Footage from the opening session of the October 2014 Moving Social Justice conference at CFI Los Angeles featuring Sikivu Hutchinson and Debbie Goddard:
When I first started writing Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars back in 2009 few were talking about intersectional issues within an atheist/humanist context. Those who were were getting holy hell from the Dawkins dudebros and the Hitch fanboys. Because when you’re benefiting from economic and racial apartheid it’s far more sexy to crusade against genital mutilation among the backward primitive Muslim Africans “over there” and effectively say to black women atheists, by the way Negresses don’t you know that we rescued ya’ll from that scourge? Here, take this ‘We Are All Africans’ t-shirt and ticket to Darwin Day and sit down and shut the fuck up while we white atheists front like we’re Public Enemy Number One.
Black Skeptics condemns the failure of the St Louis grand jury to indict killer cop Darren Wilson for the lynching of unarmed youth Michael Brown and join people of conscience around the world in mobilizing against state violence and law enforcement impunity this week in peaceful protest:
By Sikivu Hutchinson from the Faithiest blog @ Religion News
One of the most evocative images from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri this summer was that of demonstrator Angela Jaboor wielding an “I Am a Woman” sign.
Jaboor’s sign was modeled after the historic “I Am a Man” signs displayed by male civil rights activists in the 1960s. By centering black women’s agency, she challenged traditional narratives associating liberation with heroic masculinity.
Paying tribute to the invisible black women who’ve been victimized by state violence, feminists of color continue to push back against civil rights movement orthodoxies that privilege the plight of young men of color while ignoring the impact race, gender, sexuality and class-based oppression has on cis, straight, lesbian, bi and trans women of color. To paraphrase African Americans for Humanism director Debbie Goddard, “intersectionality is our lives.”
As a racially polarized nation awaits the grand jury decision on the officer who killed unarmed teen Michael Brown, some atheists and Humanists are still hating on “mission creep,” intersectionality, and the “corruption” of white bread secularism by so-called “social justice warriors” who apparently just don’t get why the U.S. is the world’s greatest beacon of freedom and justice.
Expecting nonbelievers of color to hew to a limited secular agenda that fetishizes creationism and the separation of church and state, they seem to ask, “Why aren’t you people who come from woefully religious ghettos content with our table scraps?”
– More @ http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/11/21/atheists-social-justice-stem/#sthash.F9OWwmZn.dpuf
I boarded the plane in a fog of dream and nightmare with all the others leaving America for the last time. Nursing mothers with squealing babies in the row behind me, elders in front flipping through their bibles, Ebony magazines and Readers’ Digests, eyes aglow like Christmas. On our stealth mission to the other side we wondered, watched, drank in the shifting remnants of the cities and towns below, demonic, beloved spaces that had held us close then betrayed us.
A black female writer novelizing Peoples Temple and Jonestown must weave through a landmine of memory and myth. The Jonestown canon, the reams and reams that have been written, is like a country unto itself, a kaleidoscope of porous boundaries incapable of containing the dead, the living, the in-between. In the decades since the mass murder-suicide of over 900 members of the predominantly black Peoples Temple church at Jonestown, Guyana on November 19, 1978 it has been fictionalized to roaring excess, ghosting into American popular culture as the grotesque culmination of an oft-ridiculed decade. Like many I was introduced to Jonestown through newsreel caricatures of bug-eyed cult zombies, endless rows of black corpses and the Reverend Jim Jones’ aging Elvis-meets-Elmer Gantry swagger. Jonestown has become cultural shorthand for blind faith and cautionary tale about religious obsession. But buried beneath the psycho cult clichés is the power of black women in the Peoples Temple movement. As the largest demographic in Peoples Temple black women have seldom been portrayed as lead protagonists in popular representations of Jonestown. Despite the horror of Jonestown’s demise its representation cannot be separated from dehumanizing cultural representations of black people in general and black women in particular. While Jonestown as cultural “artifact” is perversely sexy—the object of near necrophilic projection and fantasy—Peoples Temple is a historical stepchild; its legacy an unwelcome reflection of the lingering race, gender and class divide in “New Jim Crow” America.
