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Humanists in the Hood


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Absolutely indispensable guide to humanism, Black feminism, and secular organizing! I feel so seen!


Feminism and atheism are “dirty words” that Americans across the political spectrum love to debate—and hate. Throw them into a blender and you have a toxic brew that supposedly defies decency, respectability, and Americana. Add an “unapologetically” Black critique to the mix and it’s a deal-breaking social taboo. Putting gender at the center of the equation, progressive “Religious Nones” of color are spearheading an anti-racist, social justice humanism that disrupts the “colorblind” ethos of European American atheist and humanist agendas, which focus principally on church-state separation. These critical interventions build on the lived experiences and social histories of segregated Black and Latinx communities that are increasingly under economic siege. In this context, Hutchinson makes a valuable and necessary call for social justice change in a polarized climate where Black women’s political power has become a galvanizing national force.

This book made me a humanist.

Back in 2009, I co-founded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Secular Students Association (SSA) with Mike Deigan, Kris Wold, and Joy Nichols. Although we didn’t use the term at the time, our mission was a humanist one. We consciously chose to have the “A” represent “Association” instead of the national organization’s “Alliance,” as we felt “Alliance” embodied a sense of conflict that didn’t resonate with us. Instead, we wanted to dedicate the organization to interfaith dialogue and service to fill a gap not only on campus, but in the surrounding community. We promoted events on campus that engaged with secularism, such as a student production of The Spinoza Project, which discusses religious freedom and the separation of church and state. We contextualized events with open dialogue, including an “Ask and Atheist” event across from the “Pit Preacher,” aka Gary Birdsong, who is known for fiery fundamentalist speeches and condemnations that even many Christian students found extreme. We were also aware that new atheist movements were doing very little to provide a social safety net for communities, especially when compared to religious groups like churches and faith-based resource centers, which offer a strong alternative to government assistance. We sent out information about anti-oppression volunteer opportunities and charity events to our members so they could participate as representatives of SSA. In doing so, we hoped to improve the reputation of secular people in an area known for its dogmatic religious beliefs, and to provide an alternative to houses of worship and faith-based organizations.

Gradually, though, my studies took on more priority, and my worsening mental health made participation in student organizations more difficult. As I evaluated which groups I still wanted to go to, I made the difficult decision to stop going to SSA meetings, which I had worked so hard along with the others to establish in the first place. There simply came a point when I felt too alienated as a person of color to keep participating in White spaces that often devolved into attacks on religion. Many atheists at Carolina were formerly involved with Southern Baptism and its rigid dogma; however, many of them did not examine how they replicated the very same dogma, even if they switched their terms and targets. The Whiteness of those spaces and the Whiteness of secularist philosophy ended up making me feel drained rather than restored. So I left.

I’ve never stopped identifying as atheist agnostic(1), but, while I found the term “humanist” while I was in college, I never used it for myself. Perhaps it felt too frou-frou for me. It was absent of any framework of radical dismantling of oppression. Sure, there were lofty ideals, but I didn’t see much about actual praxis. And what organizations there were felt so overwhelmingly White that I didn’t even feel like going.

It’s been 11 years since the founding of Carolina’s SSA. In that time, only Humanists in the Hood has managed to reach me and convert me to humanism, precisely because Hutchinson’s intersectional analysis made me feel seen for the first time in a secular space. I’ve been active in various anti-oppression circles, including those fighting racism, cis/sexism, ableism, sizeism, and heteropatriarchy, yet this was the first time I felt acknowledged as a secular person in a religious context. My prior frustration wasn’t an individual one-off that happened at one single university, but was a manifestation of a systematic disparity.

Hutchinson outlines a powerful and compelling argument that humanism cannot be divorced from real-world oppressions, such as racism, sexism, and economic inequality. Modern secularism does itself a disservice when it focuses on reactionary politics and only mobilizes to fight religious encroachments on the state. Instead, Hutchinson argues that humanism must be proactive and stand behind its belief in the equality and value of all human life. Instead of paying lip service to representation and diversity, humanists must invest the actual work in dismantling the institutions that keep humans unequal.

Hutchinson outlines how religion, particularly Christianity, has worked its way into American politics. Through a lens that examines a Black and African American experience of religion and secularism, Hutchinson breaks down how Christianity has allied with the state to perpetuate violence, such as by normalizing violence against women of color. Hutchinson highlights how religion offers a safety net for communities of color that have been neglected by the government. But too often, that safety net often comes at the price of accepting the abuse of powerful figures, particularly men, in the church.

