Mission House Lecture: Rev. Townes speaks about racial stereotypes

Heather Hartmann, Staff Reporter

The 2012 Mission House Lecture was held on Nov. 14 at seven o’clock in the Bradley Fine Arts building and was the fifth installment in the Great Thinkers series of guest speakers. Reverend Dr. Emilie Townes, professor of African American religion and theology at Yale Divinity School, was the featured speaker.

Townes opened her presentation entitled The Peculiar Career of Aunt Jemima: Race and Stereotypes in U.S. Culture by sharing a bit about herself. Townes explained that she really wasn’t supposed to be working on the day of rest, as observed by her faith, but when Kelly Stone, Lakeland’s former chaplain, asked her to visit a few years ago she just couldn’t resist.

Townes stated that Mission House, the seminary school that evolved into Lakeland College, was built during the Civil War era. This interesting fact was the perfect lead in to Townes’ discussion of racial stereotypes in the U.S., which utilized the historical truths of yesterday to combat today’s misconceptions.

Townes says she “relies on the power of memory even though it can fail or fade, because just as often it succeeds.”

“The reality is, Aunt Jemima is a lie,” said Townes during the lecture. “Slaves rarely had enough to eat so fatness was impossible, and house slaves were usually lighter skinned and young.”

Both Aunt Jemima “the creator of natural rising pancakes” and Uncle Ben of Ready Rice are made up to help sell the product, perhaps even in an attempt to appeal to minorities, but neither of them ever really existed. As it turns out, many African Americans have tried to send Aunt Jemima into limbo since she made her first appearance.

Another topic Townes touched on was how what is now considered a fashionable trend to wear one’s pants down low originally started as a protest for the people who were in jail and had no choice but to wear clothes that were too large for them.

After Townes had finished the lecture portion of her presentation, the questions and answers portion of the lecture began.

Before opening the floor to the eager audience, Townes said that if anyone desired to share a story rather than ask a question, they should feel free to do so.

One of the men who stood up told a story from his childhood of when a car had broken down in front of his house during a colder time of year. When his father came home and asked why he hadn’t invited the gentleman inside, his response was, “he’s a negro.”

His father responded simply with, “they get cold too,” and went to invite the man inside. The man spent most of the night with the family and even enjoyed dinner with them while waiting for his friend to come pick him up.

The fact that the audience member was not only willing to share this, but that his father responded in the way he did despite living in a society that at the time did not respect those from other ethnic backgrounds, was the perfect example of the effectiveness of Townes’ presentation. It certainly looked to the events of the past to shed some light on the present.

Overall, the lecture was interesting and insightful. While a few critics stated it was dry, many others attested to the fact that it was an informative presentation that was made even better by Townes’ engaging speech and intriguing perspective.