Sunday, April 14, 2013

Playing Lamanite and Saving Whiteness: Embodying Racial Projects in the Mormon Miracle Pageant

Over the next few days or week, I will be sharing parts of my paper that I have recently submitted for an academic theatre pre-conference. The American Theatre and Drama Society (ATDS) will host a two day event in Orlando before the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference officially begins. This paper was part of my application and if selected, I'll get to do some networking with other scholars interested in American theatre and performance as well as receive feedback from them regarding my ideas. By I figure why wait until then; people of the Internet (who follow our blog or are stumbling across it now), share with me your responses as I unfold my ideas. This first part is my introduction. There are three more parts to come. Enjoy:

In June 2011, I received a text from Brett. It read, “Blackface might not be socially acceptable; but in Manti, brownface is alive and well.” He attached a photograph of a young, white man dressed in some sort of eclectic, Pan-American Indian costume, equipped with a wig of long, black braided hair. He also wore make-up, browning up his skin. Brett sent the text while sitting in the audience of the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, a town in the dead center of Utah. Every year, in a matter of hours on each weekend night at the end of June, the pageant manages to chronicle the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church), the contents of the five hundred page Book of Mormon, and the exile of the Mormon pioneers from the United States to the Utah territory. The subject of my friend’s photograph—and ridicule—was a member of the nine hundred person cast. Specifically, he was a Lamanite: a Semitic ancestor of the Native Americans discussed in the Book of Mormon. 

The kind face that launched a thousand ideas about what to write about this event.
Brett’s humor reflects a discomfort and a tension within Mormonism, as a culture and a religion, regarding issues of race.[1] Engaging with the performer required him and others to confront the faith’s history of racial projects that the institution and culture otherwise attempt to ignore. With the cessation of polygamy at the turn of the twentieth-century, the history of Mormonism has predominately been characterized by assimilation.[2] While the institutional LDS Church and its culture gradually follow shifts in American social thought, the particularities of the religion—reinforced by scripture, official doctrine, folk theology, and traditions—have generated moments of tension in this larger trend. The notable and perhaps most familiar example would be the racial policies the LDS Church practiced until 1978 banning black men from receiving priesthood ordination.[3] Such policies also prevented both black men and black women from participating in temple ordinances and rituals.[4] In a post-1978 LDS Church, much of the discourse within Mormonism has purported a post-racial perception of both the religious community and the entire human family throughout the world.[5] According to the post-racial rhetoric, through a revelation, God ended the race-related ban, so all mankind is now (and retroactively) treated equally. What is important is the evidence of God’s continual intervention in the affairs of men, not the historical, cultural, or theological details of previous policies.[6] For many, the bodies performing in traditional events like Manti’s Mormon Miracle Pageant affirm that paradigm. For others, the bodies are the precise location of the post-racial narrative’s disruption. While representing sacred narratives foundational to audience members’ shared faith, the performers’ bodies simultaneously signify Mormonism’s long history of racial projects designed to naturalize and understand whiteness.

Whiteness, as a racial identity, is at times difficult to define. According to Richard Dyer, whiteness relies on paradox. Whiteness is visible and incites terror while being invisible and unstated.[7] It asserts itself as the most typical of all races, while positioning itself as distinct from and superior to all other races. Expanding on Edward Saïd’s arguments about how the West has found authenticity in the Other, Dyer and others contend that racial projects can construct whiteness in the absence of the Other—when whiteness is only defining itself against itself. For Richard Dyer, these latter moments of representation rely on and necessitate “a wider notion of the white body,” which he approaches through three “intellectual foundations for thinking and feeling” about embodied whiteness: Christianity, ‘race,’ and enterprise/imperialism.[8] Focusing on Mormonism’s relationship to the “structures of feeling” generated by Christianity provides a vocabulary to analyze the multivocality of the young man’s performing body in the pageant. To understand how a young man’s body archives a history of a religious community’s racial projects, the context of each project must be unpacked. The Mormon Miracle Pageant started in 1967; yet, it evokes republican visions of the 1830s and Progressive ethics of the 1910s. Layered over these moments are religious convictions about the body. The white Mormon body is the institutional and cultural site of post-1978/post-racial rhetoric. However, that very site’s embodiment of whiteness disrupts the capacity for post-racial imagination, returning the religion to its primary preoccupation with the construction and salvation of whiteness.

Stay tuned for Parts 2, 3, and 4. As a preview, here are their titles, respectively:

[1] For my understanding of race and subsequently my use of the term “racial project” used throughout the paper, I rely on Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s work in Racial Formation in the United States. They define race as “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies;” and racial projects as “historically situated efforts and actions in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized” in a way that contributes a process of creating, transforming, inhabiting, destroying categories of race. See Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (New York: Routledge, 1994), 55.
[2] See Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
[3] This was particularly noteworthy because of the structure of the institution; with a lay ministry, every worthy male should have been eligible to receive ordination. So the ban directly impacted every black man in the LDS Church throughout the world.
[4] At the same time, the rites were continually framed as necessary for enjoying the greatest expression of salvation.
[5] My consideration of post-racial conversations and its refutation comes from Brandi Wilkins Catanese’s book The Problem of the Color[blind]: Racial Transgression and the Politics of Black Performance (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press), 2011. Catanese points to Stanley Crouch as a representative writer of a multicultural, utopic pronouncement that race would soon be an obsolete social category in American society. A post-race paradigm is one which presumes that racial status does not prevent access to opportunities, experiences, or materials. Catanese notes Patricia J. Williams’ dismissal of post-racial optimism: “Williams’s primary concern is that whiteness is consistently exempted from consideration when the dismantling of race is discussed. Borrowing John Fiske’s concept of ‘exnomination’ specifically to criticize the unnamedness of whiteness as a racial category, Williams suggests that ‘exnomination permits whites to entertain the notion that lives ‘over there’ on the other side of the tracks, in black bodies and inner city neighborhoods, in a dark world where whites are not involved.’” See Brandi Wilkins Catanese, The Problem of the Color[blind], 34-35. The problem with post-racial rhetoric is that while it asserts that race no longer acts as a social category to prevent individuals or groups from obtaining access to material goods or experiences, post-racial paradigms often reassert the racial superiority and invisibility of whiteness. Post-racial rhetoric is itself a racial project that perpetuates race as socially determinant categories.
[6] “Church Statement Regarding Washington Post Article on Race and the Church,” Newsroom for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 29 February 2012 (, retrieved 12 December 2012.
[7] See also Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Irene J. Nexica, Eric Klinenberg, and Matt Wray, “Introduction: What is Whiteness?” in The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 10-13.
[8] Richard Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Culture (New York: Routledge, 1997), 14.