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May 24 2010

The Forked Road Ahead: African Americans for Humanism Conference



By Sikivu Hutchinson

The L.A. Times news item was buried at the bottom of the page in the bloodlessly tiny print reserved for marginalia. A 7 year-old black girl named Aiyanna Jones had been murdered in her sleep by the Detroit Police after a military-style raid on her home. In the wake of the shooting neighbors and loved ones placed stuffed animals in front of the house in memoriam. Rows of stuffed animals stared out from Associated Press photographs of the crime scene in dark-eyed innocence. In black communities across the nation Aiyanna’s death elicited a firestorm of outrage from activists critical of police misconduct and excessive force. Recalling New York, Los Angeles, Oakland and scores of other cities where black lives have been cut down by trigger happy police officers, many condemned the murder as yet another instance of law enforcement’s criminal devaluation of black lives and “inner city” communities.

Reading the news about Aiyanna after I’d returned from Washington D.C. to speak at the first African Americans for Humanism (AAH) conference was a stark reminder of the social justice challenge and progressive potential that Humanism represents for many freethinking people of color. Coordinated by D.C. Center for Inquiry director Melody Hensley, the gathering spotlighted the voices of Humanist freethinking and predominantly atheist-identified African Americans. A generationally diverse group, representing a spectrum of regional, political and cultural backgrounds, the gathering was an often intense reminder of the gulf that separates the politics of black humanist discourse from that of European Americans.

It is a politics that emerges from the legacy of the African slave holocaust. One in which it is difficult to imagine a universe where the murder of a little suburban white girl would be tolerated as “collateral damage.” And one where it is impossible to fathom a historical moment in which innocence has not been associated with the lives of little white children. At this historical moment in the U.S., the reactionary right’s demonization of President Barack Obama as a terrorist-illegal alien-monkey-socialist-infidel underscores the deep and intractable heritage of white supremacy. Trashing ethnic studies programs in Arizona, striking references to slavery in the Texas school curriculum, the right’s vociferous historical revisionism and backlash against social justice is reaching fever pitch. Deep in the wilds of 21st century “post-racial” America, the question of the “human” continues to define and terrorize African Americans in our quest for moral and political agency.

Commenting on the challenge of diversifying the humanist movement in her blog, Institute for Humanist Studies managing director Mercedes Diane Griffin noted, “Most programs looking to address the lack of diversity within the humanist movement are quite limited in their scope, often focusing solely on the low income African American community, ignoring all other communities of color (and economic strata within these communities) and rarely addressing the practical aspects of what feeds religiosity amongst the members of these communities.”

Indeed, in communities of color where religion has indeed become the opiate for African Americans under socioeconomic, political and cultural siege, the reductive science worship of the white non-theist world is a luxury that many black secular humanists find problematic. Colonialist practices in which the bodies of African, Asian and indigenous peoples were used by the scientific establishment to “measure” racial difference and verify social pathology were key to advancing Western rationalism and empiricism. In his book By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, humanist scholar Anthony Pinn notes that, “Black humanists can continue to make important contributions to humanist theory by challenging many of the assumptions made by Eurocentric, middle-class humanists…many white humanists embrace a dogmatic scientism. They believe that scientists are without biases…Black humanists…are less likely to rush blindly to the defense of science whenever controversial problems arise.” This blind defense of science is informed by the framing of science as the antidote to all social ills, at the expense of a broader lens that emphasizes social justice. At the AAH conference CFI field organizer Debbie Goddard challenged the insularity of prominent atheist and humanist organizations such as CFI, the Council for Secular Humanism, and Atheist Alliance International, noting that their virtually all-white all-male boards becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of Eurocentrism (one need only look at the lily white line-up of this year’s AAI Convention for further confirmation). Such that atheist and humanist discourse is reduced to an endless echo chamber of evolution and the glories of the Enlightenment, the tyranny of religious belief, the “backwardness” of believers, church/state separation, and more doses of evolution. Questioning or deviating from the playbook by historicizing the cult of science worship is viewed with scorn by some non-theist whites unaccustomed to having the primacy of their cultural assumptions challenged.*

Whereas institutional racism within the American humanist movement limits the full inclusion of people of color in the U.S., Africa is home to a burgeoning humanist movement. During the conference AAH Executive Director Norm Allen spoke of the positive reception his work has received in countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, where Humanism has emerged as a counterweight to religious persecution and ritual killings, oppression of women and homophobia. Although both Christian and Muslim indoctrination remains strong in many African countries, Allen stressed that African humanists have been emboldened by a growing community of like-minded skeptics. Critiques of the colonialist imperialist origins of Christian and Muslim indoctrination have also fueled secular movements in Africa. Addressing the issue of homegrown American “colonization of the mind” Christopher Bell, author of The Black Clergy’s Misguided Worship Leadership, assailed the black community’s fixation on the white Jesus figure. Bell, who identifies as a religious skeptic, argued that misguided worship was a key factor in black “emasculation,” resulting in high rates of incarceration and underachievement among African American males.

Certainly misguided worship based on Eurocentric ideation undermines the black self-image. But the larger secular humanist challenge to the centrality of organized religion in black life was left unaddressed in Bell’s presentation. Moreover, the claim of black male emasculation has been widely criticized by black feminist theorists such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, who argue that this premise relies on oppressive gender hierarchies which reinscribe masculinity and femininity as polar opposites. For example, the argument that white racism fundamentally deprived black men of patriarchal privilege is belied by the public dominance of black men over the Black Church. The correlation between the overwhelming religiosity of black communities and skyrocketing rates of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS contraction among black women bespeaks the gender crisis of African American faith-based traditions.