Faced with this mythologizing I began my novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, at the end. It opens with a lone child, identity unknown, partly gesturing to the loss of black girls’ voices, partly to the psychobiography of Jim Jones as lovelorn singleton and partly to the naked terror that any child walking in the stifling heat among the community’s dead and dying must have felt in the Temple’s final moments. The book’s title reflects the dual nature of PT’s trajectory. White nights were rehearsals/demonstrations of loyalty and collective despair. They evoked both the impossibility of a worldly paradise and the (hollow) approximation of one via the church’s multiracial social justice vision.
My initial research into Peoples Temple was driven by what seemed to be one of the most basic and egregiously unanswered questions—where are the black feminist readings on and scholarship about Peoples Temple and Jonestown?? As historian James Lance Taylor remarked to me recently, the erasure of black women is “a double victimization because the people who were victimized get hidden by Jim Jones’ ego (and) it made them into a bunch of freaks. It’s important to bring out that this was a significant event and it needs to be registered along the lines of major tragic events in black history.” Many of the literary portrayals of black women involved in Peoples Temple have been limply one-dimensional. At stage right, the elderly self- sacrificing god-fearing caregivers who opened up their wallets and deeded their homes to the Temple with few reservations. At stage left, the loyal “rudderless” young women who came up in the Black Church and followed disgruntled family members into the Temple collectives. From Mammy to the trusty sage black sidekick, we’ve seen these stick figures trotted out ad nauseum on TV and in film. They are serviceable (to use Toni Morrison’s term) props to the main event—i.e., the mercurial path of the brash white savior/rock star/anti-hero. The 1997 film The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall as a disreputable white Southern Pentecostal preacher redeemed by a predominantly black female congregation, wrapped up all of these Americana caricatures in a nice countrified bow.
Confronting this erasure of black women’s agency, the novel asks, what was the context of black women’s involvement? What drove them to join, stay, leave, resist and/or collaborate? What were the complex motivations that kept some tethered to Jones and the movement until the bitter end and how can these decisions be recuperated as rational? How, ultimately, did black women shape Jim Jones and vice versa? When she was introduced to Peoples Temple in the early seventies Los Angeles member Juanell Smart “had given up on religion, church and ministers because I had been married to a Pentecostal preacher for a number of years and knew the ins and outs of the church.” (Smart, 2004) Smart’s comments imply that she might have been disillusioned with the sexism, corruption and moral hypocrisy that plagues organized religion. Nonetheless, when she attended her first Peoples Temple service Jones’ criticism of abusive relationships resonated with her. Smart lost her four children, her mother and an uncle in Jonestown. Her article on the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown site captures her ambivalence toward Jones while she was a member of the Temple planning commission. She notes that, “I have always been a skeptic so it was hard for me to be a true believer for any length of time.” Smart’s skepticism and questioning of authority led her to break from Peoples Temple. In a recent conversation with me she identified herself as an atheist.
It was fitting that our recent Moving Social Justice conference in Los Angeles coincided with the Week of Resistance in Ferguson and a Week of Action against school push-out of black and brown youth. In the midst of massive mobilizations around state violence and police terrorism much ink has been spilled over whether or not social justice “conforms” to atheist orthodoxy. The majority of the naysayers have been white dudebros (and a few status quo POCs) shrieking from their perches of privilege about the corruption of atheism by people of color and whiteallieswho give a fuck about the deepening socioeconomic, racial and gender divide in the imperialist U.S. With the GOP potentially poised to take over the Senate and further cement its far right neoliberal anti-human rights agenda for generations to come (with the help of corporate Dems) the political stakes for communities of color couldn’t be higher. Given this climate, the tantrums of first world atheist “purists” are not surprising. When black people talk about the connection between racist prison pipelining and Jim Crow in STEM education of course white atheists want to deflect with how all black folk need is a trip to Darwin Day. For the first time atheist and humanist activists of color are getting organized around an agenda that isn’t all about religion bashing and caricaturing black and Latino believers. This new brand of activist refuses to let the dudebros and POC apologists do their colorblind shuck and jive in the name of some fake atheist solidarity.
