Juvenile Instructor » Blackness, The Book of Mormon, and Broadway: Part II
 


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

By: Christopher - June 20, 2011

(Cross-posted at Religion in American History)

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 entitledReligion 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 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.



28 Comments

  1. I have to agree this is a touchy subject especially because of the way Africans are treated in the play. Usual caveats – I haven’t seen the play but if even half the reports are accurate I’m surprised there isn’t more backlash from the African-American community. Of course if they aren’t up in arms (and maybe I’ve just missed those reviews) that ought inform how we react.

    Although honestly I think Mormons in general have just been glad we’re portrayed nicely which is more than we normally get. I think the number of Mormons upset are dwarfed by the rest. I can understand upset at the comic portrayal of the sacred. But that’s really a different line of criticism.

    Personally I really like Jim Faulconer’s editorial on the controversy. It touches upon all the points I think we need worry about.

    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Responding-to-The-Book-of-Mormon-James-E-Faulconer-06-16-2011.html

    Comment by Clark — June 20, 2011 @ 11:59 am

  2. cowardly Mormons, not just Mormons. That’s pretty harsh to any Mormon who might applaud the show for whatever reason. Clearly, according to this guy, the only reason a Mormon would applaud this show is because that Mormon is a coward.

    Comment by Dan — June 20, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

  3. Good post Chris. While I appreciate Reynolds putting in the good word for us, I really don’t feel picked on by Parker and Stone; the whole thing feels quite friendly (haven’t seen it, just my impression). I think I’ll save my indignation for things that are truly malicious.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 20, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  4. Thanks for linking to Faulconer’s review, Clark. I’d forgotten about it and enjoyed re-reading it.

    Dan, to be clear, I’m not advocating Reynolds’s point that anyone who supports the play is a coward seeking after crumbs of respectability. In fact, I’m pointing out the opposite and the irony—that many Mormons who’ve praised Reynolds’s piece are themselves doing exactly what Reynolds accuses others of–“applauding [something and] hoping for crumbs of respectability.”

    Yeah, I agree, Steve. Though I do hope that defenses of Mormons might someday find more to praise than our military service, payment of taxes, and emphasis on families. Surely there is more to praise in the works of American Mormons than that.

    Comment by Christopher — June 20, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

  5. Maybe the word “coward” was a poor choice — after all, some people just like the play. But I appreciate the fact that Reynolds, despite religious and doctrinal differences with Latter-day Saints, publicly objects to their use as objects of yuk-it-up humor in the musical. Given that many who have religious and doctrinal differences will quietly pass over that sort of treatment toward those they disagree with, it is heartening to read Reynolds’ defense of Mormons.

    It is also hard to disagree with the point (made by many besides Reynolds) that there is something wrong with the general view that it is okay to have some fun at the expense of some racial, ethnic, or religious minorities but not others. From a parochial point of view, yes, maybe Mormons should just have a thick skin about this sort of thing. But society tends to develop awareness and even respect for those who consistently object to what they regard as unfair depictions in the media. So telling Mormons to just grin and bear it might be seen by some as equivalent to saying, “Some groups deserve respect, but you don’t, so quit complaining.”

    Comment by Dave — June 20, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  6. Good post. Parts of the article made me a little uneasy also for some of the reasons you pointed out here.

    The “cowardly Mormons” line really attracted my attention. We often talk about the “persecution complex” of Mormons, as we have all seen that sometimes LDS take offense where it is not due. But in trying to overcome those tendencies we don’t need to embrace everything written about us that is not horrible. My first thought from the “crumbs” line was of the recent Newsweek article. While the article wasn’t insidious by any means it may not have merited the whole-hearted embrace that I saw. Yet it appears that so long as a headline pronounces “Mormons Rock!” or a play concludes with a positive spin that it is suddenly unenlightened to disapprove of it. We often act as though negative attention is a rite of passage into mainstream acceptability passed through many groups, but I doubt that Catholics or Jews have come to appreciate their being lampooned regardless of how frequent or long-standing the lampooning has become.

    Comment by Craig M. — June 20, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  7. While I’m sympathetic to a few of Reynolds points I think there is a sleeping giant in the room. How on earth do people expect non-believers to take them? I think we have to just acknowledge that especially to an atheist or agnostic we’ll look pretty weird. Why be offended by that so long as they are nice to us as people?

