A Meditation on African-American Humanism: Through the Lens of a Black Disabled Feminist Skeptic from Gen-Z

The African American Humanism course I took this spring at Pitzer College confirmed that people like me do exist even though we’re not supposed to. As taught by Sikivu Hutchinson, this course unlocked access to an entire network—a world of other Black people who see the universe beyond God. We traced back African American Humanism’s interconnections with social movements that aim to abolish white hegemony. African American Humanism does this through the decentralization of deities and organized religion. One of the primary issues we investigated was how Christianity is a framework that has been used to validate hetero-patriarchal violence and racial caste/class systems. These hierarchical systems of oppression can subjugate anyone who is peripheral to what the Bible deems a “respectable person”, i.e., someone who dares to not be white, able-bodied, heterosexual, male or Christian. African American Humanism affirms my belief that we can alleviate the harms inflicted under asymmetrical power structures without “purchasing” liberation from God. There are other people who believe this is possible too, but they’ve essentially been written out of history.

I have been a skeptic of Christianity for most of my life, but I was also the daughter of a pastor. It is for this reason that I wish more Black people could take this class, including folks like my parents. I think it could be offered at various levels of K-12, since those are such formative years, and the course should be offered in other institutions that are not predominantly white. I definitely would rather have been exposed to African American Humanism instead of Sunday school. My mama sometimes speaks of an ancient history where my dad was an atheist in the beginning of their marriage. Apparently, his life had no order until she and God came along. At times she makes it seem like it is impossible to be a good person without Jesus, reflecting an idea that surfaced often in class: the harmfulness of a pervasive belief that people who don’t observe a religion are devoid of ethical principles. The myth that irreligiosity is always synonymous with immorality not only limits the space to be non-religious but is also inaccurate when you put history under a microscope and unearth the fact that Black freethinkers have long aligned themselves with the pursuit of freedom for the socioeconomically disenfranchised.

The only time I did not feel suffocated by God’s laws in church was when the choir sang. Back home in New Orleans, religion factors into our culture heavily through our music and respectability politics. In Texas, where I spent most of my childhood, many of my peers identified as Christian and Catholic. While I am still reluctant to fully abandon the divine, taking this course makes me see freethought as a positive option.

Karl Marx identified religion as “the opium of the people”; an artful critique of our use of religion as both medicinal and maladaptive. Religion may momentarily soothe the soul but it also provides a base for systems of oppression. African American Humanism counters this oppression. As Hutchinson notes in Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical, Black humanist women organizers, “have pushed back against sexist, heteronormative religious dogma and discrimination in communities of color.” If religion is medicinal, like anything else it should be practiced in moderation. In my view, God is as real as I need him to be at any given moment. To personally witness Professor Sikivu and the guest speakers in our African American Humanism class share how they’ve moved through the world liberated from God was powerful. I especially appreciated the voices of African American humanists Rogiers and Bria Crutchfield who embodied freethinking by being fluid in their irreligion. They radiated warm energy and felt like people I could relate to, and I bet they’re great company to have around. I really resonated with Bria’s perspective of growing up Black, queer, and a woman in a religious household. I appreciated hearing about what led both of them to transition to humanist beliefs and how they found strength to do so, even though their rejection of religion and God compromised familial bonds.

Bria explained that she was initially ostracized from her family after being separated from the church and felt marginalized again after discovering that secular humanist spaces in her community were largely populated by white people. A 2019 study from Pew Research found that “Among Americans who identify as atheist, 81% are white, while only 3% are Black.” It was inspiring to hear Bria discuss how she opened her own chapter of Black humanists in her area. As Hutchinson states in Humanists in the Hood, by doing so, she “brought a uniquely intersectional, Black feminist vision to humanism while also challenging white supremacy and racist exclusion in historically Eurocentric atheist, humanist, and freethought circles.”

In addition, I especially enjoyed the discussion about how Bria and Rogiers still jam to gospel music even though they are removed from faith. Personally, I do the same thing but sometimes I guilt myself for it, because, if I truly left Jesus, then why are his songs still in my heart? Why do they still bring me peace? As Bria and Rogiers explained, our ancestors dealt with their pain through music and these traditions are living and breathing through us today. So we are well within our right to sing God’s praises in the car and to leave “him” there once we’ve reached our destination if that’s what we want to do. Music is critical to African American humanist self-expression, self-preservation, and radical resistance (as theorized by Audre Lorde).

Exploring the way African American-derived musical genres like rock, the blues, and other humanistic musical traditions have been co-opted by white people was a key part of our course discussions. Reclaiming these traditions is crucial. And I think linking this to African American Humanism would make it more relevant to Gen Z. As Black people continue to influence the center of pop-culture, rock, and alternative musical aesthetics are resonating more with Black youth like me.

This is the kind of agency that freethinking spaces within African American Humanism provide—the ability to be fluid in our aesthetic and irreligious views, while living free of the fear that something or someone we can’t even see is going to send us to Hell. It was very affirming to experience other Black people who are fully walking in their humanism as I hope to do so one day. I think continuing to amplify the narratives of folks from diverse backgrounds like Bria, Rogiers, and elementary teacher Darrin Johnson, who have stories that Black Gen Z can relate to, is what will help future generations connect with African American Humanism.