That said, Moving Social Justice was a beautiful thing. It was a multiethnic, multi-regional, intergenerational gathering of atheists and religious allies of color who live, work in and/or identify with “the hood” and POC legacies of resistance struggle. For the first time ever racial justice—without apology or accommodation to white people’s let’s-ghettoize-this-into-a-diversity-panel reflex—was the focal point of an atheist-humanist conference.
Sponsored by the People of Color Beyond Faith network, Black Skeptics Group, African Americans for Humanism, CFI and the Secular Student Alliance, the conference spotlighted the intersection of secular humanism, social justice activism and interfaith coalition building. The event was emceed by hip hop artist and Chocolate City Skeptics member MC Brooks. It kicked off with a panel on “Confronting Homophobia and Transphobia in the Black Church” moderated by Teka-Lark Fleming of the Morningside Park Chronicle, the discussion featured Raina Rhoades of Chocolate City Skeptics, Jenn Taylor of Black Atheists of Philadelphia and Reverend Meredith Moises. The panelist critiqued the culture of religious abuse, black male heterosexism, corruption and the “quelling of unrest” in Ferguson by some black churches. During the “LGBTQ Atheists of Color and Social Justice” panel, Reverend Meredith Moise, a practicing Buddhist and spiritual humanist, captured the sentiment of the event when she said “I don’t live in the (white) gay ghettoes I live in the hood and I roll with ya’ll.” Skillfully moderated by Black Freethinkers founder Kimberly Veal, the panel debunked mainstream myths and stereotypes about interracial queer solidarity in an age of rigid segregation and police state violence. Veal informed the audience that recent CDC grants for HIV/AIDS prevention shafted black organizations. Panelists Debbie Goddard and A.J. Johnson drew comparisons between white atheists’ fixation on their “underdog” status and that of white gay men. All four women slammed the hypocrisy of mainstream gay and lesbian emphasis on marriage equality while queer and trans people of color deal with epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS contraction, homelessness, joblessness and anti-trans violence (trans people of color have the highest rates of violent assault among trans communities).
Queer white youth aren’t disproportionately bounced out of school or sent to prison for minor infractions. Yet these disparities are reflected in the high rates of criminalization of queer, trans and straight youth of color. At the schools I work at the majority of those who are being suspended, arrested and shipped off campus are African American. A few months ago Black Skeptics joined the Dignity in Schools campaign, a national coalition to redress the push-out regime in public schools. During the conference, a panel entitled “Busting the School-to-Prison Pipeline” featured activists from three leading L.A.-based juvenile justice and prisoner advocacy organizations. Moderated by Thandisizwe Chimurenga, author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant, the panel highlighted the destructive impact of mass incarceration on black and Latino communities nationwide. Tanisha Denard from the Youth Justice Coalition became an activist after being briefly incarcerated for truancy tickets as a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Dignity and Power Coalition’s Mark Anthony discussed how his organization has spearheaded the effort to create a civilian review board with the power to curb rampant inmate abuse in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
Moving out of the insular world of social media and the Internet, the “#beyondsolidarityisforwhitewomen: Feminism(s) of Color” panel highlighted the work of L.A.-based feminist organizers from working class communities of color. All of the women on the panel spoke of the need for intersectional alliances and organizing strategies that recognize the complexities of class, geography, sexuality and gender in one of the most segregated regions in the U.S. Organizer Yolanda Alaniz of the socialist organization Radical Women spoke of the importance of interracial labor activism in a neoliberal economy where public employee unions—many of which are dominated by women of color members—are being gutted and demonized. There was heated discussion about the implications of respectability politics for black women. Moderator Angela Plaid of The Feminist Wire and Nourbese Flint of Black Women for Wellness commented that black women have always been constructed as sexually promiscuous “hos” and that the monomaniacal focus on sex-positivity by some white feminists is irrelevant for feminists of color fighting against
criminalization and economic disenfranchisement in militarized communities. Considering schisms between black and Latino communities over immigration, jobs and language, the panelists also stressed the need to complicate mainstream views of undocumented communities due to the frequent exclusion of African and Asian immigrants from liberal-progressive campaigns for immigrant rights. Freethought Blogs writer Heina Dadabhoy reflected on being socialized into the dominant culture’s divisive model minority myth which is based on the stereotype that Asian Americans bootstrapped their way to success in contrast to “less high-achieving” African Americans and Latinos. Panelists also discussed the media’s portrayal of the Ray Rice case vis-à-vis how sexist misogynist condemnations of Janae Rice intersected with racial stereotypes about black male violence.