Furthermore, because religion often fills the gap of providing mental healthcare to communities of color, secular people of color are often forced to choose between an ideology at odds with their very identity or getting the help they need. Especially for Black and African Americans, religion has historically and continues to be a way to cope with trauma, including intergenerational trauma. Humanists in the Hood is a difficult read at times, if only because Hutchinson doesn’t whitewash the reality of what people of color, particularly Black people, face in the United States: depressing rates of sexual violence, criminalization, pathologization, poverty, and the psychic toll of navigating interlocking oppressions on a day-to-day basis. Even as she highlights religion’s role in perpetuating injustice, Hutchinson is careful not to attack religion or faith itself, instead focusing her arguments on the praxis, or concrete action that is taken. In fact, Hutchinson includes suggested steps at the end of each chapter to help the reader see and challenge the failings of White secularism.

On top of being an excellent manifesto for a radical vision of humanism, Humanists in the Hood is also one of the best, up-to-date references on Black feminism that I’ve come across. As a millennial who came to a lot of consciousness about oppression through the internet, I’ve often been frustrated by how the history behind ideology gets erased online, most visibly in the lack of citations for the originators of terms and concepts. Those ideas then go on to be co-opted by White feminism, such as what has happened with the #MeToo movement, which Hutchinson uses to illustrate this very dynamic. Humanism in the Hood provides the citations, links, and references to the original sources where concepts like “intersectionality” and “respectability politics” came from (Kimberlé Crenshaw and Elizabeth Higginbotham, respectively). In a society where Black women’s labor is so often devalued and co-opted, Hutchinson’s thorough timelines and meticulous citations offer an invaluable record of history and a roadmap away from that erasure.

Even though Humanists in the Hood is a mere 135 pages long and written in non-academic, accessible language, I still found myself taking a while to read it, simply because Hutchinson expresses so much in such a compact space—it’s truly a marvel; I’ve read books over 400 pages as long that weren’t even half as informative. Rather than try to sum up every one of Hutchinson’s arguments, I’d like to expand on her analysis by providing decolonial and Chinese-American additions.

Hutchinson touches on how Enlightenment-era philosophy shaped contemporary humanism and how ideologies of racial difference are used to justify inhumane acts on people of color; she also notes how the mind–body division found in Christianity undermines the mission of improving the human condition on Earth while one is alive. Hutchinson dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the economic injustice of capitalism and income inequality. Yet, while Hutchinson does mention imperialism in a few places, there is a notable absence of critiques about coloniality. Many of the myths people in the United States have about progress and modernity, including beliefs about the infallibility of science and the vision of the “American Dream,” are rooted in colonialism’s spread over the globe. Capitalism was not always the status quo; racial difference was not always codified into institutional power differences. The United States is not unique in its oppressive beliefs, as the United States is deeply shaped by the same coloniality that took over the world. A thorough understanding of coloniality and decolonization would only advance the cause of an intersectional humanism.

I would also like to expand on Hutchinson’s comments about mental health and religious organizations’ exploitation of worshippers. Mental health is a critical issue in Asian-American communities, where language barriers, cultural barriers, poverty, faith, pseudoscience, and distrust of Western medicine combine to create low rates of people seeking help for psychiatric issues. Financial exploitation of worshippers is not unique to Christianity, either. No more than 20 minutes away from South LA, where Hutchinson’s work is centered, is Rowland Heights, an Asian-American hub. The city is host to one branch of a religious group called Bodhi Meditation.

I can’t claim to know all their inner workings, as I only went to one of their sessions. I found myself disturbed by the focus on the (male) leader Grandmaster Jinbodhi. His words seemed to be sacred in themselves as a video played of worshippers who claimed that various physical ailments had been cast out of their body via meditation, almost like a Christian exorcism: one person claimed that, as she meditated, a ball of energy burst from her body, ridding her of her chronic pain. There was an extensive gift shop attached to the meditation center. Buddhist institutions are no stranger to hosting lavish displays of wealth as religious offerings, and can exploit religious ties to economic injustice just as readily as Christians. Furthermore, while I recognize that the full benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are not yet fully understood, the fact remains that many of the tinctures and remedies are not as efficacious as Western drugs. Still, many immigrant communities, including Asian ones, are suspicious of Western medicine because of its reported side effects. Furthermore, mental health intervention, whether or not it includes medication, is often stigmatized and considered something only White people seek. This web of pressures is yet another manifestation of how religion and faith can be used to control and deprive, and another manifestation of where secular humanism can provide immense value to a community.

Humanists in the Hood is a stellar piece of nonfiction, one that I’d hold up as a prime example of how to make something purportedly high-concept accessible to the masses. For White people wishing to work together toward a humanist vision of the future, Reverse Integration: Helping White America Join the Village by Jay Klusky, Ph.D.(2) is an excellent companion to expand this dialogue. In the introduction, Hutchinson notes, “With Humanists in the Hood, I’m writing not only the book that I’ve wanted to read but also the book that I (to quote [Alice] Walker) should have been able to read.” (24, emphasis in original) This is also the book I should have been able to read while organizing in college, the book that would have provided the tools I needed to critique and resist the discomfort I felt in White secular spaces. But Hutchinson notes in the conclusion that it will be Millennials and Gen Zers of color who will change the discourse around humanism in the United States. I’m proud to say that, as a Millennial of color, Humanists in the Hood has resonated with me. I will be sure to pass it on to others so they, too, can be seen and work toward a better future for all humankind.


