional, or spiritual state of the individual.” He further notes that the scripture reference guide can accelerate our learning on this topic and that other passages of scripture connect to or contain similar footnotes as the one found in Jeremiah 8:21, placing the use of the word “black” in the context of its common meaning in Hebrew as indicating a spiritual not a physical state. “If the word black is not dealing with race or actual skin color, then the feasting mind is opened to many possibilities to explore, such as maybe the same is the case in the Book of Mormon passages that describe a skin of blackness or whiteness (See 2 Nephi 5:21 and 3 Nephi 3:15),” Perkin says.

Considering that Lehi and his family were Jewish descendants, it makes sense that they would be familiar with and even utilize Hebrew idioms similar to those in the Bible. “Upon examining [2 Nephi 5:21 and 3 Nephi 3:15], readers are directed to 2 Nephi 30. There they find skin being tied to ‘scales of darkness’ over the eyes,” Perkins says. “This too is an indication of something mental, emotional, or spiritual and not physical. When you follow the footnote added in the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon, one finds clarity in the understanding. The footnote reads ‘darkness spiritual; spiritual blindness.’”

Because of these clarifications—as well as other spiritual clues such as the Nephites being able to infiltrate Lamanite camps without being detected (see Alma 55:1-9)—Perkins says we can understand “the Lamanites did not have their skin color changed; the passages are referring to spiritual darkness” and “the idioms in the Book of Mormon are consistent with the idioms in the Bible. This means that the Book of Mormon is translated from an ancient text and could not possibly have been written by Joseph Smith, who would have written after the manner of his language (see D&C 1:24).”

Another commonly misunderstood word used within the scriptures and our Church culture is the term “curse.” About this word, Perkins clarifies, “The use of the word curse is very common in the Church today and has been since I joined some 30 years ago. It’s common to hear statements like ‘dark skin is a curse,’ ‘blacks are cursed,’ ‘the Lamanites were cursed,’ ‘it’s because of the curse of Cain or the curse of Ham,’ etc. The uses of these terms, unfortunately, have been taught in the Church for so long that all seem certain that they’re using the expression correctly. That is until I ask them a simple question—'What is a curse?’ The only thing that is common at that point is the silence or long delay before each will utter a certainly uncertain response. It’s amazing that a word that they believe is so damning can be used so freely and frequently without even understanding its meaning.

“We have a section in the scripture reference guide that we created, dedicated to the study of scriptural curses relating to the human family. As one studies these passages, they’ll gain an understanding of exactly what a curse is: a separation from God, His path, and His ways, due to our choice to sin. By understanding what a curse is, they also become clear on what it is not. For example, distance from God, due to our transgressions, cannot impact skin color. Therefore, skin color cannot be a curse. And based upon 1 Samuel 16:7, neither can it be the sign of the curse, as was so widely taught.”

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