    If we do demand something different I think we have to think through what we expect people to say when they do think our beliefs are irrational and silly.

    Comment by Clark — June 20, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  8. Clark, to many believers it is unbelievable that atheists could go through life not believing in God. Yet we still (hopefully) are respectful towards them, not only by being nice to them but also by not actively mocking them.

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have others in society join us in disapproving of disrespectful portrayals of Mormons, just as we should join any other group in doing the same.

    Comment by Craig M. — June 20, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

  9. Clark, agreed.

    Chris, good point, but due to the fact that evangelicals are too often the ones promoting malicious misinformation, any token of goodwill seems really positive to me. I just think Reynolds is barking up the wrong tree; let’s save it for Bill Mahr et. al, and the myriad counter-cult ministers.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 20, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  10. I agree with much of this post. The limits of length forbid making some of these point… I already was pushing length boundaries. I regret not pointing out yhe offensive nature of African stereotypes in the play. It would have strengthened the piece.

    My simple point was that hate masked as humor has a long US tradition. Most defenses of the play I received argued that humor makes any hatefulness ok. It doesn’t and humorous art can be used to justify discrimination.

    I am sorry if I sounded as if I was making an overly simple one to one comparison. Given the language of the play it is hard to imagine people who take blasphemy seriously loving it… but perhaps it is possible.

    Comment by John Mark Reynols — June 20, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

  11. Forgive typographical errors. My vision makes comment boxes hard.

    I should add that I am well aware that Mormons like almost all American groups are tainted with America’s original sin of racism. My own Church has a mixed record here as well.

    That does not justify new bigoted theater.

    Mormons are owed an apology from most US Christians for bad behavior directed at them and are not likely to get it.

    Comment by John Mark Reynolds — June 20, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  12. One commentator says:

    Yeah, I agree, Steve. Though I do hope that defenses of Mormons might someday find more to praise than our military service, payment of taxes, and emphasis on families. Surely there is more to praise in the works of American Mormons than that.

    I say:

    Yes. Let me list five:

    1. work in languages
    2. creation of BYU
    3. social services practices
    4. sacramental view of North America
    5. literary merits if the Book of Mormon

    Comment by John Mark Reynolds — June 20, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

  13. Thanks so much for participating here, John, and for your op ed. It’s good to remember the difference between op ed’s and more extensive articles where you have space to say more. Also, thanks very much for the kind words. We hope we can reciprocate your goodwill.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 20, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  14. Thank you for stopping by, John. I understand the difficulties of working with word limits in an op-ed piece, and am glad that you’re aware of the portrayal of Africans in the play.

    I’m not sure I agree that the South Park guys hate Mormonism or that their portrayal of Mormons is hateful, but I’m glad nonetheless that your op-ed and others are pushing this conversation beyond the boundaries of unchallenged praise and laughter. The intersection of racial and religious prejudice is a topic that deserves expanded conversation.

    Comment by Christopher — June 20, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

  15. Craig (8) I think you discount how many believers do make fun of atheists. However a big difference is that atheists typically don’t have some strange behavior based upon their atheism. I think that were atheists say doing summersaults every Friday because of atheism you’d see more reaction. When the reaction of atheism is typically to do nothing there isn’t a lot there to make fun of.

    I do think everyone deserves respect. The question then becomes the respectful way of dealing with what seems very weird.

    Comment by Clark — June 20, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

  16. I enjoyed this post, and I have also received links to this article from various friends and family. This made me wonder what Mormons thought of minstrel shows back in the 19th century. I found this over at at the Utah.gov website.

    http://historytogo.utah.gov/utah_chapters/statehood_and_the_progressive_era/minstrelshows.html

    It looks like some Mormons were big fans of minstrel shows back then, and some even put together their own touring groups and preformed their own. I think that adds another interesting layer of irony within the context of this particular article.

    Comment by BeansDude — June 20, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

  17. Greetings,

    I am at a better screen, so helpfully this will go better!

    I realize the South Park guys my not “hate” Mormonism, but they (generally) revel in a kind of humor that when applied to minority groups is dangerous. Studies have shown that when it comes to voting only atheists are more likely to face discrimination than Mormons.