(1) Which is not a contradiction. For me, “atheism” means a lack of belief in a god or gods, while “agnosticism” represents the belief that human beings are inherently limited and cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods, thus a- and gnosis, for “knowledge.”

(2) Interestingly enough, Dr. Jay Klusky credits Dr. Joy DeGruy as one of his closest friends and as an invaluable cultural consultant. Sikivu Hutchinson cites Dr. Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing in her analysis. Small humanist world.

Reviewed by

S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their work has appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and Strange Horizons, and their translations have appeared in Clarkesworld. They edit the magazine Arsenika. You can find out more about S. at their website,


Feminism and atheism are “dirty words” that Americans across the political spectrum love to debate—and hate. Throw them into a blender and you have a toxic brew that supposedly defies decency, respectability, and Americana. Add an “unapologetically” Black critique to the mix and it’s a deal-breaking social taboo. Putting gender at the center of the equation, progressive “Religious Nones” of color are spearheading an anti-racist, social justice humanism that disrupts the “colorblind” ethos of European American atheist and humanist agendas, which focus principally on church-state separation. These critical interventions build on the lived experiences and social histories of segregated Black and Latinx communities that are increasingly under economic siege. In this context, Hutchinson makes a valuable and necessary call for social justice change in a polarized climate where Black women’s political power has become a galvanizing national force.

INTRODUCTION: The Stone Cold Here and Now

* * *

In my own work, I write not only what I want to read—

understanding fully and indelibly that if I don’t do it no

one else is so vitally interested, or capable of doing it

to my satisfaction—I write all the things

I should have been able to read.

—Alice Walker, “Saving the Life That Is Your Own:

The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,” 1976

Feminism and atheism are dirty words that Americans across the

political spectrum love to hate and debate. Throw them into a blender

and you have a toxic brew that defies decency, respectability, and

Americana. Trot them out in debates about abortion or LGBTQI rights

and you can unite white conservative evangelicals and Black “Hoteps”

(Black folks who subscribe to a narrow version of Afrocentrism) in a

sneering, strange-bedfellows lovefest.

I came to feminism as a “baby” atheist growing up in South Los

Angeles. My first pangs of unapologetic godlessness were in Catholic

school. Sitting in dreary religion classes run by sanctimonious white

male teachers made me despise the Bible, its moral hypocrisies, and its

violent woman-hating language. It was inane to me that a centuries old

“good book” could dictate that I remain silent, bow down to

patriarchs, step back as chattel, and view my body as an impure vessel

of original sin redeemable only through self-sacrifice and submission o a male deity. It was madness that these atrocities could be justified

by the unquestioned moral righteousness of a Christian tradition

that condoned slavery, rape, and homophobia. The “beauty” and

majesty of the good book, and the omnipotent god at the cosmic

switch of the universe, were a patent lie in the face of all the suffering

and inequality I saw right in front of me. So, while some were able

to compartmentalize these fascistic tenets, cherry pick the good stuff

ad nauseum, and divorce the bad stuff from “God,” I decided that it

didn’t make sense to give the Bible—nor any so-called holy book that

gave supernatural beings dominion over “mere” earthlings—a pass.

Why not cut out the theological claptrap and chuck gods altogether?

Why not concede that the crazy quilt of theistic belief systems, creeds,

and dogmas that sprawl across cultures and nations was a far greater

testament to human artfulness than godly omniscience? As a twelveyear-

old, accustomed to hearing about how that conniving temptress

Eve screwed up folks’ residence in the Garden of Eden, it was clear

to me that much of the policing of femininity that I and other girls

encountered had a strong basis in Christian religious dogma. From

the moment we’re assigned the female gender at birth, girls’ sexuality

is a commodity, an object, an asset, and a “liability” to be marketed,

bought, sold, and controlled in a birth-to-death cycle in which girls

and women are straightjacketed by a litany of dos and (mostly) don’ts.

Don’t sit this way, walk this way, talk this way, dress this way. Don’t

go there, hang out with them, drink, smoke, act like a bitch, act like a

ho, act like a dude, get yourself raped or knocked up. And when you

get older, supposedly beyond the regime of the sexualizing male gaze,

don’t ever think you will be relevant, whether you have kids or not. At

every stage, organized religion, through the language of a grindingly

policing theism, is there to impose boundaries and limits.

