Sikivu Hutchinson: an unapologetically black, feminist and heretical humanist – a review

  • blog Type / Book review
  • Date / 8 June 2020
  • By / Scott Jacobsen

Secretary-General of Young Humanists International Scott Jacobsen reviews Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson’s new book Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical.

What a time to be alive watching the United States of America have NASA and SpaceX (of Elon Musk) jointly launch the first astronauts to the International Space Station since 2011, where some of the largest protests in American history for women’s rights and protection of civilian people of colour’s lives in recent years happen and then followed by massive and nation-wide protests over the murder of George Floyd and others, and all the while over 40,000,000 Americans are unemployed, and more than 100,000 are dead from the coronavirus, an interesting dichotomy marking much of the thematic interplays of American history harkening back to the first Black president sketch of the late Richard Pryor, “I feel it’s time Black people went to space. White people have been going to space for years, and spacing out on us, as you might say.” [Emphasis added.]

Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson is a brilliant writer and a decent human being, who writes articulately with moral force while working in and supporting underserved communities in which she lives in South Los Angeles. 

Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, feminist, novelist, playwright and director. Hutchinson was named the secular woman of the year in 2013.

Hutchinson is a black woman sexual violence survivor (as a girl at the time) and a parent of a non-binary child, granddaughter of Earl Hutchinson Sr., and daughter of Yvonne Divans Hutchinson and Earl Ofari Hutchinson. She earned a Ph.D. in Performance Studies in 1999 from New York University.

She founded the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) as “a feminist service learning program designed to educate and train young middle and high school age women in South Los Angeles to take ownership of their school-communities.” Also, she founded Black Skeptics Los Angeles (BSLA), which became part of the 501(c)3 organization Black Skeptics Group (BSG – founded in 2010) in 2012. She is a co-founder of the Women of Colour Beyond Belief Conference with Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield (Minority Atheists of MIDetroit affiliate of Black Nonbelievers, and Operation Water For Flint) and Mandisa Thomas (Black Nonbelievers), which featured speakers as wide-ranging as Liz RossCandace GorhamDeanna AdamsCecilia PaganIngrid MitchellLilandra RaMarquita TuckerMashariki Lawson-CookRajani GudlavalettiSonjiah Davis, and Sadia Hameed.

Her work and speaking have crossed paths with several prominent African American and Black freethinkers, including Desiree Kane, Anthony Pinn, Bobby Joe Champion, Sikivu Hutchinson, Andrea Jenkins, Charone Pagett, Diane Burkholder, Juhem Navarro-Rivera, Heina Dadabhoy, Sincere Kirabo, Candace Gorham, Liz Ross, and many others. Her previous works include Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles (Travel Writing Across the Disciplines) (2003), Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011), Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (2013), and White Nights, Black Paradise (2015). As well, she released a short film on White Nights, Black Paradise in 2016, which was made into a stage production in 2018.

Cover of Humanists in the Hood. Published by Pitchstone Publishing in April 2020.

As seems implicit in the works, any social, economic, and political progress for the godless will come in ethical form, as immoral acts in attempts to force or coerce an overarching ethical movement will provide ammunition for demagogues who wish to – so to speak – crush a neck with a knee or silence citizens who wish to protest by taking a knee. In short, she reads not only what comes in the academic volumes in intellectual interests for her, but she acts as a positive humanist agent in South Los Angeles, in particular, and America, in general, with a number of initiatives, including the First in the Family Humanist scholarship. Both personal attributes of intellectual rigour and community work come together in the written works for her. Humanists in the Hood becomes another manifestation of the universalist ink of Hutchinson.

In many ways, Hutchinson stands intellectually alone, as happens with many Black humanists in the global diaspora of Humanism. This is not to deny or neglect the reality of organizational and media buttresses, at times, for, or by, Black humanists. Certainly, supports have begun to grow, in part. However, in the cases of supports developed externally to the Black humanist community, how much sentiment is not overweening, affected, and simply nakedly fake? A woman in interviews having to define for the public even the meaning of atheism or agnosticism, as when on the “On The 7 With Dr. Sean” show. Chavonne Taylor and Hutchinson spent a not-insignificant amount of time on the basic definitions of agnosticism and atheism followed by further clarification. If you’re wondering, this was aired in 2020. However, there exists a history of writings with, for example, A. Philip Randolph who sponsored an essay contest entitled “Is Christianity a Menace to the Negro?” Naturally, Hutchinson loved the title. 

