Below is Max Perry Mueller’s response to JI’s roundtable on his book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People.
Thanks to the JI crew, especially to Jessica Nelson, Ryan T, and J Stuart for their thoughtful comments on my book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People. It’s a great honor and an immense pleasure to interact with readers who have read one’s work so deeply and carefully.
Each of the roundtable’s comments/critiques focuses on one or both of two of the major interventions of my book: the first is to theorize “whiteness” and “race” more broadly; the second is to theorize the “archive.” And my response—or, better put, self-critique—is to remind us (me!) not to think too literally about race or the archive. That is, the book tries (intentionally) to have it both ways: that race and the archive are “real”—as in literal, tangible things and/or experiences—as well as “metaphors”—as in literary signifiers of signified (imagined/constructed) things.
First, on theorizing race, Jessica notes how Race and the Making of the Mormon People begins by reading the Book of Mormon as new scripture, which challenges and reaffirms antebellum notions of race, in particular whiteness. Jessica asks a series of important and probing questions. Jessica asks first, “How central are Mormon scriptures to Mormon conceptions of racial otherness and whiteness?” My answer is: very important. But the importance and the concepts themselves change over time. I argue that the Book of Mormon exploded the idea that “otherness”—here I mean non-whiteness—and “whiteness” are mutually exclusive categories. Take just one example: that for the two hundreds after Christ’s visit to the New World, “otherness” disappeared as Lamanites and Nephites unified as Christians. There were no more “Lamanites nor any manner of Ites,” the Book of Mormon states, “but they were one, the children of Christ” (4 Nephi 1:17; see page 40-41). The Mormons take with them this theology of “white universalism” on the first official Mormon mission to the “Lamanite” Delaware Indians (chapter two). That said, we need more work on just how the Book of Mormon was read and understood in the first few years of the church. I join Ryan T. and others to note my excitement about Janiece Johnson’s work to help us more concretely answer these questions.
Next Jessica asks—and I’ll take these two questions together: “Can the Nephites as ‘white’ people within the Book of Mormon be problematized any more than the simplistic way that Mueller references them? Did nineteenth-century white Mormons even think of the Nephites as ‘white’ like they were?” I don’t see my reading of Nephites as white as simplistic. Likewise, I state plainly that “white” Nephites should not be seen as stand-ins for “white” early Mormon converts or for American “whites” in general. I’m intentionally writing against both of these often-made readings of the Book of Mormon. I’m going to run the risk of quoting myself here to make this point:
This American scripture’s racialism is more complicated and more interesting than readings that attempt to map the nation’s typical racial binary onto it. Doing so flattens this multivalent text to one single note of white supremacy. In the Book of Mormon, the differences between black and white—between Lamanite and Nephite—are first interior in nature and second projected as outward appearance. As such, the study of race in the Book of Mormon is not the study of static phenotype. It is the study of dynamic narratology. It is less about skin and more about stories—stories about how racial differences came to be in the past and how such racial differences can be overcome in the future (34).
I sustain this argument throughout the chapter, and I hope, throughout the book. One example of this Jessica directs our attention to: my take that, when Samuel, the Lamanite prophesied atop the walls of Zarahemla, that it was a “segregated city.” But, as I write, it’s “segregated based on degrees of righteousness as much as it is on shades of skin color” (50). And again, save for the Lamanites, the racial/cultural distinctions in the Book of Mormon are unique to this text. Thus “race” should only be read onto American racial politics—especially related to African Americans—as metaphors for, as Jessica suggests, otherness and whiteness.
In thinking through Jessica’s and Ryan T’s helpful and probing comments about whiteness in the Book of Mormon, I actually see a different problem with my take: that what I call “white universalism” should perhaps be classified as “anti-blackness.” In some ways, these are two sides of the same coin. As J Stuart’s excellent roundtable contribution points out, the patriarchal blessing that Hyrum Smith’s gave to Jane Manning in 1844 promised her that, through faithfulness to the gospel, the Lord “that changeth times and seasons and placed a mark upon your forehead, can take it off and stamp upon you his own image.” But this, what I call “covenantal contract,” has less to do with whiteness and more to do with accursedness, which then gets manifested as blackness. This accursedness leading to blackness (again here I’m not talking specifically about people of African descent, but the racial “other” more broadly) enters into history only when one branch of the human family sins against another, for which they are cursed or “marked,” set apart from the more righteous branches of the human family. As such the whiteness of God, of the Nephites, of the early Anglo-American Mormons exists only in contrast to blackness.
I agree with J Stuart that the “mark” Hyrum referenced could, and perhaps should be read as a mark that “symbolized the structural oppression that James faced as an African American woman in antebellum America.” But I don’t think this reading can or should be separated from a more literal—and textually supported—reading that the curse was explicitly racialized. As I note on pages 147-48, Joseph Smith’s retranslation of the book of Genesis Cain and Abel account, which Hyrum draws from in the blessing (Moses 5:23), makes clear that “seed of Cain were black, and had no place among” the other seeds of Adam (Moses 7:22). This is painful to contemplate for contemporary Mormons who celebrate Jane Manning James as embodying both her blackness and her Mormonness. Likewise, it goes against the current church’s official stance on racial pluralism and inclusion. Yet perhaps James’s Mormon project—especially her writing project of narrating how thoroughly Mormon her life had been—should be read less about achieving whiteness and more about separating herself from blackness.
But again, let me caution us against focusing on skin color. As James herself said in 1899, “I am white with the exception of the color of my skin.” In this powerful and heartbreaking statement, James invited her Mormon audiences to look past her outward appearance and look to her Mormon life, which she presented in written form as evidence that she had succeeded in separating herself from the cursed lineages of Cain and Canaan. Even if the Church leaders she appealed to for access to the temple did not understand it, James understood that race in Mormon history is more about narratology—about storytelling—than skin color.
Narratology is a writing project. So let me turn (briefly!) to comment on the written archive. J Stuart is right that I theorize the “Mormon archive” in at least two different ways. As Stuart writes, “he uses it to signify institutional repositories like the LDS Church History Library… he also uses ‘archive’ symbolically, meaning the assembled bricolage of documents that form Mormonism’s historical memory.” Yes! I see the archive functioning in both of these ways, and together! And I’d add one more: an archive that exists not only in the physical but metaphysical plane (here, I’m taken with the tangible and transcendent nature of the “Nephite archive”/golden plates. Likewise, I’m taken with the relationship between the earthbound written repository of the names of the Mormon people (e.g. the patriarchal blessing books; temple records) and the heaven-bound “Book of Life”) (107, 149)).
In this way, in early Mormon history, I see the archive functioning like the concept of race itself. Race moves between sign (tangible bodies of flesh and bone) to the signifier (“black,” “white,” “Lamanite,” “Nephite”) and the signified (“cursed,” “civilized,” “savage,” “righteous”). Likewise moves the archive, between bodies of paper, to the “archive,” and to “memory,” “history.”
Let me close again by saying again how much I appreciate the chance to engage with the JI crew. Here’s hoping for years more of debate and discussion around these critical issues in Mormon history, and American history more broadly. I’m honored that Race and the Making of the Mormon People can play a small role in facilitating such conversations.