The Catholic school that I went to for one year was a perfect

training ground for this dance of invisibility. In the Reagan years, it

was widely viewed by some middle-class Black and Latinx parents

as an antidote to the “bad” schools in South L.A. and neighboring

Inglewood (then a predominantly Black community that had been

largely white up until the late 1960s). On the surface, the school’s

virtually all-white faculty and ethnically diverse student body were


poster children for multicultural integration. Beneath that shiny

facade, the school had the usual cauldron of hierarchies: bullying

cliques, authoritarian religious bureaucrats, predatory jocks, and

favorites-playing teachers. Then, as now, private religious schools

were microcosms of a segregated two-tier educational system.

Middle-class and working-class parents of color desperate to give

their children a leg up bused them to elite schools hoping against

hope that the racial tensions that fueled post–Brown v. Board of Education desegregation battles wouldn’t affect their babies. These tensions were crystal clear at my high school. Upper-middle-class to affluent white students lived in tony single-family homes and condos

that dominated the multimillion dollar beachside community where

the school was based. Black and Latinx students crammed public

buses, traveling from the demonized “inner city” to the mostly

white Westside. The implications of this dichotomy would shape my

budding consciousness about public education, public space, race,

and gender. Institutional racism, sexism, and heterosexism were

critical to the disciplinary regime of the white savior patriarchs and

matriarchs who adopted a missionary mentality about youth of color

while policing girls’ bodies and conduct. Girls who violated the dress

code were shamed and forced to put on skirts provided by the male

dean (a double standard that was not imposed on boys).

Although Catholic dogma and Catholic hierarchy informed

this regime of power, authority, and control, I saw no significant

difference between these practices and those of other Christian power

structures that also enforced binaries of good/bad, self/other, male/

female, gay/straight, and Christian/heathen, while giving so-called

religious leaders a cover for immorality and bigotry. Very early on, I

was a humanist and feminist without necessarily having the language

to break it down that way. Being humanist and feminist demands

questioning received dogmas and slaying sacred cows whose very

existence depend on your erasure. To subscribe to a human-centered

notion of morality, ethics, and justice as a Black woman is an outlier

position that carries social, political, and professional risks. Much of

the emerging literature (including blogs and thought pieces) on Black

atheist and humanist experience chronicles the perils of Black folks’


rejecting theism. According to the Pew Religion Research Forum,

87 percent of African Americans are religiously identified, making

them among the most religious ethnic groups in a nation that is itself

majority religious and Christian. Given these daunting stats, faith is

a strong prerequisite for political viability in the United States overall

and in the African American community in particular. The only

contemporary national-level politician of any ethnicity to declare his

atheism while in office was former California congressman Pete Stark

(who waited for several decades before doing so and was voted out of

office five years later).

Although a handful of whites in national office have since

proclaimed their humanism or refused to identify a theistic belief

system, running for public office as an openly identified humanist

nonbeliever of African descent is political suicide. For generations,

fledgling and veteran Black politicians have relied on a robust network

of Black churches and faith-based organizations to help launch or

sustain their careers. Megachurch congregations like West Angeles,

Faithful Central, and First AME in South Los Angeles are frequent

pitstops for African American and white politicians looking to curry

favor with Black voters. When former President Barack Obama

began campaigning in 2007 he strategically emphasized his Christian

religious beliefs and membership in Chicago’s Trinity United Church

(Trinity’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, was subsequently

accused of making racist comments—allegations that conservatives

used to try and discredit Obama). Obama’s eagerness to do so was

viewed as a way to dispel rumors that he was an atheist or Muslim.

It was also perceived as a bid to establish “race cred” with African

American voters dubious of his biracial, African and European

American background.

During the 2020 presidential race, Senator Kamala Harris, the first

Black female Democrat to run for president since Congresswoman

Shirley Chisholm in 1972, announced her candidacy to a crowd of

ecstatic supporters with the declaration that she had “faith in god.”

Insofar as faith is shorthand for being considered authentically

Black, god-fearing Black politicians are exempt from the knee-jerk

suspicions associated with nonbelievers, because being a Christian

believer is reflexively linked to having moral values in the American


Would Harris’ supporters have reacted as enthusiastically if she’d

said she had faith in humans and that this naturally superseded faith

in god? It’s all but guaranteed that she would have been vilified in

the press, hounded off the stage, and kicked to the curb politically,

branded as damaged goods. How dare a Black woman candidate

profess anything but unswerving devotion to Father God, Jesus, Him?

And yet, nothing in Harris’ platform required god belief or a theistic

outlook on the world. Indeed, a feminist humanist perspective on

the social construction of inequality, justice, and morality is critical

of faith-based belief systems’ capacity to articulate a moral universe

precisely because of the arbitrary nature of deity worship. As secular

scholar Phil Zuckerman writes in his book What It Means to Be

Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, the

intensely subjective, changeable, and highly interpretive nature of

god-based morality (like certain animal species, there are hundreds of

different deity-based belief systems in the world) makes it impossible

for humans to know with absolute certainty what “God’s will” is and

what he/she/they/it deem to be ironclad, “beyond question” mores.