Our first interaction occurred on December 20, 2016 with the publication of “Interview with Sikivu Hutchinson – Feminist, Humanist, Novelist, Author“ in Conatus News. Someone with identities disliked by racists as a Black or an African American citizen of the United States of America, by misogynists for feminist writings, women’s leadership organizational work, and lived egalitarian values, and by religious fundamentalists for rejections of supernatural claims of sacred texts and disbelief in the authority of purported holy figures, i.e., as a humanist or, naturally, a ‘heretic.’ Hence, the reason for the full title of Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical (2020). To add icing to the cake, Hutchinson advocates for socialist economic policy, which, in the United States, is heard as or translated by the culture into “antidemocratic” or “communistic,” as she notes.

The “Humanists” in the main title comes from fundamental humanist values lived out in ‘hoods’ in South L.A. while engraved with the flavors, the sounds, the emotions, and the patois, and the pains and the tragedies and the triumphs as humanists in hoods. Also, “Hood” comes from lived experience for Hutchinson. She grew up at the tail-end of COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) in which a program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was destroying or decimating African American communities and political organizations. Hutchinson understands the contexts of state violence and its organized manifestations. One of her earliest moments of political protest was in hearing about the murder of Eulia Love/Eulia Mae Love/Eula Love by two LAPD officers in her own residence in 1979.

It was a first moment, even as a child for Hutchinson, of the issues around “use of force” by police. Or the Darrel Gates argument of African Americans responding differently to chokeholds. Similar forms of violence and subsequent political and social protests seen with the case of George Floyd and others to this day, where protests have been breaking out in Boston, New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, D.C., Minneapolis/St. Paul, Louisville, Dallas, Sacramento, Bakersfield, and San Jose, and probably elsewhere. Both come to a context in which home is neither “safe space” nor “private sanctuary.” A deep history where African American bodies are not theirs except in service to White slaveholders with Black women in America as sub-human and not really women. These cultural bigotries rooted in a proper definition of White supremacy, as domination of Black bodies and lives.

Certainly, progress has been made, but legacies live into the present with African American, Native American, Latin American, Asian American, and working class European American women getting the shit end of the shorter stick more often. Even with prominent African American figures such as Steve Harvey, Hutchinson was correct in identifying the core issue in the blanket statements by Harvey making the argument of the amorality of African Americans who become atheists and the treasonous relation to the ‘race’ when non-religious. In other words, if you leave religion while Black, you have become a traitor to the ethnicity and lack morals, especially condemnable and criminal to community for Black women who leave communal faith.

The text covers some of these contexts, but the book represents a larger intellectual environment for Hutchinson. Don’t take this second-hand from a young Canadian humanist, the reviews on the book represent similar sentiments and thoughts, and praise, of the book. Bridgette Crutchfield of Black Nonbelievers of Detroit said, “Humanists in the Hood is an acute reminder of the struggle we as Black women have and still experience. It has documented in one place, our travels and travails.” Crutchfield makes the concise and insightful point of the amnesiac nature of American memory of the crimes of old wreaking havoc on the lives of the present generations and planting seeds of potential disproportionate despair for the generations who come after us. Humanists can act in such a manner so as to provide a space to air grievances for compassionate understanding, strategize on solutions, organize relevant resources, and mobilize for the better chances of the next generations.

Humanists in the Hood is a must read for everyone, but especially anyone who considers themselves progressive and supportive of marginalized people,” Mandisa Thomas, Founder and President, Black Nonbelievers, Inc., stated, “With her in-depth analysis, Sikivu has issued yet another challenge — to take a long, hard look historically, institutionally, and, most important, internally, into the often complex world of feminism and how humanist/secular values have and must continue to inform our fight for equality.” Thomas is right. The book represents a fundamental challenge to the humanist community in America, at least, on its various constituencies and the differentiated needs of them, which seems like a good thing because a humanist message is a universalistic message. One in which fundamental principles yield an infinite while bounded variety of potential tools for covering the needs of humanist communities in South L.A., in America, and throughout the humanist diaspora.

“The time is now for Humanists in the Hood. With compassionate, razor-sharp clarity, Sikivu Hutchinson provides a courageously bold Black, feminist, and atheist road map to liberating ourselves, our communities, and U.S. society.” Producer/Director of NO! The Rape Documentary, Aishash Shahidah Simmons, said, “She invites and challenges readers to step outside of comfort zones to consider different possibilities in response to the oppressive systems that silence and annihilate all of us on the margins. Hutchinson’s words are a clarion call for radical, tangible actions for these perilous times.”

