WLP STEM & Humanities Scholars 2012-2014
By Sikivu Hutchinson
Until it was revived by the activist-minded Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP was widely viewed as a staid throwback coasting on the glory of the civil rights movement. Under Jealous’ leadership, the organization set out to demonstrate its political relevance, ramping up campaigns around mass incarceration, the death penalty, voter suppression and marriage equality. Predictably, these initiatives often drew on its strong ties to the African American faith community. A few months ago, I attended a local NAACP community service awards lunch where these ties were on vivid display. My mother, activist educator Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, was among the recipients. The honorees read like a roll call of educated, accomplished black America—a pioneering judge who is the granddaughter of slaves, an esteemed choreographer who’d been turned down for admission to UCLA, an activist teacher whose groundbreaking pedagogy challenged institutional racism and discrimination in Los Angeles public schools. Most of the women who spoke at the event offered moving counter-narratives to the marginalization of the “everyday/ordinary” activism of women of color. Each told tales of low expectations fiercely debunked. Coming on the heels of a Women’s History seminar I’d conducted with my students, the lunch was a welcome antidote to mainstream fixation on Rosa Parks as the only example of black feminist activism. Nonetheless, my mother appeared to be the only humanist being honored, as many recipients gushed about god and “his” guidance. Some elicited rapturous call and response “amens” and “that’s rights” with every reference to the Lord’s supposedly divine inspiration. Several of the women’s biographies cited deep involvement in their churches. A recurring theme was the paramount importance of education. Through their church leadership these primarily Baby Boomer generation women supported youth groups, spotlighted juvenile justice issues, provided scholarship assistance, spearheaded tutoring programs, developed college financial aid resources, mentored foster care youth and gave legal aid counseling. The performance of religious fervor reconfirmed what I’d already known about black women’s organizing—namely, that social justice through faith-based communities was still the foundation for not just activism, but identity, self-affirmation and self-determination.
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 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, many white atheists believe non-believers of color should just be able to roll in any environment, regardless of whether the local research university employs more black service workers than it enrolls black students or whether white families have fled public schools for elite charters and private academies.