It’s become pro forma to note that Christians, Muslims, Jews, and

believers from other faiths routinely cherry pick what they like and

discard what they don’t from their holy books. Flipping it another

way; do gods give a damn about universal health care, access to

stable, affordable housing, and the right to earn a living wage with

benefits for everyone? What use are gods who don’t protect bodily

autonomy and the right to self-determination for queer, nonbinary

and gender nonconforming folks? What use are they if they don’t

protect these rights for women or folks with disabilities? What do

supernatural deities say about these specific socioeconomic, cultural,

and social issues? Why do they remain abjectly silent if they are in fact

omnipotent and omnipresent? Of course, the short, reductive answer

is that these are contemporary human matters that didn’t exist eons

ago when gods first dropped knowledge on the holy men entrusted

with codifying and relaying their wisdom to the unwashed masses.

But, if gods are all-knowing, why do they rely on imperfect messengers

to unpack and “screw up” interpretations of their doctrines across the

centuries? If they are all powerful why do they allow predators and

thieves to infest the leadership of every major religious denomination

on the planet?

This line of questioning echoes Epicurus’ timeless critique of

the basic impotence and bankruptcy of theism. Omnipotent, “just”

gods who can’t ensure a universe free from evil, cruelty, and human

suffering are not omnipotent, just, or godly. One of the most powerful

forerunning feminist, atheist, humanist freethinkers to call out

this naked contradiction was the nineteenth-century white Jewish

suffragist and abolitionist Ernestine Rose. A socialist organizer and

mentor to suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,

Rose infamously railed against religion in her public speeches and

commentaries. “Superstition,” she said, “keeps women ignorant,

dependent, and enslaved beings. . . . The churches have been built

upon their necks.” Rose’s blistering critique of the Bible, patriarchy, and

capitalism are an important link to contemporary feminist humanist

discourse and praxis. Opposing the appropriation of women’s

domestic labor, she and her fellow white suffragists advocated for

property laws that would have recognized and compensated women’s

household work in the 1840s and 1850s. Although Rose and her white

feminist contemporaries were aligned with the abolitionist movement

to end slavery, xenophobia, paternalism, and racism, white supremacy

dominated the first-wave women’s movement, laying the foundation

for the racial turbulence of twentieth-century feminism.

As historian Louise Michele Newman notes in her book White

Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States,

first-wave white feminists always framed women’s rights and individual

liberty in evolutionary terms. Even though white antislavery feminists

felt they had common cause with African Americans—frequently

drawing offensive parallels between their plight and that of enslaved

Africans—many of them believed that white women were morally and

intellectually superior to women of color and men of color. During

the Civil War, first-wave white feminist abolitionists supported the

Republican Party and the Union Army not only because they were

opposed to slavery but also because they believed that a postbellum

Republican government would prioritize women’s suffrage. After

the Civil War, some of these women opposed the Fourteenth and

Fifteenth Amendments due to what they perceived as the Republican

Party’s failure to make good on its tacit promise to (white) women.

The Fourteenth Amendment granted African Americans birthright

citizenship, while the Fifteenth Amendment gave men of color

the right to vote. In the racist view of some white feminists, these

amendments put civil rights in direct competition with women’s

rights, which was understood to be stewarded by white women.

The bridge between Black feminism and secular humanism has

been shaped by this conflicted history. Digging a little deeper in my

research on Ernestine Rose—who I’d long admired for her early,

unabashed atheist feminist stance and antislavery views—I discovered

that she too had trafficked in some of the nativist rhetoric espoused by

Stanton and Anthony. This rhetoric pitted “the other” against civilized

white women who were deemed to be more culturally equipped to lead

the nation than men of color from less-evolved cultures. Despite their

professed solidarity with abolitionism, being human for white women

meant not being Black, enslaved, or foreign. Despite their rejection

of god-ordained patriarchy and supernaturalism, being secular for

Protestant feminist freethinkers like Stanton meant being superior

to the “primitive” religionists of non-European, non-Protestant

countries. In the years after the Civil War, white feminists closed

ranks to ensure that their political interests were privileged in the

discourse around freedom, equality, and women’s self-determination.

This white supremacist legacy continues to inform contemporary

feminism. Humanists in the Hood takes on these contradictions, in

an effort to explore the promise of intersectional, Black feminist–

identified approaches to humanism that are grounded in the everyday

realities of living in hyper-segregated communities of color. For years,

the rap on feminism among most Black folks was that it was a white

woman’s thing. White feminists, from first-wave nineteenth-century

white suffragists, to second-wave stalwarts in the postwar “feminine

mystique” era, routinely ignored, erased, and misrepresented Black

women’s experiences and social history. While white women at the

height of the so-called Baby Boom decried their “enslavement” to

patriarchy, domesticity, and motherhood in Ozzie and Harriet–

style homes, Black women were mopping their floors, washing their

laundry, and wiping the butts of their children. While college-educated

white women deplored corporate America’s glass ceiling, working

class women of color were languishing in low wage non-unionized

jobs. While white liberal women stormed the barricades for abortion

and “choice,” Black women fought for a more encompassing platform

of reproductive justice, framing abortion, contraception, and family

planning as critical to Black liberation struggle in a capitalist economy.