In a panel entitled “What’s Race Got to Do With It?” six atheists of color discussed the pros and cons of “inclusivity” versus “accommodation” as well as racism and intersectionality in the atheist movement. Much of the panel unpacked the constant pressure people of color feel to educate “well-meaning” white people about their investment in racism, white privilege and white supremacy. Panelists Georgina Capetillo of Secular Common Ground and Frank Anderson of Black Skeptics Chicago acknowledged the insidiousness of white privilege in the movement but argued that white allies need to be actively engaged. Raina Rhoades, Anthony Pinn of Rice University and Donald Wright of the Houston Black Non-Believers contended that it was incumbent upon white people to educate themselves and stop expecting people of color to play the role of native informant. Moderator Daniel Myatt of Black Skeptics Los Angeles asked panelists to evaluate the impact of secular organizations of color on social justice versus that of black churches. Wright argued that, given the relative newness and scarcity of secular POC social justice organizations, it remains to be seen what impact they will have.
This is an important caveat as the backlash against anti-racist intersectional atheism continues and white atheist organizations reveal themselves to be less interested in POC communities than “minority” dollars and “minority” faces at conferences. Next year’s conference will be held in Houston, Texas.
I knew Angelina Lattice Collier for a brief moment in time. She was beautiful, well-spoken, highly intelligent, and dedicated to truth. Above all, though, she was fiercely devoted to her three children, Quantance, Robyn, and Jaden. Amazingly, she was able to express complex, difficult, and controversial concepts and opinions without a hint of arrogance or condescension; rare talent.
When I learned of Angie’s death in April at the hands of her husband, who subsequently committed suicide, I was shocked and soon discovered that she suffered in silence -protecting her abuser’s reputation and standing in the community- while trying to preserve his relationships with his children. She cared for him and wanted him to seek help for his anger issues.
Despite her knowledge of the plight of domestic violence victims and the futility of their efforts to help their abusers, Angie fell into the same cycle: sacrificing her own well-being to save him from himself. Even after deciding to divorce him, she did him the undeserved courtesy of informing him of her intentions. This was a deadly error.
I miss her. Just as many others do. We are all left with a hole in our hearts that will never be filled. But it is the duty of the living to carry on the legacy of the fallen. We cannot simply offer platitudes of condolences and move on with our lives. Not when there are three children left orphaned in foster care. Angie’s children will find a permanent home soon, but they will never have their mother again. This week, on August 19th, Angelina’s youngest child, Jaden, turned two years old. Our hearts are heavy at the knowledge that he won’t remember Angelina and how wonderful she was. He’ll never understand what a spectacular person she was.
Angie’s Legacy Fund was conceived by Émelyne Museaux, Raquelle Rodriguez and I as a way to help these children get something else that they will need soon: an education. We have pledged ourselves to funding a trust for the education of Angie’s children. We cannot bring Angelina back from the dead, but we can pick up where she left off to see that they are cared for. Angie was the sort of person who would have championed such a cause and tried to rally the support of the secular community if she had learned of such a case. So now we do this in her honour, in her memory, and to try to better the lives of her children. Your support of our efforts is needed and much appreciated.
You can donate directly to the Angie’s Legacy Fund here. You can also purchase a mens or womens tshirt with the proceeds going to the Angie’s Legacy Fund.
