Author Meets Roundtable: Paul Reeve Responds

By June 17, 2015

JI recently finished a roundtable review on Paul Reeve’s wonderful Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press: 2015). Dr. Reeve has kindly consented to respond to the roundtable–his thoughts are found below.

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It is an honor for my work to receive careful attention by such thoughtful scholars as those at the JI. Thank you for your insightful and thorough reviews. Ben P.’s overview which launched the roundtable was particularly astute. I was somewhat caught off guard at Ben’s ability to perceive many of the key struggles I faced in writing the book. It almost felt as if he had found a lens into my scholarly soul. I’m not sure if Ben attended Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry while in England and gained access to Dumbledore’s pensieve, which somehow contained my extracted memories, but I will be honing my muggle defenses in the future, just in case. Ben points to the balance between excessive quotation with limited analysis and a more desirable extended unpacking of sources. Like Ben I favor the latter. Chapter 5 which attempts to understand Brigham Young’s transition to a race-based priesthood restriction was not in my original chapter outline. I didn’t think I would have the luxury of spending that many words on it. Yet, because I was frustrated with the lack of detailed analysis of Young’s ideas in the existing historiography, Chapter 5 grew into a chapter of its own. I also wanted to figure out the context for Young’s speeches, their chronology, and their relationship to bills being debated in the 1852 legislative session. In the end, this desire led to the discovery of new speeches and debates, never before transcribed. It also led to some (I think) important new insights into Young’s attitude about race and priesthood, especially the debate with Orson Pratt over black suffrage and the servant code.

For other sections of the book, I attempted to group similar ideas into themes in an effort to treat them collectively, a method that inevitably loses some contextual focus and can sometimes obscure chronological insights. It is not ideal, but I was constantly faced with how to make sense of a significant number of disparate sources. As much as possible, I tried to keep those sources grounded in time and space, but was not always successful. The luxury of fully analyzing and unpacking each source was lost in the process, but readability and the need to keep the narrative moving also hung in the balance (as did my contractual word count with Oxford).

In organizing the book, I faced similar forces; organization is always a struggle (at least for me) in writing any book. Will it be strictly chronological or topical, or a mixture of the two? Using the Life magazine cartoon from 1904 as my organizational tool offered a unique framing devise which inevitably led to repetition and some overlap, but I tried to keep it to a minimum. I attempted to offer new insights in each chapter that moved the overall story forward. Readers will judge how successful I was.

Ben’s last point about the difficulty of making an academic contribution that can also translate for a more public audience is the most vexed. I had both audiences in mind as I wrote. I will go up for promotion to full professor based upon RofaDC and so it will have to satisfy (or at least pass muster) with my colleagues in the academe. Ben suggests that I was more successful at talking to an academic audience than the broader public. He is likely correct. My own family complained about needing a dictionary to get up to speed in some parts (I told them to expand their vocabulary beyond dadgummit). Moreover, I know that “whiteness” as a category for investigation is an academic concept that causes some people to scratch their heads.

Even still, I have been pleasantly surprised at the non-academic response to date. Most of it has been from people who have a personal connection to me: people in my congregation, family, friends, or people who trust me enough (fools , every one) to read the book. My 85 year old mother and her best friend Margarite have both read it. Margarite’s sister-in-law saw it at Margarite’s house and picked it up and started reading. She ended up taking Margarite’s copy home with her, prompting Margarite to ask for a new one to replace the one her sister-in-law “borrowed.” A husband and wife who I home teach read it and then bought copies for each of their adult children to read. Two other members of my congregation have independently read it and then returned to buy additional copies for their respective family members. These are all members of the “older generation” who are supposed to be set in their ways. To the contrary, these folks have expressed gratitude for having an explanation and some context for Mormonism’s troubling racial past. Beyond my personal circle, I have received e-mails and feedback from people who are not academics who have read the book and are then motivated enough to send a note. This evidence is anecdotal and doesn’t include people who may have purchased it and given up before finishing it. Even still, the response to date has given me hope that we sometimes underestimate the public audience. As Ben notes, it is a difficult balance and he was perceptive to pick up on one of my key concerns in writing the book.

The other JI reviewers each raise incisive points of their own. J. Johnson points to the “battle axe” of the Lord meme in Mormon-Indian history and wants a more complete cultural exploration of its origins and usage both in Mormon history and American history. I think this would make a great topic for a journal article and if someone doesn’t take it up, I may return to it at some point to try to satisfy my own curiosity on this count–and hopefully Johnson’s too. To her credit, Johnson offers additional sources to better contextualize and sharpen some of the points I attempt to make in the chapter on “White Indians.” I appreciate her insights and analysis here.