And while professional white women saw their careers boosted under

Clinton administration affirmative action policies, Black women and

Latinx women were routinely demonized by right-wing media for

mooching off of government “handouts.”

Indeed, the fractured relationship between Black and white

feminists has always shaped the women’s movement in the United

States, often obscuring the movement’s value to communities of

color. Longstanding racial schisms over white female privilege, white

women’s racism, and middle-class respectability continue to inform

Black women’s experiences in the women’s movement. In an interview

in the 2018 book How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee

River Collective, collective co-founder Barbara Smith reflects on how

she began to come into a feminist awakening during the late sixties.

Disconnected from white women’s experiences, she initially wondered,

“What did [they] have to complain about? They have been terrorizing

us in their homes and in their kitchens for centuries now. . . . They

are responsible for the pandemic of lynchings.” Like many Black

women who later embraced feminism, Smith initially viewed it as

irrelevant to Black women’s lives. Her view shifted as she became

more conscious of the toll sexist, racist, heterosexist oppression took

on Black women’s access to jobs, housing, reproductive health care,

and basic human and civil rights.

In 1977, the Combahee River Collective confronted these issues

head on with their landmark statement outlining Black feminist

principles and priorities. Challenging the vacuum that existed in the

white-dominated women’s movement, Smith and fellow Black lesbian

activists Beverly Smith and Gloria Hull crafted a Black feminist

“manifesto” critiquing white feminist racism and Black patriarchy.

The statement advocated a radical socialist restructuring of the U.S.

economy to redress the racial segregation and wealth disparities that

all but enshrined Black poverty. Articulating an intersectional vision

(which shaped Kimberle Crenshaw’s coinage of the term), Combahee

foreshadowed the visionary Black feminist criticism of writers like

Michele Wallace, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins,

and Barbara Christian. It also complemented the work of womanist,

humanist author Alice Walker, who has consistently challenged

organized religion and gender orthodoxies in her novels and critical

theory. Walker’s coinage of the term “womanism” was a strategic

counter to the Eurocentric orientation of mainstream American

feminism. In her anthology In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, she

defines a womanist as a “black feminist or feminist of color . . . who

appreciates and prefers women’s culture . . . emotional flexibility

. . . and strength . . . committed to survival and wholeness of entire

people, male and female.” (Walker, 1983)

All of these seminal Black thinkers were influenced by the social

thought and activism of the late nineteenth-century writer and

educator Anna Julia Cooper. Rising to prominence after the Civil War,

Cooper’s intersectional conceptualization of Black women’s agency

emerged from her rebuke of white supremacy, white nationalism, and

Black patriarchal notions of power and authority. As Black feminist

writer Brittney Cooper has argued, Anna Julia Cooper grounded her

feminist theory and practice (or praxis) in the everyday realities of

Black women’s bodies and the racial, sexual, gender, and class politics

that shaped their lived experiences.

Cooper and other first-wave Black women activists like Ida B.

Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Fannie Barrier Williams laid the

foundation for a progressive Black feminist politics based on Black

self-determination, human rights, and educational justice, which was

reflected in Combahee’s socialist ethos. Nonetheless, forty-plus years

after Combahee, feminism is still perceived by many Black folks as

too white-identified, too alien to the needs of the community, and

too out of touch with Black folks’ specific circumstances. Indeed, it

is still common for Black folks to dismiss gender justice resistance

like #MeToo, reproductive rights, and LGBTQI equity movements as

subsidiary, or even irrelevant, to the “more urgent” program of ending

police brutality and mass incarceration. As filmmaker and activist

Aishah Shahidah Simmons once noted, “We cannot wait until the

police and white citizens stop killing black people before we address

child sexual abuse, adult rape, and ableism in our communities.”

This seemingly simple yet powerful statement vividly characterizes

the divide in thinking that separates “single variable” organizing

from intersectional organizing. Imagine someone approaches you

and says you will have to choose to be exclusively Black, rather than

female, pansexual, or any other identity that defines you. Making that

choice will determine if you’re able to eat dinner for the week. The

patent absurdity of having to make such a choice, while excluding

one’s other identities, is at the heart of single variable politics, which

reduces complex social movements, identities, and experiences down

to what the dominant culture deems to be the privileged identity.

For generations, the modern civil rights movement suffered from

the single variable plague, as Black women’s resistance to sexual

violence, domestic violence, and wage theft was marginalized in

order to promote the falsehood that charismatic Black male leaders

spearheaded the movement struggle.

