Black Woman on the Atheist Tip

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by Sikivu Hutchinson

Some of the most popular caricatures of contemporary Black women are the doggedly faith-based, eyes-cast-heavenward sacrificial Christian heroines that populate Tyler Perry's multi-million dollar minstrel movie empire. According to the Pew Religion Research Forum 87% of African Americans are religious, making African Americans among the most religious communities in the U.S. And the majority of those packing the pews, plumping up the collection plates and investing their lifeblood in the Black Church are women. In my predominantly working-to-middle class African American South Los Angeles neighborhood storefront churches anchor every block and personalized license plates scream faith and fealty to Jesus. Roll down Crenshaw Boulevard and fish icons grace late model cars buffed to a blinding sheen, Black Israelites declaim sexist homophobic biblical swill from a busy street corner and men in historic Leimert Park wield signs that say “Jesus loves gangsters too”.

In Black America, faith is a deeply public cultural affair, borne of centuries of struggle, segregation, and strife. Due to racial segregation and white supremacy, Black Churches were the epicenter of African American solidarity, civil rights organizing, and civic engagement. They remain vital to many African American communities because of Black economic disenfranchisement and the intractability of institutional racism in housing, employment, and education. For this reason, most Black folk don’t “do” atheism and it remains a taboo subject in Black communities. It is a notion so foreign to mainstream African Americans that some equate it with devil worship. Like many Americans in this so-called Christian nation, Blacks reflexively associate morality with Christian beliefs. In my 2011 book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars I explore traditions of radical Black humanism, contemporary Black atheist organizing and the marginalization of people of color in the white-dominated global atheist movement. Humanism is a belief system which holds that human beings define morals, ethics, and notions of justice, rather than gods, religious texts, dogma and tradition. Scientific inquiry and reason are the best vehicles for explaining the emergence of the universe and all life forms, rather than supernatural explanations. Humanism rejects the concept of redemption or eternal reward in the afterlife. Alternatively, it values human potential, ingenuity, and creativity in the material world and the here and now.

Activists, writers, and intellectuals like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, A. Philip Randolph, Hubert Henry Harrison, Nella Larsen, James Baldwin, and James Forman all pushed back against religious dogma in their life’s work. Larsen’s landmark feminist 1928 novel Quicksand as the first to feature an openly skeptic African American female protagonist who renounces the “white man’s god” and blasts religion’s destructive impact on poor Black people. Randolph’s socialist publication The Messenger frequently critiqued “orthodox Christianity” and lamented the barrier Blacks’ immersion in faith posed to radical anti-capitalist organizing.

Historically, Harlem Renaissance-era Black freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, and agnostics have grounded their Humanism in social justice and Black liberation struggle. Over the past decade, the ascent of the Religious Right, Islamic fundamentalism, and flat earth climate change deniers has galvanized a global “New Atheist” movement propelled by the work of bestselling white male atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Yet, prior to Moral Combat, there were no books by women of color on atheism in the U.S., and no appraisals of how racism, sexism, heterosexism, and capitalism shape Black humanist social and intellectual thought.

In both Moral Combat and my latest book Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, I argue that organized religion, specifically Christianity, has functioned as a gender defining mechanism for African Americans. The legacies of slavery, the Enlightenment, and scientific racism have racialized gender, such that Western notions of masculinity and femininity pivot on hierarchies of race. Forged in Enlightenment ideology, “New World” notions of civilized sovereign white manhood and idealized white womanhood were predicated on the antipode of the dark savage hypersexual Other. Hence, African Americans utilized Christianity to disrupt this regime. Paradoxically, Christianity enabled African Americans to stake a claim to being human and to being American. It provided ontological meaning and context to the Holocaust of African slavery. And it also prescribed a rigid hierarchy of masculinity and femininity based on heterosexist norms. These norms aligned African Americans with European ideals of family and domesticity. Despite centuries of slavery and racial apartheid, African Americans have struggled to achieve these ideals.

