By Naima Cabelle Washington
In his autobiography, Mirror to America, Dr. John Hope Franklin writes, “From the very beginning of my own involvement in the academy, the goal I sought was to be a scholar with credentials as impeccable as I could achieve. At the same time I was determined to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society…. While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship, I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations.”
During his career, John Hope Franklin encouraged his students and colleagues to embrace both scholarship and activism. On October 7, 2011, I thought about those words while listening to Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, as she made her presentation at the 4th Annual Texas Freethought Convention in Houston, Texas. I have no doubt that Dr. Franklin, who is the recipient of hundreds of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a prominent historian and noted African American scholar, would agree that Sikivu is using her own scholarship, her credentials, and her professional career in her fight to eradicate the stain of racism that is clouding the vision of the intellectual, academic, and secular communities.
The content of her talk presented a secular audience with America’s historical inequities, as well as a contemporary picture of America, and it is not a very pretty picture. The grim unemployment figures, the housing crises, the lack of access to a quality education, the abysmal health care crisis and the frontal assaults on the human rights of people who are denied access to basic services have all served to further marginalize the already oppressed or under-served segments of our society: people of color, women, children, the poor, sick, elderly, and disabled. In the most professional, eloquent, yet no-nonsense fashion possible, she delivered some very bad news to her audience. I was proud to be in that auditorium and to witness a presentation that met every standard of excellence. Here was an activist and a scholar who was at her best, yet privately she expressed doubts as to whether the audience, which was virtually all-white, really heard and understood what she said, or if her message, had in fact, fell on deaf ears. She said the members of the audience appeared to be uniformly unresponsive; that their faces were blank and expressionless. I have tried to picture an audience as it listens to the recounting of the social, physical, and economic horrors inflicted on human beings who lived in the past. I’ve tried to picture an audience that has also been made brutally aware of the continuation of those horrors even in the year 2011, and frankly, I can only imagine faces that may appear to be expressionless. The audience members who were already aware of some of the things she spoke of were certainly confronted with a new awareness as she explained with a new clarity how race, class, gender, and religion are issues that are connected, interwoven, and are literally devastating hundreds of millions of people in America and throughout the world.
Whenever these issues are raised, I’m reminded that I must assume both the collective and personal responsibility for aiding and abetting in the ultimate dismemberment of these anti-human power structures. The content of her presentation failed to mirror that of the usual hand-wringing lectures concerning the religiosity of African Americans. Instead, her presentation put each member of the secular community on notice; and let them know that beyond the challenges to theism, they also have the responsibility to challenge all anti-human power structures. I happen to believe that the members of her audience were serious people because frivolous non-thinkers won’t attend, much less pay to hear, thoughtful discussions. If the members of the audience were hearing for the first time the genuine “state of the union” spelled out for them in unapologetic language, then they had good reasons for looking expressionless. There was much to think about, and there is even much more to do!
Religion has certainly taken a toll on humanity. The cultural and psychological wounds will remain long after the stranglehold of religious instutitions on society is broken. But religious institutions clearly have not functioned without the assistance of nearly every corrupt secular institution; and over time, religious institutions have interacted with, replaced, and certainly worked in concert with secular institutions whenever possible and whenever necessary. Yet, breaking religious institutions’ stranglehold on society (which will indeed be a cause for celebration) will still leave much of our ethnic, gender, and class issues unresolved. Currently these issues are scattered throughout the social landscape just like landmines ―- hiding in plain sight as they readily explode as though connected to motion-detectors. A presentation that notes how most forms of oppression reinforce one another; cites historical data; uses contemporary models, and points to an even more horrific future should we fail to address all power structures designed to deny social justice and universal human rights, certainly delivers the psychological equivalent of physical blunt force trauma.
We must have a total transformation of values that informs all relationships ―- a system which evaluates and improves how we deal with societal ills; a system that leaves little room for the exploitation, violence, and inhumanity which is currently taking place. We must all elevate our private and collective consciousness if we are to effectively answer this urgent call. Having open, respectful, and honest dialogue in the secular community would be a good place to start; educating ourselves about the issues is a must; collaborating, working in concert with people both inside and outside of the community is also a must; toward the development of a collective leadership within the secular community. There are no easy answers and no shortcuts for transforming our society. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and the process will last as long as humanity lasts.
After our boldest and most influential critical thinkers in the secular community have confronted and confounded the enemies of reason; after they appear to have said all that there is to say, Sikivu Hutchinson has stepped forward to demand the expansion of the discussion beyond the separation of church and state by illuminating the conditions that exist in America, especially with regard to oppressed and marginalized people. She is a disciplined, first-rate intellectual and speaks with authority on the issues of race, class, gender, and religion. She represents the role model for the atheists of this millennium who are ready to work towards a total societal transformation and who reject a piecemeal approach. With respect to her ability to accurately articulate the totality of the problems that we must face as well as outline what must be done to move towards the achievement of social justice and universal human rights, Sikivu Hutchinson has no equal.
Naima Cabelle Washington is an atheist, feminist and socialist activist who currently serves on the board of the Washington Area Secular Humanist Board of Directors and publishes the D.C. Atheist Advocate.