When youth of color see scientists, mathematicians and engineers depicted in the media they rarely see people who look like them. On Saturday, September 13th, the Level Playing Field Institute is co-hosting Bridging the STEM Divide, a mini STEM conference (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) for over 100 high school students from the South LA, Inglewood and Crenshaw neighborhoods at the University of Southern California. The goal of the conference is to demystify STEM majors and careers for students of color, as well as expose students to STEM networking opportunities, scholarships, college preparation resources, and free to low-cost programs in Los Angeles. With over 20 faculty, students and professionals of color volunteering during the event, the conference is designed to support, motivate, and empower low income students of color to pursue STEM studies & careers at four year universities and beyond. Bridging the STEM Divide will be held at Stauffer Science Lecture Hall on USC’s main campus. The conference will feature esteemed USC Physics professor Dr. Clifford Johnson as keynote speaker. The Women’s Leadership Project is one of the lead organizers.
Oklahoma City Police officer Daniel Ken Holtzclaw has been charged with 16 counts of first degree rape, sexual battery, indecent exposure, stalking, forcible oral sodomy and burglary against seven African American female victims. On September 5th Oklahoma County District Judge Timothy Henderson lowered Holtzclaw’s bail from $5 million to $500,000. Holtzclaw was released Friday after posting a cash bond and will wear a GPS monitor until his trial hearing on September 18th. Holtzclaw is a former football player and the son of a longtime city police officer. He is currently on paid leave. The victims in this case were all black women between the age of 34-58, living in predominantly poor and working class African American communities in Oklahoma’s City Northeast side. Holtzclaw stalked most of these women and capitalized on their fear of arrest to exploit, sexually assault and intimidate them. He manipulated the racist/sexist stereotype of black women as hypersexual, socially expendable prostitutes in order to keep them silent:
“According to a probable cause affidavit included in the charging documents, Holtzclaw stopped a woman walking in the area of Northeast 14th and Jordan on April 24. He located a crack pipe in her property. Instead of arresting her he allegedly took her home, forced her to perform oral sex and then raped her, making the statement, ‘This is better than the county,’ referring to the jail.
Speaking of her client’s reluctance to report the crime, one of the victim’s attorneys stated,“She was so afraid that no one was going to believe her because she’s African-American.”
This campaign of sexual terrorism by a law enforcement officer is similar to the institutional sexual assault and harassment of black women and girls during the Jim Crow era. The recent beating of Marlene Pinnock, a middle-aged African American homeless woman, by a California Highway Patrol officer, and police violence against black women in cities like New York continue to amplify the mistreatment of black women by law enforcement. Shortly after Holtzclaw’s indictment, hundreds of his supporters launched a Go Fund Me campaign (which has since been taken down) and a Facebook page to raise money for his defense and clear his “good name”. They also created a special Twitter hashtag called #FreetheClaw. Non-blacks who commit criminal acts against black victims routinely receive more lenient sentences than when the assailant is African American and the victim is white. Black women have some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the nation. We demand just and equitable treatment of the victims, full prosecution of these heinous acts of sexual violence and immediate removal of Holtzclaw from the Oklahoma City PD.
The Secular Student Association is offering travel grants to students wishing to attend our October “Moving Social Justice” conference in Los Angeles. This the first ever atheist of color conference on social justice and culturally relevant humanism and will feature panels & presentations from secular, atheist/humanist and faith-based community activists on the following:
Youth leadership & busting prison pipelining
Feminism(s) of Color & Intersectional community activism
Racism in the atheist movement and the myth of colorblindness
Confronting homophobia & transphobia in the Black Church
Culturally relevant humanism: what is it and why do we need it?
LGBTQ/Queer atheists of color and social justice
Applications available at: https://www.secularstudents.org/node/5918
Registration is open at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/moving-social-justice-conference-tickets-12231333247.
Find more information at https://www.facebook.com/events/259183107587755/.
This grant application is available to students in the US only.