    Comedy against Mormons, therefore, runs the risk of confirming prejudice. Comics do not get an ethical pass on just any kind of humor at any time. . . that was my main point discussing minstrel shows.

    John Mark

    Comment by John Mark Reynolds — June 20, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

  18. Clark, I know that many believers discriminate against atheists (as mentioned by John Mark) but I don’t see much mockery. I think the “respectful way of dealing with what seems very weird” has to allow for discussion of peculiarities, and even heavy criticism of it, but not mockery. I am much less offended by an atheist or evangelical Christian rattling off reasons why Mormons are misguided than to have my religion insulted as entertainment. We all know that comedians will always try to have a laugh at the expense of things people hold sacred – that won’t change; but it seems that we can aspire to stand with others in denouncing such things rather than joining in the laughter.

    Comment by Craig M. — June 20, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

  19. Excellent article, Christopher. Great to see Reynolds engaging in good dialogue here!

    Comment by Cynthia L. — June 20, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

  20. I think “comedy” is good when he mocks to speak the truth to power. I can imagine a brave comic doing a bit on Mormonism in Salt Lake that might be prophetic . . .or not!

    I cannot imagine that NYC needs to Mormon mockery in order to avoid becoming too pious or serious minded about religion.

    Comment by John Mark Reynolds — June 20, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

  21. John Mark (17), they’ve actually made fun of atheists especially the New Atheist movement and their fawning of Dawkins on South Park. They are actually pretty equal opportunity satirists and Mormons honestly do come off better on their show than any other group. They might thing we are a bit guillable and believe silly things but they appear more impressed with us than any other group. (Including atheists)

    Craig (18), I’m guessing you just don’t like satire in general. I think we have to be a bit more thick skinned. (Especially since this is so much nicer than all the silly Ed Decker stuff we had to put up with for a few decades – give me Matt and Trey over a collection of foaming at the mouth Evangelicals any day of the week)

    Comment by Clark — June 20, 2011 @ 11:57 pm

  22. “Mormons are owed an apology from most US Christians for bad behavior directed at them and are not likely to get it.”

    I don’t understand this comment by a previous poster. This statement seems to suggest that the Book of Mormon is a Christian production. Most evangelicals I know would be as appalled as Mormons by the show.

    Comment by Bill B — June 21, 2011 @ 6:17 am

  23. John Mark,

    I am sorry if I sounded as if I was making an overly simple one to one comparison. Given the language of the play it is hard to imagine people who take blasphemy seriously loving it… but perhaps it is possible.

    It depends on how one views blasphemy. For instance, Sinead O’Connor doing her controversial bit on Saturday Night Live long long ago was highly “blasphemous” to Catholics. It didn’t bother me. I haven’t seen the play, but I did listen to the “hakuna matata” song and was not really offended by the villagers cursing God in the manner they did. That’s not blasphemous. If the Mormon characters were the ones saying that, then that would be blasphemy. Take it like King Lamoni’s son in the book of Alma in the Book of Mormon. Since you’re not a Mormon and I’m not sure whether or not you read it, let me just give a short short version. King Lamoni’s son used to kill his servants who failed to protect his sheep. Just simply take their lives. Without really thinking about it. It troubled him once the “Mormon missionary” showed up to teach him about God, and then he changed. I see this musical to play on that. And I do think that Parker and Stone did read the book of Mormon and are quite familiar with the stories therein. And I do think the story of Ammon, “the Mormon missionary” to the Lamanites, was one of the biggest inspirations for The Book of Mormon Musical.

    Comment by Dan — June 21, 2011 @ 7:39 am

  24. Christopher,

    Dan, to be clear, I’m not advocating Reynolds’s point that anyone who supports the play is a coward seeking after crumbs of respectability. In fact, I’m pointing out the opposite and the irony—that many Mormons who’ve praised Reynolds’s piece are themselves doing exactly what Reynolds accuses others of–”applauding [something and] hoping for crumbs of respectability.”