At the same time, faced with a bleak economic landscape in

which Black women’s wages are stagnant and Black wealth continues

to plummet, many Black women believe movement feminism has

failed to provide a consistent platform for progressive social change.

The white middle-class race divide that dogs movement feminism

continues to be a deal breaker. In a 2014 Feminist Wire interview I

conducted with writer and activist Thandisizwe Chimurenga, former

host of the L.A. radio show Some of Us Are Brave (after the Barbara

Smith–Gloria Hull anthology of the same name), she noted, “There is

also a disconnect [with feminism] due to class differences. Much of

feminism appears to be an intellectual undertaking—that is, essays,

books, and lectures—instead of on-the-ground engagement. Many

young Black women and women of color come into contact with

feminism through higher education, which is a marker of privilege

and class mobility. Many young, low-income Black women who

disdain feminism are not represented in these centers of higher

learning, in addition to the fact that they have a reference for feminism

that comes from popular culture which has no interest whatsoever in

empowering young women of color [or the communities they come

from].” Echoing this sentiment, Bridgett Crutchfield of the Black

Nonbelievers of Detroit, noted:

I recall hearing conversations from Black women who spoke

of feminism in a manner that was disconcerting. These women

were married and religious. Those conversations proved

confusing as these women benefited from the work of feminists.

Only a few of these women were truly “submissive” to their

spouse. It wasn’t until I grew older that I looked at feminism on

a macroscopic level and was disappointed by the cold and bold

betrayal of white feminism. [White women’s] blatant disregard

for their “sisters” was not and is not lost upon us. We’re family

when white feminists tap us for our labor and relegated to the

basement when they have no use for us. . . . Several white women

in my life were shown the door when such realizations dropped

into my head. (Crutchfield, interview 2019)

And yet, “feminism” as a term has become a hot counterculture

commodity on blogs and social media, as well as in advertising and

celebrity branding. The virtual embrace of feminism among the

millennial generation has gained even more strength in the face of

Religious Right and Trumpian backlash against women’s rights and

human rights. However, according to the 2018 GenForward survey

of millennial respondents (over 1,750 individuals between the ages

of 18–34 were surveyed), Asian Americans were more likely overall

to identify as feminist, while more whites, African Americans, and

Latinx respondents didn’t identify with feminism in any capacity.

Only 21 percent of African American women and a scant 12 percent

of Latinx women identified as feminists. Perhaps most revealingly,

over 70 percent of African Americans believed that the “feminist

movement” has benefited or improved the lives of white women,

but only 35 percent of African Americans believed that the feminist

movement has had some benefit for women of color. The survey also

revealed that few millennials across race and ethnicity believed the

feminist movement has had any significant impact on improving the

lives of poor women. Reading between the lines, the view that the

feminist movement is MIA on economic justice and class divisions—

and that its greatest beneficiaries are white women—is an implicit

indictment of the racial entitlement and privilege of white women.

Of course, what qualifies as the “feminist movement” is open to

debate and interpretation. In reflecting on some of the major gender

justice uprisings of the past twenty years, feminist social change has

been represented by movements such as the fight for reproductive and

abortion rights, the fight for equal pay for equal work, and the fight

to end sexual harassment, sexual violence, and child sexual abuse in

the home, community, and workplace. It has also been represented

by the #SayHerName movement against gender-based police violence

and resistance against mass incarceration. Taken as a whole, these

movements have been vital to countering institutional sexism and

securing equal rights for women. However, it can’t be argued that

they constitute a coherent feminist movement with a clear political

agenda, platform, and organizing strategy. When feminism is not

visible as a movement it’s easy for it to be dismissed as amorphous or

as a flash in the pan.

That said, the GenForward survey also highlights the gap between

celebrity culture and folks in “real time”—a gap that is embodied by

the frequency with which women of color “influencers” like Beyoncé

and Ariana Grande may proclaim their unabashed “feminism” while

the average young woman of color might not openly identify as

such. This disconnect is also prevalent in the secular world when it

comes to identification with atheism and humanism among people

of color. Although surveys suggest that the number of nonreligiously

identified African Americans is rising, the share who openly

identify as humanist or atheist is still comparatively small. For the

layperson, understanding atheism seems easy enough. It’s straight-up

heathenism, the final countdown, the dance with Satan, Beelzebub, and

any other force that embodies destruction, apocalypse, and moral rot.

But what is humanism? How might it be an important and necessary

transition for women of color and communities of color? What are

the implications of a humanistic worldview in a nation where Black

women’s bodies have never been considered human? What are the

implications of a Black feminist humanism when women’s centurieslong

fight for bodily autonomy continues to be challenged by white

supremacist Christian fascist heterosexist patriarchy on the one hand

and Black heterosexist patriarchy on the other?