The purpose of the book is to provide a challenge to the mainstream humanist community and to provide a “road map” for the construction of institutions devoted to the specified concerns mentioned earlier within the philosophical framework of Humanism. A “razor-sharp clarity” did not happen in a vacuum. Pressure makes diamonds. Why isn’t Hutchinson more prominent and well-known than now? Although, she has been gaining a loyal following and readership. As we know, diamonds take time to find, and tend to remain buried for a long time. Humanists in the Hood divides into five main sections in alignment with Simmons’ aforementioned “atheist road map” with “Introduction: The Stone Cold Here and Now,” “Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Humanist,” “Culturally Relevant Humanism and Economic Justice,” “The Black Humanist Heathen Gaze,” and “Gen Secular and People and Colour.”

In the introduction or “Introduction: The Stone Cold Here and Now,” she opens with a quote from Alice Walker, who said, “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 will write all the things I should have been able to read.” Walker’s statement acts as a coda or thematic ground zero for the entirety of the text because, as per the Eulia Love example, Hutchinson lacked the language, the concepts, and the crystallized imagery, not the experience, to describe the happenings of the world as a child or adolescent. Even though, she sensed something was wrong in early years.

Not only for more unheard voices with Black women victims of violence, Hutchinson covers the LGBTQI community in the context of the United States. As the United Nations founded its LGBTI Core Group, an extension of the similar stream of rights activism and thought comes in the initialism ​“LGBTQI​”​ to make “Queer” as an identity more explicit. Hutchinson takes a difficult stance in America and in community. A life and worldview brewed in early “dreary religion classes run by sanctimonious white male teachers” full of “moral hypocrisies” and a sacred text full of “violent woman-hating language.”

The books Hutchinson deserved to read did not exist, by and large, and the only text considered central to community came in the form of ancient mythological collections of sacred texts entitled The Bible. One gathers the sense of a lifelong individual struggle against structures and persons in American society searching for one’s story to be told articulately, honestly, and forthrightly without filter. Out of this, a feeling of the tragic dignity of the work of Hutchinson can set over the reader.

Somebody articulating a clearly wider or more inclusive humanist vision dealing with the problems of the everyday against seemingly overwhelmingly odds with the vitriol from the Black church and the dismissal by the largely White movement atheism of American culture. Professor Anthony Pinn made an important point with the descriptive phrase “people of colour” assuming the otherness of black people, etc., compared to White people with the more appropriate change into “people of a despised colour,” as both inclusive of every person as coloured in some manner and the relative struggles in the burden of greater negative stereotypes.

While, at the same time, the Black church can be a place of refuge and civil rights organizing in one generation. It can become a place of limitations, ostracization, and control and domination and illegitimate hierarchy. However, illegitimate hierarchies prop men to the heights of dizzying unquestioned authority in African American church communities with the expected negative effects on communities, especially with the burdens placed on women of colour in those church communities.

“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,” Hutchinson wrote, “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.”

This is the language of history and the life of the everyday. This is the rooted Black Humanism articulated throughout the text by Hutchinson. Right into the present, the political consciousness of the nation becomes infused with the narrative of god-talk and religion with Senator Kamala Harris during the 2020 presidential race stipulating a “faith in god,” so as to secure proper status as a Black and god-fearing American politician. Without such an endorsement, Harris’ career would have been exploded by a cross-shaped torpedo in the United States political scene. Hutchinson notes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were mentored by Ernestine Rose. Rose is one who said religions have been built on the backs of women. Hutchinson covers the splits or historical divides between White feminists and Black feminists in America. For example, the Fifteenth Amendment permitting Black men the equality in voting rights or the right to vote. Some White feminists saw this as a hindrance to women’s rights. As has been said before, rights aren’t a pie.

She contrasts the educated middle-class White feminism with the backbreaking working-class feminism of the lives of Black women. Hutchinson delves into or references the Combahee River Collective, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Michele Wallace, Brittney Cooper, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Angela Davis, bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), Patricia Hill Collins, Barbara Christian, and, of course, Alice Walker. She remarked on an interview conducted with Thandisizwe Chimurenga, where Chimurenga noted that class differences are a source of a lot of separation between feminisms. This continues right into the current political context of the Trump Administration and the Republicans.

