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By Sikivu Hutchinson
In the 1997 film The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays a white Southern Christian fundamentalist preacher and murderer on the lam and seeking redemption. The film is literally cluttered with images of devout blacks—from black women swaying in the breeze at a big tent church revival to a particularly indelible church scene of dozens of black men chanting “Jesus” in rapturous response to Duvall’s pulpit-pounding call. I found The Apostle perversely fascinating because it trotted out a totally revisionist romanticized narrative of black obeisance to yet another charismatic but flawed white renegade savior figure in Louisiana (where, contrary to Hollywood flim-flammery, most of the congregations are racially segregated). These popular fantasies of black religiosity always seem to revolve around images of good, matronly black women eternally quivering with a strategic “Amen” or “can I get a witness,” and subject to breaking out into a series Blues Brothers back flips down the church aisle at any moment.
It’s a caricature of black feminine servility—in homage to the Lord, “the good book” and the white renegade—that exemplifies what Toni Morrison has characterized as the “serviceability” of blackness and the black body. In her 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison argues that blackness and the black body, or what she dubs the Africanist presence, have historically functioned as vehicles or props for white subjectivity. In eighteenth century America, the Africanist presence allowed the new white man of the emergent slave republic to pose and explore fundamental questions about what it meant to be free, what it meant to human and what it meant to be a citizen within a founding “democratic” society. In nineteenth century Europe, the Africanist presence was literally articulated through the exhibition of black bodies, most notably that of Saartijie Baartman, a young South African Khoi woman promoted by her captors under the name “Venus Hottentot.” Baartman was paraded all over Europe and displayed in salons and museums by the European scientific establishment. For the hoards of gawking white spectators who paid to see her “perform,” her “grotesquely exaggerated” anatomy meant to demonstrate that there were clear and material boundaries between the civilized self and the savage sexually deviant Other.
Caught in the crossfire of science and superstition, black femininity has been critical to defining Western notions of “the human.” Negotiating the journey to the human on their own terms has been a centuries’ long quest for black women freethinkers—veering between religion and skepticism, faith and humanism. Bringing a black feminist secular humanist freethinking tradition “out of the closet” requires an assessment of the way black women have intervened in their historical construction as racial and sexual Others.
For example, when preacher and abolitionist Sojourner Truth purportedly rolled up her shirt sleeve during her historic 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech before the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio to show how many rows of cotton she’d plowed, she simultaneously rebuked notions of genteel white womanhood and degraded black femininity. By celebrating her flesh as a field slave and mother of several children “who didn’t need to be helped over ditches,” she was challenging the gendered division between body and intellect, men’s space and women’s space.
Black feminist secular humanism emerges from the legacy of Truth’s humanist intervention into the dualities of Western empiricism and Judeo Christian dogma. Enlightenment and Judeo Christian ideologies of black racial otherness and black sexuality reinforced each other. Blackness was outside of the human, the rational, the sovereign and, of course, the moral. While white women have traditionally been placed on pedestals and idealized as the ultimate symbols of feminine virtue, worth and desirability, black women have been demonized as hypersexual Jezebels or asexual Aunt Jemimas. The historical association of black femininity with amorality, promiscuity and fallen womanhood makes the stakes for and investment in black female religiosity higher. Christianity was a means of redeeming “fallen” black femininity.
Truth, of course, was also challenging the authority of white male preachers who muscled in on the Akron Convention to remind the sinful women activists that females who spoke in public were guilty of heresy. In her rebuttal she proclaimed: “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” Reading biblical literalism through her own feminist lens, Truth bequeathed us the paradoxical figure of the defiant black woman of faith, ever-ready with a bit of scripture (a la the take-no-prisoners Lena Wilder of Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun ) to verbally smack down Christian fundamentalists and heathens-in-the-making alike.
Truth’s example influenced a long line of activist women of faith, from the radical journalist/newspaper owners Ida B. Wells and Charlotta Bass, to civil rights firebrand Fannie Lou Hamer. Wells and Bass drew on humanist freethinking principles in their exhaustive exposes of lynching, racial terrorism and residential segregation. Hamer, an astute critic of the contradictions of Jim Crow “democracy,” was beaten and jailed like a dog for fighting for the right to vote. Yet, in the Post-Civil Rights Era, these hybrid models of faith-based and humanist social justice activism have been largely eclipsed by that of the good woman of faith as backbone of an increasingly socially conservative, insular Black Church. Steadfastly devout, black women power all the numerous Pew Research studies, which indicates that African Americans are one of the most religious groups in the country.