Because of the stigma associated with Black female sexuality, being a Black female non-believer is even more taboo than being a Black male non-believer. Dehumanized and demeaned as hyper-sexual Jezebels or asexual Aunt Jemimas, Black women have always been considered less human, less female, and less moral than “good” Christian white women—the gold standard for femininity, morality and Eurocentric beauty ideals. Thus, being tacitly religious is almost a litmus test for being a “good” morally upright Black woman. In African American communities many of the rituals of female caregiving—i.e., cooking, socializing children, being the "rock" of the family, attending to holidays, etc.—invariably revolve around or evoke faith and religiosity. Buck these conventions and you’re subversive, challenge them publicly and you’re a race traitor and gender apostate.

Nonetheless, over the past few years more Black women have stepped up to assume leadership roles by creating their own secular, atheist, and humanist organizations. They have done so in response to a predominantly white movement that is largely oblivious to social justice and the realities of people of color in a white supremacist society. In an article on Black non-believers in Orlando, Florida, the white head of an atheist organization expressed surprise that black atheists didn’t embrace his organization with open arms. For most white folk, centuries of racial apartheid, de facto segregation, and white supremacy in education, housing, employment and the criminal justice system are a source of “invisible” power, privilege, advantage and identity. Nonetheless, white atheists seem to believe that people of color should just be able to roll in any environment, regardless of whether the local university employs more black folk as "the help" than it enrolls students or whether white families have fled public schools for elite charters and private academies. The permanence of white supremacy in every institution of American economic and social organization is a blind spot for white organizations precisely because they rely on the regime of power and control for the illusion of universality. As Toni Morrison remarked in her book Whiteness and the Literary Imagination “Statements insisting on the meaninglessness of race to the American identity are themselves full of meaning. The world does not become raceless or…unracialized by assertion.” Similarly, white liberal claims about embracing colorblindness or believing “everyone should be equal” in the face of the New Jim Crow of “invisible” segregation does not translate into atheist or humanist solidarity. As I argue inMoral Combat and Godless Americana, the ardent expressions of religious allegiance in communities of color are a byproduct of structural racism and capitalism.

Many Black women atheists identify as feminists and humanists, rejecting the Christian fascism of the Religious Right and the sexism, homophobia, and gender hierarchy of the Black Church. In 2011, Kim Veal, president of the Black Non-Believers of Chicago and head of the influential Black Freethinkers podcast series, founded her group after being exasperated with participating in predominantly white groups where she was treated like an “enigma.” Echoing the sentiments of other non-believers of color who have been turned off by the vibe of all-white groups, she says, “this was disenchanting; you don’t know if they are truly interested in getting to know you or are trying to pick the brain of their new token.” Mandisa Thomas started the Black Non-Believers of Atlanta as a safe space for non-believers in the heavily evangelical South. Thomas and Ayanna Watson of Black Atheists of America partnered to sponsor the Blackout Secular Rally, a gathering of atheists of color that was held in July in New York and attended by nonbelievers from across the country.

Earlier this year, my group, Black Skeptics Los Angeles (BSLA) spearheaded a scholarship fund for undocumented, homeless, LGBTQ and foster care youth. BSLA, BNO Chicago and BNO Atlanta have prioritized social justice issues like homophobia in the Black Church, HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive justice, and homelessness. Debbie Goddard and Jamila Bey of African Americans for Humanism, and Bridgette Gaudette Executive Director for the Humanists of Florida are also part of a new wave of women of color who have assumed leadership roles within atheist organizations.

So the myth that Black folk don't do atheism is partly untrue. We atheists don't need your blessings, prayers or shout-outs to Jesus, because if God is Black America’s co-pilot then what does that say about the landscape of 21st century United States, where Black wealth has been decimated, residential segregation has become more entrenched and Trayvon Martin was twice lynched by the U.S.' criminal injustice system?

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and the author of the newly released Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

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