The median wealth rates of White families, Latino families, and Black families in the United States are $147,000, $6,600, and $3,600, respectively. The unemployment rate of Black college graduates under the age of 25 is 15.4% and for White college graduates is 7.9%. There can be a visceral fear around the academic term “White supremacy,” as this seems to imply Euro-Americans with tiki torches and white hoods walking menacingly in lockstep in the dark of night. In the history of America, this has been a physically violent and ideological extreme manifestation of it. Then there are generally applicable principles behind the use of the term in wealth and employment rates, as above. At an intersection with this comes the era of Covid-19 emergent from SARS-CoV-2, these manifestations become worse. In these conditions, one can see the socialist economic orientation of Hutchinson.

Hutchinson describes the Trumpian-Republican backlash against the rights of women while noting African Americans as the most religious population in the United States. Noting how, even though, Ariana Grande and Beyoncé may identify as feminists, most young women struggle with such a label. She provides an alternative to the common notions of feminism. “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,” Hutchinson writes, “…the stakes for a secularist, feminist, queer, pro-social Justice, and anti-capitalist ethos of American values are perhaps greater than ever before.”

In Chapter 1 or “Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Humanist,” Hutchinson opens, “In 2010, a seven-year-old African American girl named Aiyana Jones was murdered in her sleep by the Detroit police during a military-style raid on her home. In the wake of the shooting, neighbours and loved ones placed stuffed animals in front of the house in memoriam. Rows of stuffed animals stated out from Associated Press photographs of the executions scene in dark-eyed innocence, grieving the barbaric theft of her life and light.”

She reflects on the recency of the murder of Aiyana after her (Hutchinson’s) attendance at the African Americans for Humanism conference. A point of reflection on the separation between mostly European descent or White-dominated movement atheism without much of a voice or place for African descent or Black atheists. Hutchinson brings forth the towering work of Professor Anthony Pinn, the good Methodist who became a better atheist, to argue the indices behind science and reason as taught in the classroom can be (and are) shaped by cultural conditions and subjective categories with the European American or White American students having histories and cultural traditions affirmed throughout the classroom. She uses W.E.B. DuBois’ phrase “wages of whiteness” in this context.

Hutchinson references the execution of Michael Brown, the Youth Justice Coalition, Dignity and Power Now (of Patrisse Cullors Khan), and Black Lives Matter, and Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement as part of various points of contact for social commentary on systemic inequities manifested in livelihood outcomes in American society. Views rooted in a history of slave-era racism and sexism where Black women are “‘unrapeable,’ hypersexual Jezebels” based on the “ideal of pure, virginal, chaste ‘Christian’ white womanhood.” She highlights the lack of people of colour in the leadership positions of leading secular organizations including the American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry, Foundation Beyond Belief, and the Secular Student Alliance. She highlights the work of Candace Gorham and Karen Garst bringing forth a more pluralized image of people of colour in the secular movements.

There is reflection on the content of the Huffington Post piece entitled “Ten Fierce Atheists: Unapologetically Black Women Beyond Belief” and the legislation of Michigan Congresswoman Ayanna Presley to “end the punitive pushout of girls of color from schools and disrupt the school-to-confinement pathway.” Hutchinson describes how this builds on the work of Monique Morris, author of Pushout. She touches on the sexual violence as portrayed in Surviving R. Kelly, and the helpful text of Iris Jacobs in My Sisters’ Voices in the mentoring of young Black girls. Here, she pivots into her Women’s Leadership Project, and the Black Feminist and Feminist of Color conferences.

Hutchinson remarks on Audre Lorde’s observation of Black women’s self-care as something political because Black women rarely have such an opportunity based on the stressors and communal demands upon them. Michele Wallace and the ‘blasting’ of​ the​ 1965 ​“Moynihan Report​”​ are part and parcel of critiques set forth here. As Hutchinson continually frames, Black women in America find deaf ears in the White-dominated secular communities and absolute rejection & condemnation, if non-religious, in the Black church community. Thus, Euro-centric individualist Humanism is important, but not does land well with the collective boot on Black women as a category. Principles of solidarity become more dominant rather than the abstracted sovereign individual, how ever important in environments in which other fundamental needs and challenges have been mostly overcome.

