Blackness, The Book of Mormon, and Broadway: Part II

Christopher Jones

(cross-posted at the Juvenile Instructor)

When the news feed on my facebook began to be flooded with links to the same page last week, I excitedly clicked over the the Washington Post On Faith Op-Ed by John Mark Reynolds, professor of Philosophy at Biola University. Reading the title,"Amos and Andy and the Book of Mormon," I hopefully (but mistakenly) assumed that the article was evidence of Jared Farmer's critique--that lurking beneath the portrayal of religion in the Book of Mormon musical was not-so-subtle racism in the show's portrayal of Africans--starting to gain traction.

Instead, I proceeded to read the following:
"The Book of Mormon is a minstrel show for our present age with Mormons as the joke.

Ugly plays did not by themselves produce the Klan or keep some Americans from voting for African-Americans. Original sin was enough for that, but minstrel shows did give racism an artistic and comedic whitewash. When Americans were hurt by the cruel stereotypes, they were told it was 'just a joke' and were painted as petty for not laughing along."
Mormon, Reynolds appears to suggest, is the new Black. The comparison is problematic to say the least, even with Reynolds's caveat that "no group has been as cruelly treated as African Americans." Mormonism's "history of being persecuted" that Reynolds mentions certainly deserves attention, and has received such quite recently from several up-and-coming historians and scholars, including Patrick Mason, whose excellent new book on anti-Mormon violence in the postbellum South deserves wide readership, and Spencer Fluhman, whose forthcoming monograph from UNC Press on anti-Mormon literature in the nineteenth century can hardly come soon enough. In fact, instead of situating the Book of Mormon musical within the tradition of minstrel shows of yesteryear, Reynolds would do well to pick up a copy of Megan Sanborn Jones's recent volume from Routledge Press, Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama. Anti-Mormonism, it turns out, has its own history of being portrayed and performed on the stage; perhaps we would do well to look at and understand that history before making comparisons to blackface and minstrelsy.

Besides, by invoking Mormonism and race in the same breath, Reynolds wades into troubled waters. The subject is far more complicated than he acknowledges, and no op-ed can adequately address the topic. Mormons, to be sure, have a history of being portrayed as something other than racially white. Nate Oman's fine research on the legal aspects of this story is telling, and Paul Reeve's book-in-progress (under contract with OUP and entitled Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness) promises to expand on the social and cultural aspects of it all in the 19th and 20th centuries.

And Mormons, of course, have not always been innocent victims in America's racial history, as even a quick glance over at the Juvenile Instructor's posts on Mormonism and race reveals. From the so-called priesthood ban, which denied the admission of Africans and African Americans to the Mormon priesthood and restricted their entry in Mormon temples until finally being rescinded in 1978, to the Book of Mormon's complex portrayal of American Indians, to the public opposition to the Civil Rights Movement by several high-ranking Mormon officials in the 1950s and 1960s, Mormons have often found themselves on the wrong side of America's pathetic history of racism. Mormons themselves even participated in and put on their own minstrelsy shows well into the 20th century.

Perhaps most glaringly, though, Reynolds's comparison of the Book of Mormon musical to "Amos 'n' Andy" passes over entirely the portrayal of Africans in the show. While lamenting "the cruel, tasteless jokes" and "mindless mockery" leveled at the Mormons, he ironically seems to have missed the "talented African American actors hamming up 'African-ness' for cheap laughs."

And in a final touch of irony too rich not to mention, several of my Mormon friends--most of whom, like the op-ed's author, are politically and socially conservative and outspoken supporters of Mitt Romney--who linked to Reynolds's piece on facebook with apparent satisfaction that someone from outside the church was finally defending their religion and co-religionists, excerpted the following paragraph to accompany their link:
"This new play will pander to our prejudices and treat our Mormon neighbors as we would never wish to be treated. Some Americans will allow it to confirm unthinking prejudice, while cowardly Mormons will applaud it hoping for crumbs of respectability."
Mormons applauding something while hoping for crumbs of respectability, indeed.


Kelly J. Baker said…
Chris, excellent post! I have Mason's book on my bookshelf right now, and I look forward to reading all the other books that you mention.
Christopher said…
Thanks, Kelly. Mason's book is a relatively short read, and an important contribution. Fluhman's book--slated for early 2012, I believe, should be great. I've only read portions of Jones's book--she's a professor of theater and media arts at BYU and brings a really unique perspective to the subject.

For anyone interested, John Mark Reynolds has responded to this write-up over at the the Juvenile Instructor.
Anonymous said…
Reynold's Point: Less about trying to equate history of Mormon persecution with history of Racism. But more to do with a simpler question: When will religious bigotry ever be seen as heinous as racial bigotry? The two are bastard cousins.

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