Nate R. focuses mostly on Chapter 5 and the 1852 legislative session because it overlaps with his own research. He is correct to point out that this chapter does not explain the sources in full yet. The co-edited collection that I am working on with Christopher Rich and LaJean Carruth can be envisioned as a book-length footnote for this chapter. Our co-edited book will give readers access to the primary sources used to create chapter 5. It will also shed new light on the rationale that led to the conclusions I make in chapter 5 about the “servant” code passed that legislative session along with the Indian indenture bill and the election bill.

Nate also points to some unsupported assumptions, one on blackface used by the mob that killed Joseph Smith and the other on the impact that the 1852 legislative session may have had on Q. Walker Lewis during his visit to Utah. On the mob in blackface, my intent was to summarize that paragraph (page 121-2) and the one above it that dealt with W. W. Phelps and his attitude toward blackness and suggest that those attitudes must have had an impact on how white Mormons viewed their black co-religionists. As it comes across, however, the final sentence at the top of page 122 only seems to refer to the use of blackface by the Carthage mob and the language I use is more certain than what the sources can substantiate. As Nate notes, my suggestion regarding Lewis is more circumspect.

J. Stuart zeros in on Chapter 7 and extracts what I think are the key arguments in that chapter. His summary gets to the heart of the message from that chapter and it is gratifying to see a reader understand my intent. His two critiques are not unfounded. I struggled with what to do about eugenics and its intersections with Mormonism. As it stands, I only make a reference in passing to the way in which the debate over the Mormon body in the 1860s to 1880s anticipated the eugenics movement that would gain national and international prominence decades later (page 43–not in the chapters that Stuart reviewed). I ultimately did not have the space to engage eugenics more fully than that and left it to future scholars. I certainly could have done more to address the ways in which the concept of race in American thought hardened in the first decades of the 20th century and also the way in which whiteness coalesced around “Caucasian” during the same period.

Finally, Amanda wished for a reminder in the book, but most especially in the Red, White, and Mormon chapters, that white Mormons retained access to certain rights that other groups did not. It is a fair point. I suppose that my mindset going into the study was based upon the idea that most 21st century readers would only understand Mormons as white and that what I would need to demonstrate to them was the ways in which Mormons were pushed away from whiteness. That became the focus. I hoped that readers would carry with them the framework outlined in the introduction, that Mormons were in between people, somewhere between the hard racism experienced by African Americans and Native Americans and full acceptance. I did acknowledge the ways in which Mormons “aided in the displacement of Native Americans to reservations” after they arrived in Utah Territory and the complicated and audience specific nature of Mormon messaging about who Native Americans were. Ultimately, a central message of the book is that Mormons claimed whiteness for themselves, something Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans could not do.

JI enjoys a group of smart, energetic, and discerning scholars. I am honored to have so many of them read my work and do so closely and carefully. Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. This is a great response Paul. Thanks for taking try time to write it.

    Comment by David G. — June 17, 2015 @ 6:22 am

  2. Thanks, Paul. And yes, Cambridge provided a course in Hogwarts magic.

    Comment by Ben P — June 17, 2015 @ 8:29 am

  3. Paul, Great response. I appreciate that you shared your book-writing thought process with the masses. I find it useful to learn how other scholars think through the organization of their work.

    Comment by Cassie C — June 17, 2015 @ 9:29 am

  4. Thanks, Paul. I also really enjoyed your Radiowest appearance. I’m only a couple chapters into the book but look forward to the rest.

    Comment by Saskia — June 17, 2015 @ 9:57 am

  5. Thanks all.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — June 17, 2015 @ 10:35 pm

  6. Thanks, Paul.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 18, 2015 @ 8:00 am

  7. Paul, L do appreciate your response immensely. I have finished reading your book for the second time. I really learned alot in reading Chapter 5, and do find it very informative regarding “Slavery”, and that of Orson Pratt in particular. I am very much impressed with Chapter 7, especially learning more about Scipio A. Kenner, of whom I have never heard his name at all. A very interesting chapter, that could be in a single book form, rather than a chapter in a book. I find your notes relative to this chapter to be awksome.(smile) I must return your book back to a friend, who had loaned it to me to read. Anyhow, many thanks for your splendid writings and humanity. Have a great evening. Chester Lee Hawkins

    Comment by Chester Lee Hawkins — June 24, 2015 @ 8:54 pm


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