The Black Humanist Heathen Gaze

On Wednesday, May 20, the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education presents its May Speaker Series event via Zoom (6:30-8:00pm ET) with Sikivu Hutchinson. The author will discuss her new book, Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical. The Zoom link to join is: (and if maximum capacity is reached for the live event please note video will be available at a later date). The following is an excerpt from Humanists in the Hood, reprinted with permission of the author.

Growing up in the seventies and eighties as a secular Black girl, I rarely saw myself represented in mainstream children’s literature. One of the most popular teen books of the era was Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, a coming-of-age novel whose protagonist is an eleven-year-old white girl from a middle-class Jewish-Christian family. Blume’s novel was considered controversial for the early seventies because it dealt explicitly with adolescent sexuality, puberty, desire, and religious skepticism. It was widely banned by conservative religious groups for its alleged “anti-Christian” and “immoral” themes. Still, even though Blume’s lead character Margaret questions organized religion, she affirms her “personal” relationship with god at the end of the book.

Critics and activists of color have long pushed back against the publishing industry for the dearth of culturally diverse children’s and young adult literature. In much of children’s literature, the default child protagonist has been middle class, Christian, white, and male. Indeed, 75 percent of the 3,700 books reviewed by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) which were published in 2017 featured white protagonists. This is especially problematic given the U.S.’ rapidly diversifying population, in which a growing majority of children are non-white. In 2020, less than half of all children are projected to be non-Hispanic whites, and by 2050 it is projected that this number will have declined to approximately 39 percent. The representation deficit spotlighted by the CCBC is also problematic when considering that many white children are not exposed to literature that feature protagonists or communities unlike their own. In addition, the CCBC found that the majority of books featuring African American, Indigenous, and Latinx protagonists were written by white authors. Similarly, LGBTQI children’s book characters were overwhelmingly written by straight, cisgender authors. In 2014, authors of color created the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign to redress the systemic problem of underrepresentation in children’s literature. The campaign was initially sparked on Twitter in response to an all-white male children’s author panel at the 2014 BookCon festival. This representation deficit is just as much a humanist concern as church-state separation. Why? Because multicultural children’s literature has the capacity to elicit critical consciousness, challenge the dominant culture, redress toxic, preconceived notions about the other, and, ultimately, save lives.

For generations (before the Internet and social media hijacked the custom of reading print literature), children received messages about what was human from books and iconic literary figures. Human characters, fantastical characters, and anthropomorphized animal characters taught us what was heroic, villainous, lovable, contemptuous, good, bad, and all points in between. As a form of cultural socialization, these portrayals provided guideposts for morality and ethics—be they Pinocchio’s lesson on truth telling or working-class Charlie Bucket’s lesson on greed and selfishness in the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ironically enough, Charlie was originally intended to be a Black character. [Roald] Dahl was reportedly persuaded by his agent to change him to a more socially acceptable (and presumably more “universal”) white protagonist. The ethnicity of children’s literature protagonists notwithstanding, the fact that most of these so-called universal lessons come from a white, Eurocentric literary lens underscores the burning need for secular humanist art and literature by and for people of color. This is especially true given the robustness of the Christian entertainment market and the way in which Christian “respectability” (I will unpack this term and its cultural implications in greater detail later in this chapter) influences gender roles, family structures, and sexual identity when it comes to Black and Latinx portrayals in mainstream TV, film, and literature. As streaming services, online platforms, and social media marketing have exploded over the past decade, Christian entertainment has become an influential niche market with diverse appeal in both traditional white evangelical communities and communities of color.

