Thursday, April 18, 2013

Playing Lamanite and Saving Whiteness: Progressive Pageantry and Embodied (White) Morality

This is the third installment of my paper on the repertoire of Mormon racial projects in the Manti pageant. If you have not read the Introduction or Part II, you will want to do so before continuing. Enjoy: 

Pageants, as a medium, have their own historical and cultural context informed by a particular preoccupation with white bodies. Pageants were large, outdoor theatrical spectacles, primarily popular in America between 1905 and 1925. They responded to social and cultural shifts of the era. When modernization, urbanization, and immigration threatened a perceived cohesion of American identity, pageantry offered a salve through playful engagement with history and democratic principles. Progressive social reformers argued that the pluralistic society that played together would work together. According to historian David Glassberg, professionals of various backgrounds and often contradictory philosophies found common ground in pageants because they believed that “history could be made into a dramatic public ritual through which the residents of a town, by acting out the right version of their past, could bring about some kind of future social and political transformation.” History, physical education, democracy, community—all were proposed antidotes to a (fear about the) dissolution of American morality. While physical exercise was touted as a way to discipline the moral behavior of individuals and communities, the morality they trained was white. Contemporary Mormonism does not ascribe to all aspects of the Progressive era, but the utilization of pageants has continued to function on convictions regarding the necessity of disciplining the (white) morality of bodies.

The Pageant of the North-West at Grand Forks on the campus of the University of North Dakota. May 24, 1914. Over 200 performers represented more than 300 characters. And a river flowing through campus separated the stage from the audience. They floated actors down it on canoes pictured here.

Pageantry started with genteel intellectuals associated with historical societies and municipal governments. They hoped pageantry would reaffirm Anglo-Saxon cultural and ethnic superiority. Their desire was to discipline bodies into an understanding of their place on a social hierarchy.[1] Progressive reformers—like settlement-house workers, suffrage activists, playground organizers, and education reformers—anticipated pageantry’s potential to form a citizenry, possibly supplanting Anglo-Saxon cultural superiority. However, even their philosophies tended to reaffirm Anglo-American morality. Progressive reformers hoped that folk traditions and ethnic heritages could be employed to combat the vices perpetrated by popular dance halls and bars. Progressive reformers were invested in issues like temperance; they believed that providing appropriate social activities for children, adolescents, and immigrants would “safeguard unwary and dangerous expression (of leisure time) and yet afford a vehicle through which the gaiety of youth may flow.” [2] Pageant enthusiasts worked from a paradigm of moral striving, where embodied self-control and self-denial attained material achievement. Richard Dyer asserts that this is the very type of perspective of the white body that Christianity created.[3] Pageantry, even when it engaged with displays of national diversity, operated as a racial project to train whiteness into the not quite white bodies of adolescents and immigrants.

The children of Grand Forks pictured with men from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Cultural exchange? Playing Indian? Yeah, it's both. How do you think we got the Boy Scouts and twentieth-century crazes about camping in middle-class America?

Progressive ideas of leisure and discipline have an interesting history within Mormonism. Nineteenth-century Mormonism encouraged leisure for the purposes of spiritual and moral discipline before the Progressive era. Brigham Young was a proponent of theatre for this reason. However, Progressivism and its morality, while sharing much in common with Mormonism, ended up shaping the faith in the early twentieth century. Historian Thomas Alexander argued that Mormonism’s embrace of the temperance movement was a process of cultural distinction embedded within a move towards American assimilation that did not seriously begin until the early twentieth century. The cessation of polygamy prompted Mormonism’s assimilation; however, it threatened Mormonism’s capacity to articulate itself as distinct from other faiths.[4] Excelling at temperance by combining theological beliefs about the physical body with Progressive era philosophies about ways to train the body became a way for Mormons to maintain a sense of peculiarity amidst assimilation. Like the white bodies made in the Caucasus Mountains, Mormon bodies were emblematic of others while also distinct from or superior to others.


Transitioning from polygamy to temperance altered Mormonism’s racial identity. Some have argued that because the faith practiced plural marriage and encouraged mass immigration of converts, in the nineteenth-century, Mormons (like Irish Catholics) were racially non-white. The shift towards temperance and bodily discipline represented concerted efforts to assimilate nationally and racially. Pageantry offered a means for Mormons to effect these national and racial projects: training moral, Mormon bodies for God and the community while also displaying disciplined, white Mormon bodies to the nation. These projects might explain why pageants have endured as a way the institutional LDS Church presents itself while pageantry and its Progressive philosophies have lost national currency. Lest anyone think to raise accusation of moral depravity via polygamy, pageants parade a pure, white morality as American as apple pie.

You have no idea how much I wish I could meet these people.

Stay tuned for the epic conclusion in Part 4:
Embodied Disruptions of Post-Race Rhetoric

[1] David Glassberg, “Public Ritual and Cultural Hierarchy: Philadelphia’s Civic Celebrations at the Turn of the Century,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 107, No. 3 (Jul 1983), 421-448.
[2] Jane Addams, the founder of the Hull House (a famous settlement house in Chicago at the turn of the century), wrote, “the public dance halls are filled with frivolous and irresponsible young people in a feverish search for pleasure are but a sorry substitute for the old dances on the village green […] these old forms which have been worked out in many lands and through long experiences, safeguard unwary and dangerous expression and yet afford a vehicle through which the gaiety of youth may flow.” See Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), 13, 99. For more on education reform during the progressive era, particularly in regards to incorporating forms of dance and play, see also G. Stanley Hall, Educational Problems (New York: Appleton and Company, 1911).
[3] Richard Dyer, White, 17.
[4] See Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 1-112.