Recently, my daughter’s teacher, who is also African American,

implored them not to become a goth who worships Satan. The

popular caricature of gothic culture is that of black-clad, ghoulishly

pale, antisocial teenagers with a Columbine jones, romanticizing

murder and mayhem. Although this particular teacher has been

largely supportive of my daughter’s budding atheism and queerness,

her assumption that they would resort to Satanism was typical of

the misguided view many folks have about atheists. In the seeming

absence of a defining belief system codified in centuries-old books,

teachings, and multibillion-dollar religious institutions, humanism

is a cultural blank for the average person. Humanistic feminism or

feminist humanism are even more dicey in the eyes of a mainstream

America oozing fake piety out of every pore.

Black feminist humanist literature, especially that which is by

and about Black feminist humanists, is still inchoate, still rising from

a forest of often chest-thumping books by secular white folks. How

different might it have been for Black girls braving the antiseptic

hell of suburban Catholic school to read literature that spoke to and

affirmed a secular humanist worldview beyond stifling Black faith-based

orthodoxies? What would it have meant during this era of Jerry

Falwell Moral Majority posturing to envision and imagine this world

in books? Toni Morrison once said that we must write the books we

want to read if they don’t already exist. In the 1976 essay, “Saving the

Life That Is Your Own,” Alice Walker expanded on Morrison’s quote,

noting how Black women must also become models for their own

imagined literary worlds, essentially “doing the work of two.” Walker’s

declaration was framed in terms of her discovery of freethinker,

anthropologist, and author Zora Neale Hurston, whose work had

fallen into obscurity in the seventies when Walker led the literary

revival that launched Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God

into the American canon.

With Humanists in the Hood, I’m writing not only the book that

I’ve wanted to read but also the book that I (to quote Walker) should

have been able to read. I argue that Black feminist humanism is a

vibrant alternative to the woo-woo spiritualism, Jesus fetishism, and

goddess worship that characterizes progressive feminist belief systems

that revolve around theism. I also make the case that Black feminist

humanism based on the complexity of multiple identities and subject

positions is a critical lens for addressing race, gender, class, and sexual

inequity in the United States. In so doing, I will consider fundamental

questions about the ideological underpinnings of gender and social

justice humanism from a Black feminist perspective. What is the

practical value of humanism for folks of color? Is humanism relevant

to the specific socioeconomic and political conditions in communities

of color? What are we talking about when we say humanism and

gender in the same sentence? How is humanism related to Black

feminism and feminism(s) based on the lived experiences of women

of color? What does Black humanist cultural production in academic

scholarship, entertainment, and literature look like? And how is

humanism relevant under conditions of economic injustice and

capitalism? Finally, do humanists have an obligation to articulate, and

fight for, an economic justice platform?

As the U.S. undergoes epic political changes catalyzed by the

2020 presidential election, the stakes for a secularist, feminist, queer,

pro–social justice, and anti-capitalist ethos of American values are

perhaps greater than ever before. Across the nation, hundreds of

GOP–initiated laws aimed at restricting or eliminating abortion, birth

control, and basic family planning have taken effect, particularly in

the Midwest and the South. These measures represent a death-by-athousand-

cuts assault on the 1973 Roe v. Wade and the 1992 Planned

Parenthood v. Casey Supreme Court decisions granting and upholding

women’s constitutional right to abortion. In K–12 education, laws

favoring privatization and expanded corporate investment in charter

schools have eroded public schools. At the same time, draconian

anti-LGBTQ policies, instituted by the Department of Justice and

the Office of Civil Rights, have undermined Obama-era protections

for queer, transgender, and nonbinary youth and adults. In all of

these sectors, the Trump administration’s appointment of federal

and Supreme Court justices, policymakers, Cabinet members, and

department heads from the radical Religious Right is evidence that

theocracy is in full flower. It will more than likely take decades to

undo the damage.

Liberal and progressive Christians, Muslims, and other theists all

tell us that they have the “right” and just way to equality through their

version of Jesus/God/Allah/Yahweh, etc. It’s the fundamentalists who

deal in distortion. Yet, any ethical foundation that places supernatural

morality, heaven, and deliverance over humans in the stone-cold naked

here and now is fatally flawed and bankrupt. As the sixties

rock band The Doors once sang, “The future’s uncertain, the end

is always near.” What could be more wondrous, awe-inspiring, and

enigmatic than the human capacity to turn that lyric of doom truism

about our inevitable finitude into art, politics, education, history,

and a million other endeavors (for good and ill) that make humans

the most relentlessly self-aware and self-documenting species on the

planet? This is not some cheerleading public-service announcement

for anthropocentrism but rather an acknowledgment that, in the pellmell

run-up to “the end,” gods are sorely outmatched by the humans

who invented them.

About the author

Sikivu Hutchinson's books include Imagining Transit: Race, Gender and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars, and White Nights, Black Paradise, Her forthcoming novel is "Rock 'n' Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe" view profile

Published on April 07, 2020

Published by Pitchstone

60000 words

Genre: Humanities & Social Sciences

Reviewed by

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