20/11: Emilie Townes speaks on identity using Aunt Jemima
From Chips: The Student Newspaper of Luther College:
Emilie Townes, professor of African American religion and theology at Yale Divinity School, presented her lecture, “Some Notes on Aunt Jemima and the Imagination.”
Townes’ lecture at Luther this past Wednesday, Nov. 7, discussed the commercialization of identity, how identity is formed and what can be done to give the power to create identity back to those who truly own it.
Townes was this year’s Sihler Lecturer and is an ordained American Baptist clergywoman. Townes focuses her studies on womanist perspectives on theological themes.
“I am trying to understand evil through stories,” said Townes. “The American story can be told another way so that the voices which have been left out can be heard.”
Townes asked the question, “Who or what is naming us?”
According to Townes, it is the fantastic hegemonic imagination that names us through a cycle of marketed identity and consumer-absorbed identity.
“The imagination makes evil ordinary,” said Townes. “It holds structural evil in its place.”
Black identity was a central theme in the lecture.
“Her lecture reminded us of the symbolic power exercised by the advertising industry and the media in general,” said Wanda Deifelt, associate professor of religion. “By objectifying the human being, reducing him or her to certain stereotypes, the media passes an idea of what is considered normal in our culture and society.”
Townes said Aunt Jemima is an inaccurate portrayal of the black female slave character it was first attempting to represent and is also a symbol of the commercialization of lives.
“If black folk do not examine stereotypes, we will never know ourselves, only our characters,” said Townes.
Townes discussed the origins of the Aunt Jemima marketed today.
According to Townes, Aunt Jemima was created to sell a recipe for the first self-rising pancake mix. The white man who first marketed the recipe claimed he got it from an old slave woman but Townes finds this unlikely and spoke to other elements of misrepresentation in the character of Aunt Jemima.
“In the case of Aunt Jemima, the industry not only reduces the African American woman’s experience to that stereotype, but it idealizes a reality of black women working in the masters’ kitchens that is reminiscent of slavery,” said Deifelt. “In doing so, it upholds a past that is ethically questionable because it condones racism and sexism instead of challenging them.”
Now Aunt Jemima is updated. She is profitable and identifiable. She is also the marketing logo for the most successful international advertising campaign ever.
“Image matters when it makes money,” said Townes.
According to Townes, Aunt Jemima has always been the property of the white men who have controlled her image.
“Property means something is owned,” said Townes. “If we do not protest stereotypes, we allow others to form our identities. People in my generation were embarrassed by Aunt Jemima because black folk never controlled her image.”
Deifelt also spoke about the marketing of the image.
“Although few people truly identify with these characters, the ads and logos that the media propagates serve to instill a certain normative feeling,” said Deifelt.
While Townes’ talk centered on Aunt Jemima and black identity, she says identity marketing occurs in everyone’s lives. It is our job to search for and address it.
In order to change the system of commercializing identity, Townes suggested forming a counter-memory. This is a reconstruction of history told by those whose stories were originally untold.
“Stereotypes take us away from knowing each other,” said Townes. “We, the black community, need to do the patient and persistent work of mining black religious life. It is a search for truth and justice.”
At the end of her talk, Townes discussed how to motivate others, mainly those who control advertising and large companies.
“How do we work with people through their own self-interest?” asked Townes. “We need to find their ‘third thing.’ It has to be something which will compel them to move and get excited. It needs to be something community specific.”
Townes said she wants to support change that is visible.
“I want to start transformation where people can see success,” said Townes.