Black women who refuse to remain silent about sexism, misogyny, patriarchy and religious control are deemed to be race traitors. Girls of color learn very early on from the Black Church that allegiance to boys and men of color supersedes their allegiance to themselves. They learn that there will be no “My Sister’s Keeper” initiatives to “save” them, nor will national attention be given to the epidemic rates of sexual assault, intimate partner violence and HIV/AIDS contraction and criminalization that put every black community in jeopardy. In her landmark novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston describes Black women as “de mules of de world.” It is a cautionary truth voiced by the grandmother of Janie, the novel’s lead character. Janie’s grandmother is a deeply religious woman and former slave who is the moral pillar of her life. Janie’s struggle to self-determine has become a classic symbol of Black women’s struggles to exercise power, control and agency over their own bodies and destinies in white supremacist capitalist patriarchal America.
As a freethinker and religious skeptic, Hurston nonetheless understood the seductions of god for black people in a nation where their humanity is still (sitting up here with the first Black president) violently contested in the 21st century. So any appraisal of Black women’s relationship to atheism or humanism must begin with this seeming contradiction.