By Sikivu Hutchinson
Pity poor Uncle Tom. When angry white male atheists start trotting him out as a cover for their racist circle jerk you know you’ve got a postmodern moment with a cherry on top. Although it’s never stopped being open season on black folk in America the Beautiful, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, its partial smackdown of affirmative action and the happy times for George Zimmerman defense trial signal that the gloves are off again. So now it seems the wages of whiteness atheist privilege brigade has come full circle from American Atheists’ 2012 naked shackled black slave billboard to Cult of Dusty’s viral “Black Christians=Uncle Toms” You Tube tirade. According to creepy-cracker-white-man’s-burden-Dusty all black folk who subscribe to Christianity are not only domesticated dupes but neo-slave House Negro Stephens (in reference to Quentin Tarantino’s wet dream of buck-dancing black male cunning) shucking and jiving in our own 21st century version of Django Unchained. But this racist ignoramus is no latter day John Brown dropping knowledge on us docile backward noble savages cowering under the yoke of dis here Good Book blessed by da Massa’s benevolence.
Conveniently omitted from this and umpteen other white atheist paeans to enlightening the dark hordes of ghetto superstition is any analysis of the white supremacist brutality of exalted secularist icons like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other revolutionary war patriots who built American empire on the backs of slave labor and through the propaganda of democratic citizenship. Missing from this equation is a takedown of the proto-capitalist engine of black exploitation under slavery, its echoes in 20th century Jim Crow public policy and the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration that fuels the criminal wealth gap between whites and people of color. As Toni Morrison so sagely put it, slavery and freedom existed side by side, for “nothing highlighted freedom if it did not in fact create it, like slavery. Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities for in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free…but the not-me.” Then, as now, freedom, individualism and universal citizenship (the ostensible ideological impetus for the Revolutionary War) were based on white supremacy and racialized notions of nationhood. In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 white working class laborers were conferred with citizenship privileges—i.e., the right to bear arms, assemble, hold property and move around freely—entitlements that no black person, slave or free, could ever enjoy. After the gradual institutionalization of racial slavery in the 1640s the categories slave and black became synonymous as did the categories white and free. There was no loophole for any enlightened black non-theists that might have been running around. There was no honorary black slave status (with the advantages of beatings, rapes, lifelong enslavement and dehumanization) granted pesky white atheists and anti-clericalists. And the very secular American Constitution branded black slaves as 3/5s of a man in order to ensure that slave states had equal representation in Congress.
Racial slavery was driven by economic conditions and the proto-capitalist rise of American empire. It provided an insurance policy against white working class resistance against the white aristocracy (from Jefferson the rapist slaver to the Koch brothers) by giving poor white folk access to the wages of whiteness. As Theodore Allen writes in the Invention of the White Race, “At every turn, from the late 17th to the early 18th century, underclass whites were granted more and more rights and privileges: ‘The white-skin privileges of the poor free whites were simply reflexes of the disabilities imposed on the Negro slave: to move about freely without a pass; to marry without any upper-class consent; to change employment; to vote in elections in accordance with the laws on qualifications; to acquire property; and last, but not least, in this partial list, the right of self-defense.’”
Christianity did indeed buttress the regime of racial slavery and white supremacy, but, contrary to the delusions of some atheists, no mass secular/atheist/humanist uprising led to its dismantling—just as there has been no mass secular/atheist/humanist uprising against the mass incarceration of millions of African Americans in the world’s “greatest” democracy.
African American Christian theology, critique, organizing and oratory were powerful tools for revolutionary black abolitionist and black feminist resistance. Revolutionaries like Frederick Douglass, Maria Stewart (a black feminist forerunner and the first American woman to address a mixed audience), Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Henry Highland Garnett forged a global religious and anti-clericalist movement against slavery along with scores of unsung activist whites and people of color. This legacy of black resistance informs a 21st century context of anti-racist struggle in which African Americans are confronted by more insidious residential segregation, long term unemployment and barriers to upward mobility than during the Jim Crow era. But white atheists who spew the Uncle Tom charge won’t be down with that analysis, because white supremacy means having the privilege to demean and school the ignorant backward Other while profiting from interlocking systems of race, class, gender and capitalist exploitation that keep white America safe and secure in its segregated neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, grocery stores, retail centers, churches, university science programs, hedge funds and think tanks.
Lawdy! Massa cracker don didn’t tell us dat though.
On its Wednesday show the Black Freethinkers network, hosted by founder Kimberly Veal, will break down the video controversy as well as the historical context of slavery, Uncle Tom and the political subtext of black caricatures. For more information contact: [email protected]
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists,Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the newly released Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.