Intersecting Identities within African American Humanism

This article is part of a series of two from students in a course on humanism at Pitzer College taught by Sikivu Hutchinson. The other article is posted here. Both articles were previously posted on the Black Skeptics LA website.

African American Humanism and European American Humanism are different in two distinct ways, the views on gender dynamics and the views on race. American societal standards and ideals today mainly conform to Eurocentric and primarily Christian—or faith-based—teachings. In governmental, educational, and recreational agencies, there is a prevalence of disproportionality of access to funds and resources based on race. While it is essential to recognize the drastic differences in experiences based on race, it is also important to note the different types of experiences based on gender, both separated from race, and as an intersectional identity combined with race.

When identifying ways different types of people react to experiences, it is important to recognize the combined identity one experiences when less ‘socially acceptable’ identities overlap, creating an identity that affects one’s experience differently than someone without the same overlapping identities. Kimberlé Crenshaw explains this phenomenon of treatment of people as the result of how intersecting identities combine to alter someone’s individual experience. Intersectionality, as stated by Crenshaw, is a metaphor for understanding how multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that often are not understood among conventional ways of thinking. (Columbia Law School, 2017) An example of this can be shown through two works: Frederick Douglass’ What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, and Baby Suggs’ oratory ‘In this here place, we flesh’ from the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, highlighting the different philosophies and values based on different and intersecting experiences.

Frederick Douglass was a Black American abolitionist who escaped slavery and was a prominent author and public speaker. In Douglass’ What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, he addresses a white crowd for the Rochester Ladies’ Anti Slavery Society to ‘recognize’ America’s 76th year of independence. With Douglass’ position, already, the intersection of multiple identities changes the dynamics in the room. Women, by gender alone, are the ‘marginalized.’ By being white, the ‘majority,’ they are given a higher societal role than the Black man. Even though Douglass was a man, which granted him more access to rights and freedom of expression, his Blackness limited how much influence and power his identity as a man had. In his speech, Douglass identifies the American slave as “him” and “man,” he states “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty which he is the constant victim,” and “To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.” (Douglas, 1852) By making the clear distinction in the experiences of the enslaved person to be summed up as “him” completely erases the Black woman experience, but also ignores any intricacies within the femme experience in itself.

Douglass also addresses the idea of Christianity and religiosity in this same speech. Douglass says, “Welcome atheism! Welcome anything – in preference to the gospel, as preached by those divines. They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty…” (Douglas 1852) Douglass addresses the so-called “Christian” belief system used to “justify” the means of genocidal nature toward Black Americans and people within the African diaspora.

Baby Suggs’ oratory, In this here place, we flesh, speaks on the complex nature of the intersecting Black and woman experience in the time of slavery. Suggs also connects the idea of Christianity and religiosity as she is the itinerant preacher of “no denomination” within her community. Suggs addresses the African American humanistic principle of protection of bodily autonomy and humanizing the Black experience by stating, “And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts.” (Morrison, 1987) Suggs addresses the problem of Black bodies and women being responsible for being the bearers of children, which also meant continuing a new generation of slavery on their backs. Suggs also finds meaning beyond the often “sanctified” definition of giving birth from the womb for the community and the Church. However, by saying “your life-giving private parts,” she reminds the Black woman that she owns her own body and that it does not work to serve anyone.

African American Humanism and European American Humanism have distinct differences rooted in historical and sociocultural contexts. While European American Humanism has often been characterized by Enlightenment ideals of individualism, rationality, and progress, African American Humanism emerges as a response to African Americans’ oppression, dehumanization, and cultural trauma throughout history. Through Douglass’ call for recognition of the enslaved person’s humanity and Baby Suggs’ celebration of the body as a site of resistance and spirituality, African American Humanism asserts the value of African American identity, culture, and experience.