Black adoption of Christian dogma brought African Americans into conformity with European American sexist/heterosexist models of gender hierarchy. As historian Paula Giddings notes, the Black Church played a key role in enforcing black patriarchy because it “attempted to do this in much the same way that Whites had used religion, by putting a new emphasis on the biblical ‘sanction for male ascendancy.’” This “new emphasis” meant that black men could be rightful patriarchs despite the yoke of slavery and Jim Crow apartheid. Contrary to the popular belief that black men were “emasculated” under slavery because they did not have unfettered access to and “control” over the bodies and destinies of black women and children, women were still socialized to fulfill gender hierarchical responsibilities like cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.* Black women remained regarded as the primary caregivers of the family, the protectors of home, hearth and the wellbeing of their male partners and children. Black women were the repositories of moral and social values, entrusted with transmitting them to children.
So because women are responsible for transmitting moral values to children and families, breaking from deeply ingrained Christian ideology, culture and community ties is problematic. In African American communities where devoutness is the “default position,” the presumption of female religiosity, reinforced by cultural representation, is a binding influence that makes public skepticism for women taboo.
For observant women, questioning, much less rejecting, religion would be just as counterintuitive as rejecting their connection to their lived experiences. In this regard religious observance is as much a performance and reproduction of gender identity as it is an exercise of personal “morality.” Many of the rituals of black churchgoing forge this sense of gendered identity as community. From the often elaborate pageantry of dressing for church, to participation in church leadership bodies, to the process of instilling children with “proper” “Christian” values in church-affiliated day care centers and schools—the gendered social contract of organized religion is compulsorily drilled into many black women.
Perhaps no modern black woman writer and skeptic captured this more vividly than Nella Larsen. In her 1928 novel Quicksand, Larsen chronicles the claustrophobia of domesticity, religiosity and female self-sacrifice in the African American community. After a long personal journey from skepticism to religious acquiescence, Larsen’s mixed race protagonist Helga, a pastor’s wife, eventually rejects the existence of God. Helga’s internal conflict over the dominance of religious belief in the black community reaches a fever pitch after a long painful convalescence from childbirth. Throughout the novel, Helga frequently disdains blacks’ passive acceptance of “the White man’s God.” For Helga, “[r]eligion after all, had its uses. It blunted the perceptions. Robbed life of its crudest truths. Especially it had uses for the poor—for the blacks.” Helga’s observations have particular relevance for the lives of black women, whose servility and self-sacrifice she both admires and abhors. In one exchange with Sary, a mother of six, she wonders how women are able to bear the burdens of all their family and domestic responsibilities. Sary believes that one must simply trust in the “savior” to be delivered in the afterlife. This recurring theme of suffering, female self-sacrifice and deferment repels Helga, ultimately leading her to conclude that there is no God.
Larsen, as well as writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, provided a black feminist humanist context for rejection of organized religion and Christianity that don’t rely on revisionist acceptance or soft pedaling of the Bible’s brutal misogyny. Larsen’s critique is achingly relevant in the midst of an anti-feminist backlash that has been partly fueled by the Religious Right and the global regime of corporate media. The emergence of anti-abortion fetal “civil rights” laws, the proliferation of hypersexual media imagery promoting violence against women (from rape video games to the sexualization of female preteens in marketing and advertizing), and rising HIV/AIDS and STD contraction rates among young women of color underscore that women’s right to self-determination is increasingly under siege. In mainstream media, popular culture and black communities, black women have been targeted by both Puritanical policing and pornographic fetishization of their sexuality. Over the past year, black nationalist and black religious organizations have renewed their attacks on abortion and reproductive justice as a form of “black genocide.” In some instances they have aligned with the Religious Right on anti-abortion billboard campaigns and draconian anti-abortion legislation that targets women of color in states like Georgia, New York and California. These forays once again establish black women’s bodies as contested moral battlegrounds. Reproducing more black babies becomes a means of moral and racial redemption. Patriarchal and religious control over black women’s bodies is reasserted as the linchpin for black uplift. And in this universe, only race traitor women, in collusion with white supremacist abortion providers, would dare to selfishly “kill” their babies and sacrifice the perpetuation of the race. Good women, on the other hand, learn to sacrifice and be sacrificed. And it is this theme of the good woman that keeps black women dominating the pews and auxiliaries of black churches, while the official face of black church leadership remains male.
The struggle to connect black women’s self-determination with the larger issue of human rights enfranchisement is still radical in the twenty-first century United States. And 155 years after the white atheist suffragist abolitionist Ernestine L. Rose was smeared as being “a thousand times below a prostitute” because of her atheism, feminist humanist non-believers are still in a state of radical moral combat. And in an era in which, to paraphrase black feminist writer Gloria Hull, all of the women “freethinkers” are white, the challenge, for some of us, is to be brave, and to bring the sacrificial good woman out of the closet once and for all.
Sikivu Hutchinson is a senior intergroup specialist for the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. She received a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University and has taught women’s studies, cultural studies, urban studies, and education at UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts, and Western Washington University. She is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming novel Dealey (Infidel Books, March 2012). She is also the editor of blackfemlens.org, founder of the Black Skeptics and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.