It hits the Supreme Court too. Hutchinson describes how the consequential case of Anita Hill gave significance to awareness of sexual violence against Black women in particular and women in general; whereas, at the same time, the exposure of abusers like Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein brought forth White women’s voices who deserved to be heard, but were heard without a historical context of earlier prominent cases like Anita Hill. Even in the secular communities, “…American Atheists(AA), the largest nonbeliever advocacy organization in the nation. After former president David Silverman was terminated in April 2018 following sexual assault allegations, the organization had a signal opportunity to make a bold chance in leadership by hiring Mandisa Thomas,” Hutchinson states, “Thomas, who has a solid record of secular organizing, outreach, and management across intersectional communities, would have been the AA’s first woman of color executive and the only Black woman to head a mainstream secular organization. Instead, AA opted for a white male insider…”

Hutchinson highlights some of the work by Amy Davis Roth of SkepChick in 2014 to highlight atheist women who have been stalked and harassed, which effectuated some change. However, the “thrall” with global figures – Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer – of the mainstream secular communities will need reduction for more space and voice for secular Black women and women of colour.

In Chapter 2 or “Culturally Relevant Humanism and Economic Justice,” Hutchinson states, “In my community, churches of every size, architectural style, and denomination sit totemically between daycare centers, liquor stores, dry cleaners, dollar stores, and beauty shops.” ‘Totem,’ what is a totem? Sacred, symbolic objects representative of clan, family, or ancestry. This is important. Not only spatial-geographic waste and economic drags on communities needing it, many African Americans in particular and Black Americans in general feel a connection to Christianity as a whole and its manifestation in the Black Church.

She comments on the work of Paula Giddings and the exploitation of Black women slaves as “breeders,” etc., as Black women in the slave era of America were chattel for the use and abuse by slave owners. She touches on the controversy surrounding Linda Sarsour and her (Sarsour’s) support for Minister Louis Farrakhan, known for anti-Semitic and misogynist views.

Hutchinson roots such injustice in the economic context for Black Americans, as noted earlier about these median wealth disparities and unemployment inequities. The tax-free status of places of worship is a unified concern for Black and White secularists in America. One of the more unique concerns of Black atheists is the reflection of the Jim Crow era and the Great Migration in their connection with the Black church. More generally, she remarks on the inordinate wealth handed to the individual pastors in Africa, Nigeria particularly, and in America with the two most prominent cases in David Oyedepo, in Nigeria, and T.D. Jakes, in America.

How these ultra-wealthy Black male pastors suck the economic lifeblood out of community is a travesty, the ways in which Black women’s labour makes these religious communities possible in the first place too. This is where ideas of social and economic redistribution become inherent in the form of humanist discourse espoused by Hutchinson. She reflects on “How the Humanist Movement Fosters Economic Injustice” by David Hoelscher with reference to Helen Keller and Albert Einstein and some of the fundamental socialistic structures endorsed by them. Even, as Hutchinson states, the first major humanist document published in 1933 was devoted explicitly to racial equality and economic justice.

Indeed, the fourteenth affirmation in the 1933 Humanist Manifesto I stated, “The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be institutedA socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.” [Emphasis added.]

Leading humanists Paul Kurtz and Edwin Wilson in the Humanist Manifesto II emphasized addressing economic injustices as core to Humanism and, thus, to humanist discourse. Modern Humanism, Hutchinson correctly observes, fails to deal with these realities affecting more of its non-mainstream communities, where there could be concretized humanist activism at the most fundamental level drawing back to the roots of the philosophical worldview and life stance with addressing economic injustice and social inequities.

As another great boss at The Good Men ProjectCouncilwoman Emily LaDouceur, has stated, “Never underestimate the power of community leaders speaking out against discrimination, injustice, and harassment… We need city council members who will unapologetically stand up against any policy, procedure, or practice, that may perpetuate bias or discrimination.”

The core of the movements has merely shifted the ratios of its currency into the big basket of combatting “religious attacks on secular freedom.” That’s it. The diversified vision of 1933 has been truncated. One where individuals “who question humanist, atheist, or skeptical orthodoxies are trashed, branded snowflakes, social justice warriors, feminazis, or religious apologists.”

She remarked on the clash between Bakari Chavanu, of Black Humanists and Nonbelievers of Sacramento, and a libertarian, exemplifying a differential vision of “Humanism” as a concept based on the August 2018 piece entitled “Why Five Fierce Humanists.” Concomitant with this, Hutchinson reflects on the “majority of forerunning early-twentieth-century Black freethinkers (with the notable exception of figures like Zora Neale Hurston and Black conservative intellectual George Schuyler) were socialist and communist aligned, and actively condemned the way capitalism and White supremacy harm Black communities.”