The influence of black patriarchy and institutional sexism on the Black Church and black Christian religious indoctrination has been a major topic of concern for black feminist secular humanists. My presentation examined this influence vis-à-vis black religiosity and the Christian ideal of the sacrificial good woman. Although black women have played a critical role in black liberation struggle, full enfranchisement of women has taken a backseat to the “restoration” of black patriarchy. Judeo Christian ideology reinforced patriarchy and provided African Americans with what black feminist historian Paula Giddings has dubbed “biblical sanction for male ascendancy.” White supremacist notions of black female hypersexuality fueled black women’s devoutness. Being in service to the Lord, biblical scripture and the family was a means of uplifting the race and resisting the slave era racial hierarchy that idealized white womanhood.

The terroristic conditions of slavery often compelled black parents to adopt harsh disciplinary practices with black children. These practices were reinforced and sanctioned by the Bible’s endorsement of parental force. In her conference presentation journalist Jamila Bey challenged biblical justifications of force for black disciplinary practices. Bey argued that black emphasis on corporal punishment in the home often influences violent behavior among some black youth. Hence, cultural and religious factors, coupled with the normalization of violence in mainstream media and the dominant culture, contribute to high rates of intimate partner violence and domestic abuse amongst African Americans. The dominant culture’s near deification of violent masculinity is a human rights crisis that is pervasive in the U.S. but remains largely unaddressed by mainstream humanist and atheist discourse. While many Western humanists and atheists are quick to condemn misogynist violence, repression and terrorism against women in Islamic cultures, outside of feminist discourse there is little focus on the normalization of secular and Christian violence against women in West.

During the conference I called for a Humanist politics of intersectionality that is unswervingly committed to social justice redress. One that embraces multiple subject positions vis-à-vis race, gender, sexual orientation, class and disability. And one that acknowledges the complexity of living in a national context in which the historic election of an African American president coexists with third world levels of incarceration of African Americans, state-sanctioned racial profiling of Latino communities and a re-segregated educational system that hearkens back to the era of June and Ward Cleaver. If some white humanists are content to cleave to scientism, deny the contemporary influence of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism and remain swaggeringly blind to their own privilege they must not be allowed to define the humanist or atheist movements. For if Humanism is to be a truly culturally relevant movement, a 21st century moral affirmation of social justice values, rather than a philosophical antidote to organized religion, there must be a reckoning with the kind of moral universe that tolerates the execution of little girls like Aiyanna Jones as just another ghetto blip on the national screen.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org. She is working on a book entitled Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.

*For example, see responses to my December 2009 article “The White Stuff.”

http://www.daylightatheism.org/2009/12/the-white-stuff.html

2 comments

  1. 1
    A Fellow Eukaryote

    I agree with almost all of what's written here, save for a major point. Sikivu, whom I read often and admire for her intellectual power and deep compassion, does a disservice to the atheist community. She writes off a large portion of the community–that is, the "white non-theists"–as engaged in "reductive science worship", and later blanket-accuses them of European imperialist thought.
    Now, as a member of the scientific atheist community who would presumably fall into this category (not fully, as I am Middle Eastern and often do not "pass for white" in many circles), I would beg to differ. I am disappointed that Sikivu tars scientific atheists with the same brush as imperialistic racists (whose racism, I might add, came from a pseudoscience born of preconceived notions, not of any honest scientific pursuit. It was pure apologism for genocide).

    We science-worshipping atheists jabber about evolution because it is under assault in our society by the same irrational forces to which Sikivu herself is opposed. We are fighting the erosion of critical thought. And of course, we do indeed find the study of our intricate world–so much vaster that the little bits of cosmic flotsam we call the human species–to be positively breathtaking. Should we be blamed for sharing that love affair with others?

    Many of us are in fact committed to the fight against racism and for social justice because we have had our consciousnesses raised. We are not all imperialistic racists dreaming up a techno-utopia where the "enlightened" lilies rule over the unwashed masses. I hope that Sikivu will amend her condemnation and ensure that it does not constitute a hostility to scientific thought, or an assumption that all scientists are conservative elitists.

    That said, I myself am very hostile to a certain small faction within the atheist community, which appears to exactly fit my (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) description in the previous paragraph. These techno-libertarians really are dominated by white males with a fondness for neoconservative war policy and open bigotry toward the "savage races" (read: brown people). They often issue loud proclamations of society being "past racism" (and subsequently dismissing all attempts to address the systemic racism of our economy), and are of course categorically neoliberal, taking on faith that all those with money and power deserve to have them.

    But these people are in general not scientists at all, more tending toward the business-tech side of things. The rest of us (especially the actual scientists, I might add) despise their libertarian-utopian masturbations and their racial elitism. The lesson here is that the "atheist community" is not a single entity (how could it be, if the only criterion is a lack of belief in supernatural nonsense?) but a loose collection of different people with their own perspectives. And if scientists look a little pale, it's because our educational system is itself organized based on race, with black children getting underfunded and sparse science education compared to statistically richer whites, not because of an inherent racism to the practice of modern science itself.

  2. 2
    Ann

    If the Christianity practiced by Europeans during the slave trade is not the same practiced at the end of the trade, then perhaps the difference is non-white christians, i.e., Blacks, have fallen for the turn the other cheek message because the psychology of being the low hanging fruit on the political tree is an improvement over being the actual strange fruit of historic opportunistic violence. We are still wearing the mask and continue to die psychologically with each re-invention of what it means to be African-American competes with what it means to be American first, Black second, and egads…not African! I always want folks who reject being African to explain how they came to be in America? In other words, you are a descendant of a man or a woman from the continent of Africa, period. You are here because you are an African. Whether aware or not, Christians maintain the European/White supremacy ideal and any African looking into that room of mirrors will see only horrible distortions of his/her reflection. Why torture yourself…?

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