    Yeah, I didn’t think you were advocating it. And your point is spot on that Mormons DO applaud something for crumbs of respectability. The Newsweek piece, the other one from the late 90s called “Mormon Inc”, the Hinckley 60 Minutes interview…and so on. We as Mormons don’t need the approval or approbation of anyone for our identity to be strong or to have a positive influence in this country and around the world. I do think we have a big problem related to our identity and we’re frankly not sure, as a faith, which way we should go. Thus we leave a huge vacuum in our culture for others to fill it. The Book of Mormon Musical should have been written by a Mormon. But we’re too timid as a group to critically look inwards. Our church leaders tend to kick out those who look critically within, and frankly that’s a poison that will eventually harm us terribly in the end. Because in the end, our identity will be defined by the Parkers and Stones of the world, and not by those within.

    Comment by Dan — June 21, 2011 @ 7:45 am

  25. Chris (and all, especially Prof. Reynolds for joining us here!):

    Thanks for a great discussion.

    After recently partaking in the “pilgrimage” to Broadway to see the musical (I’m both a fool for Mormons and musicals), I got the feeling that Parker and Stone get a lot of Mormon culture right. After all, they have been Mormon watchers, and friends to Mormons, all their lives. And therefore while they can write Mormon empathetic characters, I agree with Chris and Prof. Farmer that what is more troubling is the depiction of Africans (read “Africans” as opposed to African Americans), or even more specifically Ugandans, a national community of which I’m guessing the creators have had little contact. If I’m not mistaken here, the blasphemous Ugandan expressions were just made-up gibberish. The “blasphemy” bothers me less than the linguistic inprecision, which suggests to me that while Stone and Parker are willing to dedicate themselves to careful study of Mormon soteriology they cannot be bothered to go out into the middle of 42nd street and find a Ugandan passing by to help them with some basic Luganda.

    Yet, here I’m writing less as a Mormon watcher and more as a fan of musicals. What I fear that Profs Farmer and Reynolds and other critics of the Book of Mormon fail to fully grasp is that musicals are supposed to be lame! The musical as a genre takes the suspension of disbelief–draw caricatures of real people and put them in ridiculous situations, write over-the-top songs delivered in the middle of a narrative–to the extreme. Those that succeed (West Side Story, Jesus Christ Super Star–I think Prof. Farmer’s derision of this classic would not have come if it were sung in Italian or better yet, Aramaic) to the edge. Those that fail (Spiderman seems like a candidate) go over that edge.

    Comment by Max — June 22, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

  26. […] Blackness, The Book of Mormon, and Broadway: Part 2, where Christopher at The Juvenile Instructor talks about John Mark Reynolds article Amos and Andy […]

    Pingback by This Week in Mormon Literature, June 24, 2010 | Dawning of a Brighter Day — June 24, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

  27. The Book of Mormon is a Rascist sewer pit. The issue isn’t Mormons at all. Any religious doctrine can be made fun of taken in isolation. the key to this play wasn’t but race.

    Nothing offense on race, hmmm since the Ugandans are depicted as primitive savages right out of a 1940’s Tarzan movie it is interesting to see how the author sees no offense here.

    Well let’s see Africans constantly chopping women’s clitoris off for sport, yea that is hilarious. Or how about Big African men rapping babies because they are so superstitious to believe that rapping babies would cure them of AIDS, yea that is a real knee slapper!!! Or did you hear the real funny one about how African medicine is so primitive and incompetent that even their doctors have maggots living in their scrotum, whooowee, now that one alone had me literally falling down in the aisles. This isn’t satire. It is sick. You satire that which you know otherwise it isn’t satire.

    Do the majority of white people going to see this abomination even know anything pertinent to current day Africa or Uganda? Despite the deliberate exploitation of Africa and its people by individuals just like these “enlightened” theater goers Africa still is here

    It is a sickness that people would laugh at others pain . It is simple I was offended and saddened that in the year 2011 theater goers and whites in particular, could see this demeaning portrayal of Africans as anything other than as offensive.

    Comment by James — July 7, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  28. “I do think we have a big problem related to our identity and we’re frankly not sure, as a faith, which way we should go. Thus we leave a huge vacuum in our culture for others to fill it. The Book of Mormon Musical should have been written by a Mormon. But we’re too timid as a group to critically look inwards. Our church leaders tend to kick out those who look critically within, and frankly that’s a poison that will eventually harm us terribly in the end. Because in the end, our identity will be defined by the Parkers and Stones of the world, and not by those within.”

    That is incredibly astute. It deserves it’s own blog post and more extensive discussion.

    Comment by MikeInWeHo — July 14, 2011 @ 11:36 am