Black Scholarship, Non-Theism and Radical Politics

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When I began researching my book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars in 2009 I was interested in discovering what other Black writers had published on the intersection of non-theism, feminism, and Black liberation.  Historically, Black writers and scholars have been marginalized by what might be dubbed the To Kill a Mockingbird or The Help effect, i.e., that all-American phenomenon wherein a white writer playing cultural anthropologist on domestic safari travels to the ‘‘hood” to capture some aspect of Black lived experience and garners international acclaim and legitimacy denied Black writers publishing on similar topics.  Commenting on this theme in her book Talking Back, bell hooks’ contends that, “Until the work of Black writers and scholars is given respect and serious consideration, this overvaluation of work done by whites, which usually exists in a context wherein work done by Blacks is devalued, helps maintain racism and white-supremacist attitudes.”

While scholarship on Black non-theist traditions is not as extensive as it is in other areas of Black cultural production, a robust, if still emergent, body of work does exist. Early on in my research I read and was enlightened by the work of Anthony Pinn, Norm Allen, and Donald Barbera.  Pinn and Allen framed their scholarship within the context of early-to-late twentieth century African American humanist social thought; Barbera assailed the hypocrisy of the Black Church vis-à-vis contemporary mores. Pinn and Allen delineated the rich heritage of Black humanist literature and criticism espoused by thinkers like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Nella Larsen, Hubert Harrison, James Forman, and Zora Neale Hurston.  These writers challenged the racist, sexist, classist foundations of American democracy, citizenship, and human rights. A majority adopted radical postures on Black humanist thought, connecting it to a tradition of Black liberation struggle against white supremacy.  Critical inquiry into non-belief and humanist intellectual discourse was positioned as a vital part of Black identity, culture, and political resistance.

So honoring radical Black scholarship in marginalized areas of Black cultural production is important because the dominant culture and mainstream media often act as though Black intellectual traditions don’t exist.  Emily Brennan’s recent New York Times article on Black atheists is a prime example.  The article highlighted the challenges of coming out as an atheist articulated by Black non-believers like Mark Hatcher, founder of Howard University’s Secular Students Alliance, and Ronelle Adams, author of the children’s book Aching and Praying Although it was heartening to see mainstream coverage of Black atheists, the article situates Black non-belief in a historical vacuum whilst egregiously ignoring contemporary Black non-theist discourse and scholarship.  Evoking the now familiar theme of Black atheist alienation from hyper-religious Black culture, there is no reference to research or scholarship that might situate this dynamic within a broader sociological or political context.  Rather, Brennan makes the totalizing claim that Blacks are “seeking a public intellectual of their own,” ala rock star white male authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  To underscore this “deficit,” the article trots out physicist Neil De Grasse Tyson, an agnostic who has made it crystal clear that he doesn’t want to be known as “the Black” anything.

It is inconceivable that analysis of the global influence of atheism would omit the work of Dawkins, et al. and their reverence for scientism. By kicking Black scholarship to the curb the Times managed to give the false impression that Black non-theism isn’t grounded in a legacy of intellectual tradition or public discourse with a distinctly political lineage.  In point of fact, Black secular humanist critical inquiry stretches back to Frederick Douglass’s era to the Harlem Renaissance and into the 1960s Black Power movement. It is critical to an understanding of how race is made in the white supremacist United States, as well as to the relationship between capitalist exploitation and faith-based heterosexism. And what is perhaps most pronounced about the growing visibility of Black atheists is how it has coincided with the re-emergence of a virulent white nationalism steeped in theocratic control and hyper-religiosity. There is a dearth of scholarship on this phenomenon. So as black economic disenfranchisement in the so-called Occupy era deepens, it is crucial that black secular scholarship goes beyond the current fixation with online groups, You Tube videos, and conferences to document on-the-ground social justice organizing exemplified by multi-talented activists, organizers and intellectuals like Mandisa L. Thomas and Kimberly Veal of the Black Non-Believers of Atlanta and Chicago, Naima Washington of Washington Secular Humanists, author Donald Wright of the Houston Humanists and Alix Jules of the Dallas Coalition of Reason.

In the wake of continued attacks on “secular progressives” by Uncle Tom Christian fascists like lay minister Herman Cain and charlatans like Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich, African American radical secular discourse and activism are all the more urgent. If Black non-theism is to have any teeth or traction beyond the white-dominated secular movement it must return to its radical roots and ethos of struggle.





Black Scholarship, Non-Theism and Radical Politics

7 thoughts on “Black Scholarship, Non-Theism and Radical Politics

  1. 1

    Sikivu – how can we, as a community at Harvard, better engage our members with black secular scholarship? Do you have any recommendations as to how we could fuse our community with an understanding of and respect for this important tradition?

    1. 1.1

      Great question James. A few suggestions:

      1. Engage Afr-Am/Africana studies department on cross-disciplinary research symposiums exploring black scholarship, secularism and social justice

      2. Sponsor a series with said theme and invite Black or African American Student Union (or similar cultural/ethnic groups) to participate

      3. Develop a study group at the Humanist center that examines an article/essay/book chapter written on the subject of AA humanism or non-belief that has contemporary social/political relevance

      4. Actively reach out to writers/bloggers of color for contributions to the NH website

      I am not aware of an AA freethought/atheist or humanist group in the Boston/Cambridge area but outreach in that context would be another possibility

  2. 2

    I am a middle aged woman living in the Ca Bay Area. I only know a handful of Black Atheist, most of them my family. I (obviously) missed out on the opportunity to organize through college. Any advice on how to get together a group of black freethinking atheists? You would think it would be fairly easy to find more of use in the liberal Bay Area.

    1. 2.1

      Hi Gwen: Meetups seem to be all the rage these days as is networking via Facebook. You might want to try querying your friends about their interest in starting/participating in such a group. You could also check with some of the Bay Area’s atheist/humanist groups (San Francisco Atheists is one that comes to mind, although when I spoke to them only one Afr-Am was in attendance). If you are in the East Bay Revolution Books is a good source for finding non-believers of color. I spoke there last May and conversed with several people of color who were in the audience. Finally African Americans for Humanism is trying to be a national umbrella for black freethought/atheist groups. Debbie Goddard is the contact person (they have a FB page you could check out).

  3. 3

    I believe that more of us are beginning to become more visible and organized. It is imperative that we begin to work within the local communities to show them a viable alternative to religion.

    It is very hard to express yourself at times when you ‘invisible’ within the greater freethought community as well as the black community.

  4. 4

    “What? Black Atheists and Freethinkers? You mean there are such people?”

    That seems to be the prevailing attitude of the “mainstream” community where Atheism’s perceived as being a “White” concept-by both Blacks and Whites. The prevailing attitude is that Blacks are supposed to be contented churchgoing folk.

    The scholarship of Black Atheism goes far back into this country’s history. Not all Blacks were happy, Jesus-praisin’, sweet bye and bye people. Many of us were-and are-rational and skeptical Freethinkers/Atheists (even in the church too). This scholarship needs to be honored in the total community here in America. The Black Atheist/Freethinker needs to have their voices heard-without retribution.

    It is interesting in light of the current political climate, organized religion’s slowly losing steam, and cracks appearing in the facade of the Black church, that we see Black Atheists and Freethinkers coming out into the light. The days ahead are going to be interesting.

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