‘Aunt Jemima’ spurs teens’ frank talk about stereotypes
Poignant questions and visceral remarks from more than a dozen students in the diverse audience confirmed that “Aunt Jemima and the Complexities of Race in Kentucky: A Conversation about Race Relations and Stereotypes” is highly relevant for today’s teenagers.
Several students spoke of confusion, hurt feelings, and the need to challenge a variety of biases in their schools and among families and friends. Kim Stokes, a senior at Lafayette, talked about defending her affinity for wearing flannel and skateboarding. “Let people do what they want to do. We should not be held back by our skin color,” she said to applause in the auditorium at host Frederick Douglass High School.
The event, which was sponsored by Kentucky Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities, featured a 12-minute opening monologue by Kentucky Chautauqua actress Debra Faulk, who portrayed former slave Nancy Green in character as pancake pitchwoman Aunt Jemima. Her account provided a quick history lesson on minstrel shows, marketing gimmicks, and mammy archetypes.
“It’s a great segue with theater to get people thinking. It opens up a whole discussion about the uncomfortableness in a safe environment,” said Kathleen Pool, associate director of Kentucky Humanities.
Before the small parade of students walked up to the mic, the guest panel – moderated by KET’s Renee Shaw – each shared a bit from their own perspective. The group included Kelly Madison, professor of Cultural Politics and Media Studies at California State University; Ricardo Nazario y Colon, chief diversity officer at Western Carolina University; Gerald Smith, professor of African-American history at the University of Kentucky and pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Lexington; and local attorney John Schrader, a former Family Court judge.
Smith noted how today’s news media (and social media) can exacerbate racial polarization and suggested this generation of young people needs a constructive way to unpack the sensitive issues. “Hopefully we encourage them to think and read and not be afraid to have these conversations,” he said backstage. “We’ve got to acknowledge our differences,” Smith added. “Don’t focus on being color-blind but color-conscious.”
Scores of students from Douglass, Lafayette, Henry Clay, Bryan Station, and Paul Laurence Dunbar high schools and Carter G. Woodson Academy attended, as well as representatives from Lexington Catholic and Lexington Christian Academy. The bold ones who addressed their peers mentioned myths such as blacks being better athletes, misunderstandings about their heritage and parentage, and a general need for more efforts to open people’s minds.
Pool suggested these student leaders would take the message back to their high schools and hopefully produce a ripple effect. “The idea is they will be strong enough to say, ‘Hey, that’s not how we think or talk,’” she said. “Even if we just reach a few people, if we change attitudes, it’s a start.”