For example, in popular culture and academia, Christian entrepreneurialism and the faith-based gaze are booming. Christian films, reality shows, and maudlin TV dramas abound. Christian dating websites, Christian book publishers, education courses, colleges, and universities do a brisk business in faith-based propaganda. Most of these media and institutions tell us how to be, think, and do as flawed, made-in-His-image humans. According to a 2018 Los Angeles Times article on the rise of the Christian film industry, “Studios now have to go to greater lengths to attract devout audiences in an increasingly challenged faith-based film business, as the market for Christian movies becomes more crowded.” Although grosses of big budget Christian films have fallen off, the sheer glut of faith-based “content” sends a strong global message that reinforces the GOP’s fantasy about the United States’ reigning Christian nation status. This message of Christian dominionism, or Christian theocracy, is embodied by faith-based legislation and public policies that imperil the economic self-determination of communities of color. GOP efforts to privatize public education by giving vouchers to religious schools, criminalize and outlaw abortion, and prohibit LGBTQI people from obtaining health care are especially pernicious because people of color disproportionately rely on what little remains of the social welfare safety net.

As an educator, playwright, and filmmaker-producer who strives to make the lives of humanist, atheist women of color visible in my work, I’ve long challenged the lack of explicitly Black humanist secular content in American media and the arts. Where is the humanist cultural production to buck the tide of the OWN network’s Black evangelical family dynasty show Greenleaf or all of those ubiquitous “Life of Jesus” documentaries on cable? Where is the intersectional Black feminist scholarship that frames humanist, secular, and atheist of color ideology? In 2016, I submitted a course proposal entitled “Going Godless: Challenging Faith and Religion in Communities of Color” to the School of Religion at the University of Southern California. After many gatekeeping gyrations from college administrators, it was shot down due to “lack of funding.” The course focuses on the intersectional politics of secularism, atheism, and humanism, cultural representation, and the work of humanists of color. The uptick in Americans identifying as secular “nones” has led to the creation of more secular courses, many of which are housed in religious studies departments. Despite the much ballyhooed “rise of the nones,” however, there is currently only one bona fide secular studies department (based at Pitzer College and helmed by my friend and colleague, author-scholar Phil Zuckerman) in the United States. Even when secular, humanist, or atheist people of color appear in academic spaces, the range of lived experience that they are allowed to represent is limited and reductive. The standard caricature that bubbles up into mainstream consciousness is one of smug atheist Blacks and Latinos condemning God and Tyler Perry–esque evangelicalism among folk of color. Rejecting religion becomes an end in and of itself, and not merely symbolic of a more politicized belief system based on social justice, ethics, Black liberation, Black feminism, and serving Black communities within the context of heightened anti-Black state violence, segregation, and misogynoir. Because Black bodies have always signified an irrational supernaturalism positioned as the antithesis of the Western universal subject, Black humanist atheist praxis can upend traditional constructions of racial authenticity and identity.

Similarly, humanist representations that highlight Black lived experience, faith, and secularism are largely MIA in the contemporary arts—be it narrative film, theatre, or fiction. Virtually all of the internet lists I found on atheist or humanist films are by white folks about white folks challenging religion, posing questions about the nature of the universe, and taking on religious dogma in the family, politics, or the judicial system. Exploring the subject in the Humanist magazine, Nick Farrantello asked, “How does one clearly define a motion picture genre as humanist? I’m thinking of those few films that reject religion and supernaturalism, even peripherally, and that uphold the ideals of reason, ethics, and justice while also celebrating what it is to be human.” While questioning and criticizing faith is a familiar theme in Black literature in particular (for example, in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Blues for Mister Charlie), a complete rejection of supernaturalism and religion, as a sustained critical theme in fictional works by Black authors, is still rare. Indeed, only the works of Richard Wright (Black Boy and The Outsider) and Nella Larsen (Quicksand) occupy this space of radical aesthetic and ideological possibility. Larsen’s portrayal of Black female atheism in her 1928 novel is still seminal insofar as it frames her protagonist’s atheism as a direct rebuke of the stifling conventions of motherhood, gender respectability, and domesticity. However, far too often in Black cultural production, the presumption of faith-based, religious, or spiritual worldviews, and experiences preclude more complex portrayals of Black life, Black subjectivity, and epistemology.