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Emilie Townes: a time for black scholars and black church to challenge stereotypes

It is time for black religious scholars and the black church to address issues related to black sex and sexuality to challenge some of the “pathologized, fetishized, hypersexualized, demonized” stereotypes that confront blacks in contemporary society, according to Emilie Townes, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology at Yale Divinity School.

GroupThat was a central point of a talk Townes delivered on Oct. 29 at the Thirteenth Annual Black Religious Scholars Group Consultation, where she was honored as the “2010 BRSG Distinguished Religious Scholar.”  The consultation was held in Atlanta at historic Ebenezer Baptist church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once served as co-pastor, just prior to the opening of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

Townes, the first black woman ever to serve as president of the Academy, expressed frustration that blacks themselves are “getting comfortable” with those stereotypes and that “religious institutions like churches and seminaries are often of little help in calling us to account on this.”  The title of the consultation was “Making it Plain: Unmasking the Cultural Production of Evil in the Black Church and the World at Large.”

Among those describing the work of Townes at the ceremony was Jonathan L. Walton, assistant professor of African American religions at Harvard Divinity School, who spoke of  “the beauty, brilliance and genius of a mature intellectual like Professor Townes” and referred to Townses’s “womanist commitments toward naming the socially pernicious powers that particularly plague women of color across this planet.”

“She teaches us that you cannot have ethical activity without thorough social and cultural analysis,” said Walton.  “In other words, it’s one thing to pull baby Moses from the Nile River.  But it’s much better to discover the cultural conditions that forced his mother to place him there in the first place.”

He noted, “One of my absolute favorite quotes comes from Professor Townes’s pen.  ‘Never speak a word of judgment without first speaking a word of grace.’”

For her own part, Townes said she refuses to accept in her life and scholarship any stance that “demands of us that we view our bodies and spirits as separate and antagonistic and unequal.”

“I try to live out my everyday commitment to refuse to confine my complex body in ‘acceptable’ but basically ghoulish stereotypes of what and who a black lesbian [is], raised in the South, from a normal dysfunctional family who was middle class and highly educated . . . and works in an Ivy League institution.”

 “I am looking for spaces—faithfully, methodologically and theologically—to understand that sexuality is more than sexual acts,” Townes explained.  “It is who we are as thinking and feeling human beings. It is all of who we are.  To deny the fullness of our sexuality means we destroy ourselves each day.”

Townes, who is also associate dean of academic affairs at YDS, came to YDS in 2005 after serving as the Carolyn Beaird Professor of Chris­tian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Her teaching and general research interests focus on Christian ethics, womanist ethics, critical social theory, cul­tural theory and studies, as well as on postmodernism and social postmodernism.

Her most recent publication is Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. Among Townes’s other publications are Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care; Womanist Jus­tice, Womanist Hope; and In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness.

Townes was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. She is an ordained American Baptist clergy­woman. and holds honorary degrees from Washington and Jefferson College (D.D.) and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (D.H.L.). She earned her A.B., A.M., and D.Min. at the University of Chicago and holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.