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  • The Twining Paths of Mormons and "Lamanites":From Arizona to Latin America
  • Daniel Herman (bio)

In 1891, the dramatic association of the Snowflake (Arizona) Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) gave a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin.1 The fact that church authorities approved that particular play in the late nineteenth century, even as Mormons—and Americans more broadly—entered what scholars term the "nadir" of black-white race relations, is intriguing. Though Mormons tended to identify African Americans with the supposedly cursed lineages of the biblical figures Ham and Cain—a sinful people marked with blackness and destined for servitude—they performed a play adapted from a novel that portrayed one black man as a Jesus figure and celebrated others for escaping slavery. That is not to say that the novel and the play were identical. [End Page 395] Like other late-nineteenth-century dramatic iterations of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the play performed in Snowflake likely trafficked in racist tropes without altogether abandoning Stowe's antislavery message.2

I start with this tantalizing vignette to suggest my intent. My purpose here is to assess historians' understanding of Latter-day Saints' relationships with supposedly "accursed" peoples, with particular reference to Arizona's Indigenous poplation ("Lamanites," in LDS sacred texts). In doing that, I will point to scholarly lacunae that I think worthy of exploration. I will also broach my own hypotheses that LDS colonization of Arizona in the 1870s and 1880s pointed the church—both intentionally and serendipitously—toward its hemispheric incarnation in the late twentieth century. That hemispheric incarnation has in turn challenged old convictions about the righteousness of colonization and the missionary endeavors that spawned it. Indeed it has destabilized the very idea of "Lamanites," as well as what it means to be Latter-day Saint in the twenty-first century. Whether we call this outcome the "law of unintended consequences," "decolonization," or "spiritual growth," we can probably agree that the history of Mormons and "Lamanites" is replete with pathos and irony.

Given that numerous LDS dramatic societies likely performed versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the late nineteenth century, scholars interested in understanding Mormon racial thought might benefit from investigating the play's history and reception in Mormon communities. More important for present purposes is the surprise that the Snowflake audience experienced in the midst of the performance. As the play's evil slave driver, Simon Legree, administered a lashing to Uncle Tom, one of the viewers—"Aunt" Fanny Adair—lurched from her seat and cried out, "Oss Flake" (meaning Osmer Flake, the man playing Legree), "don't you dare hit that poor nigger another lick!"3 Attendees found Adair's outburst humorous. Osmer Flake—known as "Uncle O'Dazzle" for his acting ability—had made [End Page 396] himself such a convincing Legree that Adair had to scold him.4 To an historian, the anecdote suggests something more.

"Aunt" Fanny Adair was no typical Mormon. She was a Paiute who had been purchased by a Mormon missionary when she was a girl. In later years, she had married a Mormon man named Aaron Adair and, with him, bore three children, all of whom grew up in the faith. According to one reminiscence, Aaron's death left Fanny to raise the children on her own in Snowflake, albeit with help from her mother-in-law.5

Beyond that basic outline of Adair's life the records are silent. Vast clouds of mist obscure her path across broken historical terrain, making it all but impossible to ascertain all the possible implications of her admonition to Osmer Flake. If one is willing to engage in speculation, however, one can arrive at several possible meanings, none of which necessarily excludes—nor includes—the others.

One might read into Adair's words a subversive message. Perhaps she was subtly attacking American racism and the physical violence that often accompanied it. Or perhaps she meant to critique Mormon racism more specifically. Despite the church's early appeals to a universalism that allowed African Americans into the fold, church leaders had long since banned black men from holding the priesthood and doubly subordinated black...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-3908
Print ISSN
0021-9053
Pages
pp. 395-428
Launched on MUSE
2020-12-16
Open Access
No
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