She notes the holes in the presentation of Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association, about Thomas Jefferson in the book Creating Change Through Humanism. He was a secularist and freethinker. Also, he believed in the inherent inferiority of Blacks and committed an ethical atrocity in the form of a slaveholding empire. Similarly, one can think of the skeptic views of H.L. Mencken while reflecting on the racist views about Blacks and imaginary crimes seen in ‘miscegenation.’ Hutchinson quotes Paul Finkelman in “The Monster of Monticello” to describe the atrocious behaviour of Jefferson. Historian Christopher Deaton reflects much the same withering critique.

Many of these economic realities come in the form of billionaire listings with a White face, Black male ultra-rich pastors bilking Black communities and taking up needed community space, and the policy and legal decisions giving economic privileges to corporations and religious institutions, e.g., the Johnson Amendment and Citizens United, which may be bolstered by appointments of people like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, or Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. American slavery sapped the economic productivity of Black slaves in America for White Americans’ benefit; thus, in the reference to Thomas Paine and Ernestine Rose by Hutchinson, the “Original Sin” of America was an economic one.

“And even though White abolitionists and deist freethinkers like Thomas Paine and feminist suffragist Ernestine Rose decried the “original sin” of American slavery,” Hutchinson wrote, “the eighteenth-century narrative of colonial bondage to the British continues to reverberate in the toxic myth of American exceptionalism. In many regards, the myth that the United States is fundamentally better and more just or exceptional than any other country in the world is the lie that allows structural inequity to persist.”

Hutchinson speaks more to the 2014 article by James Croft “Beyond Secularism” and Croft’s important focus on a wider vision of the possibilities of Humanism. Something important Hutchinson pivots into this point is Pinn’s emphasis on the everyday little facets and facts of reality, the rooted Humanism of Hutchinson, for the proper knitting together of the grand figures and narratives of mainstream Humanism with the highly neglected communities of colour who deserve a voice at the table and a choice in programs from the wider humanist community. This can be done. Why not?

Hutchinson describes the way in which the material view of the universe does not limit her perspective on the operations of consciousness. She does not believe in the spirit or soul. Hutchinson affirms the conscious and unconscious connected to thoughts and feelings from a material brain. She looks at the indefinite nature of the findings of the scientific method’s actual discovery of the natural world. The fundamental issue is one affirming the freedom of individual choice.

She also spoke about how Stacey Abrams in the 2018 Georgia ​gubernatorial statement said “faith, service, education, responsibility” set forth the values for Abrams. This was similar to the Kamala Harris statement before. In that, if you state a non-religious and non-faith-based view of the world, and if you state that you do not adhere to a deity, then you have committed political suicide. In a manner of speaking, African Americans as highly religious constituents only feel comfortable and encouraged by religious male hierarchs to vote for politicians who are firm in faith in order to be seen as properly Black, or to have any semblance of a moral compass or an ethical system guiding one’s life, which harkens back to the Steve Harvey commentary earlier.

“Before Humanism can be concretely relevant to the everyday lives of Black women and women of color steeped in faith and religious practice there must be space for them to exist in discomfort of the unknown.” In many ways, Hutchinson’s every day realities rooted Humanism aligns deeply with the depictions described by Hutchinson in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Hutchinson talked about the rape of Desiree Washington by Mike Tyson. Washington was Miss Black America in 1991. Farrakhan condemned Washington, essentially, as a Jezebel. An experience common in many communities with rape survivors tossed to the lions by community leaders, including religious leaders, as was the case with Farrakhan. Occasionally, there’s justice, as with sexual assaulters Daniel Holtzclaw, Bill Cosby, and R. Kelly. All this is simply marginal justice for raped Black American women, not even taking into account LGBTQI members of communities. Voices rarely heard. Victims barely sought.

Even institutionally, Hutchinson puts the Southern Baptist Convention on blast over its illustrative compiled crimes. Yet, with the spotty coverage of rapes and sexual violence, the violence of bullying and harassment can acquire coverage, especially around teen suicides, if a White face. This can be impacted by portrayals and commentary intended as jokes by some of the most prominent comedians of the day, e.g., Kevin Hart. Hutchinson reflects in some cultural positives in the cases of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, or in the deconstructionist Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit, or the essay “What’s Home Got to do With It? Unsheltered Queer Youth” by Reed Christian and Anjali Mukarji-Connoly.

Hutchinson reported on Center for American Progress’ work by Aisha Moodle-Mills and Jerome Hunt about the great risks to life and livelihood of LGBTQI youth, whether teen pregnancy, school dropout, homelessness, drug abuse, stress, and more. A rooted Humanism, or a more radical Humanism compared to the present (not as much to the 1933 vision), has a moral stake in this wider fight for equality and justice.

In Chapter 3 or “The Black Humanist Heathen Gaze,” Hutchinson describes not seeing herself in the media of Judy Blume and others presented to her. As per the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 3,700 books published in 2017 featured mostly White protagonists. Even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Charlie Bucket was intended as a Black protagonist, but became White in the final production. It’s the same for non-religious film and television. There has been a decline in Christian movie audiences. However, it’s still garnering a significant pull and has an audience.

She notes the only real secular studies professor in academia as Professor Phil Zuckerman with only two major exceptions who focus on Black secular Humanism in particular, who build an academic series of works devoted to critical consciousness: Dr. Christopher Cameron at the University of North Carolina and Dr. Anthony Pinn at Rice University. Hutchinson is the only one to have developed a course about humanist women of colour in the world through the Humanist Institute entitled “Women of Color Beyond Faith.” Her interest in Black humanist cultural production is seminal as well. Maureen Mahoney and Jeffrey Othello are “among the few in the White-dominated field of rock and roll musicology and music history.” Critical works by White writers have been Jack Hamilton and Gayle Wald. While, at the same time, August Wilson notes the operation​s​ of Black Americans exists​ within a preconfigured cultural structure by White Americans. It all feeds into cultural tropes of “Tyler Perry-esque evangelicalism” condemned by a smug atheist, etc.

When Hutchinson reviewed lists of secular films challenging religion, it was mostly White secular driven film and television making direct attacks. Black Americans in religious enclaves have to trade in a different and hidden-from-popular-culture currency. There is some questioning of faith in Black media productions, as in August Wilson, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry with further “radical aesthetic and ideological possibility” seen in the works of Richard Wright and Nella Larsen. Hutchinson’s own White Nights, Black Paradise “features perhaps the first narrative film portrayal of a Black atheist lesbian protagonist.” There is a yearning for a magical return to some long-gone past state apart from the hellish nature of many Black American lives now relative to many White and other Americans, which may come in the form of “a sentiment reflected in both the Great Migration and the Back to Africa movements.” A commentary of the state of idolatry found in Black Americans becoming involved in Jonestown in hypocritical worship of the Marxist atheist, Jim Jones, as a Christian god.

As per usual in many contexts, and in the environs of Jonestown, Black women were the pseudo-chattel of subservience and obeisance to Jones as “ever-faithful, self-sacrificing” servants, as if without autonomy of conscience and self-determination of body, i.e., as subhuman. Black women suffering from Stockholm Syndrome in identification with Jones. To quote late humanist Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

In Chapter 4 or “Gen Secular and People and Colour,” Hutchinson remarks on the treatment of children with atheist and humanist parents. They (Hutchinson’s nonbinary 11-year-old daughter), earlier in life, had to hear in second grade, “You’re going to hell and to the devil, because you don’t go to church.” This is the context for a not-insignificant number of nonbelievers in the United States. We can see this in White professional class women of tenure in self-identified Liberal Theology and progressive churches in Canada under the banner of the United Church of Canada with Rev. Gretta Vosper who was raked through the coals in national media for several years.

In South L.A. where Sikivu and they live, in 1965, there was the Watts Rebellion resulting in White “flight” from the neighbourhoods. Now, with changes in economic disparities in the ultra-wealthy and the stagnation and decline for much of the rest of the United States, Hutchinson notes the ironic return of White Americans and the subsequent gentrification following from this. “God’s plan” is an empty cliché taken as an aphorism of wisdom and assumed as a framework for comprehension of the world and relative misery around African American religious communities. She speaks to the historian Ibram Kendi’s call to recognize 1 in 4 Black American households have zero wealth compared to 1 in 10 White Americans, which builds on the work of Ta Nehisi-Coates.

These thoughts and movements aren’t new. Hutchinson brings back the historical memory of the pioneering and first Black freethinker who defied both White slavers and the “Black faith police,” where she quotes, particularly in response to censure by Black Methodist ministers, Frederick Douglass, “I bow to no priests, either of faith or unfaith, I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought.” Maria Stewart and Sojourner Truth would have experienced far more backlash if they spoke so directly and forthrightly against established dogma’s guardians. They may make it pinch and sting with a Black man; however, they will make it cut in the case of a Black woman.

Clashes exist in the current incarnations of the American freethought movements, as we see in the history with Ernestine Rose, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. Nonetheless, we live in a globalizing world and the ex-Muslim movement is a unique one. It is working to detach religious identity from ethnic heritage. As well, it is bringing forth the concerns of the men and the women who have left Islam and endured severe censure, ostracism, abuse, and even death threats. Sadia Hameed, a spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and Zara Kay, the founder of Faithless Hijabi, writer Hibah Ch, and Taslima Nasreen, Bangladeshi activist, author, and physician, are all referenced as important examples in this work.

Heina Dadabhoy is given space to make the point about coming out as an atheist for her. In that, when she renounced Islam, her parents described the action as Dadabhoy wanting to be like White people. Freethought in some contexts is seen as a White cultural phenomenon, i.e., the god concept becomes self-imposed mental prison as a form of community identity and inverse ethnic identification (as in not being White, thus making the false linkage, in another manner, between ethnicity and religion). There is a change in the landscape, though.

Millennials, and younger generations, continue to lose religion as a core identity, even in connection with perceptions of some amorphous, invisible unity between belief in the god concept and actuality of morality. Moral movements, including Black Lives Matter of Patrisse Cullors Khan, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, are manifestations of this in some ways. Three Black queer women who founded a movement different than the historical civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others steeped in “heterosexist, homophobic, patriarchal Black-church traditions [that] stifled any semblance of affirmation of queer voices (much less nonbelieving ones).” A. Philip Randolph, Hutchinson notes, was “frequently gay-baited and forced to suppress his identity in the movement.”

A Humanism embracing more gender fluid notions while rejecting gods and the supernatural can match more of the universalistic sensibilities espoused since the 1933 Humanist Manifesto I and remove false dichotomies between feeling and thinking with the feelings as feminine, etc., as Hutchinson notes in quoting Soraya Chemaly from Rage Becomes Her. One theoretical work or hypothesis Hutchinson describes is Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) from Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS) (2005) by Joy DeGruy, which is a hypothesis about intergenerational stressors passed from one cohort to the next as a result of slavery and its aftereffects. This then leads into the concluding statements of the text.

Hutchinson remarks on the Black Skeptics Los Angeles First in the Family Humanist youth recipients as profiled in the Humanist magazine and the Huffington Post. One touching story is Mike Grimes who established firm humanist roots after the death of a father to a car crash. Grimes did not rely on the gods or the supernatural. In trying to get a settlement from the trucking company with “so-called Christian family values on its website,” the experience was hellish. This is America, for humanists – so stand tall. Hutchinson concludes with a quote from Audre Lorde on self-determination of Black women and women of colour in the humanist movements. Hutchinson adds, “Lorde’s words are a testament to the enduring power of self-representation as art, agency, and self-determination. They resonate deeply as we move further into a century where secular Black feminist and feminist of color resistance will be definitive in shaping humanist politics and consciousness.” She’s right.

If humanist institutions do not cover the wider range of the concerns of its broad base of communities or constituencies, then the humanist movement will, in part, become obsolete to the needs of its communities and constituencies, i.e., human beings enacting humanist values and searching for humanist organizations and media speaking to their human concerns. As Hutchinson observes, “If humanism is reframed as working through struggle; being silent in one’s body; being alone in one’s body; being partnered; being skeptical; being engaged in art, literature, music, and the full scope of Black creativity in the sublime and the every day – then it would have more relevance to traditions of Black women’s resistance.”

In this sense, to become “obsolete” means to lose sight of the human needs of Black humanists’ Humanism, in a manner of speaking, it becomes revolutionary to the historical trends in American society with the view of people of colour, African Americans, or Black citizens of the United States as sub-human (and Black women as not really women), because the personhood, dignity, and autonomy of each individual human being​​ get​s​ affirmed in Humanism. That’s the fundamental revolutionary act at this time, causa mentale: a revolution in how we see ourselves and how we see one another, as members of the same species with the same inherent dignity and value. That’s the “acute reminder” or, rather, “challenge” with “razor-sharp clarity” one finds in Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical. To this “must read” book, I will conclude on a favourite Black feminist poet of Hutchinson, Lucille Clifton, who is an icon to Hutchinson. Clifton wrote “won’t you celebrate with me” from Book of Light (1993):

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.​​

Scott Jacobsen is a Board member of Humanist Canada, Secretary-General of Young Humanists International, and Website Administrator & Editor for Advocacy for Alleged Witches.

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