Ruminating on African American Humanism: My Experience and Skepticism

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.

This course has introduced me to the subject of African American Humanism and Humanism of the Eurocentric variety. Never before have I been presented with such an ideology that rejects supernaturalism and holds religion and gods as human constructs in such depth, it has only been an unfavorable and abstract idea of atheism. It makes sense in this Christian nation that I have not been taught about these beliefs in my education thus far, and that I only have learned about them at eighteen years old in a progressive institution such as Pitzer College.

I am struck by humanist ideas surrounding mental health, self-preservation, and acts of finding safety while taking this course. The words of mental health counselor Suandria Hall have left an impression on me. She left morsels of wisdom and reflections; she spoke about how the body performs for survival, defined trauma as something that takes you away from your authentic self, needing something or someone to survive, and viewing trauma like a pendulum. Specifically, trauma being defined as something that takes you away from your authentic self resonates with me because I hadn’t thought about trauma in this way before. I have been taught that trauma is an extreme, life-altering event that changes one’s behavior and thinking, but I did not consider that trauma could exist as a smaller, every day event that simply forces one to not be their authentic self. I think of the quotes we studied by Audre Lorde, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” and “if I did not define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other peoples’ fantasies and eaten alive.”

The former speaks of Black women’s constant search for safety and comfort, which goes against societal structures. It is already difficult to exist, but to then prosper and care for one’s mental health and live for enjoyment is radical. This is within the African American humanist principle of “uplifting and amplifying the importance of everyday lived experiences and cultural knowledge among African descent peoples from all contexts and statuses”.

I am brought to Black women in rock and roll, such as Betty Davis and Tina Turner, when thinking about this struggle for self-preservation and living unabashedly in the face of systematic restraint. Black women “experience a kind of double jeopardy as they navigate terrain in which the body presumed to be appropriate to the genre is white and male, connecting African American Humanism and intersectionality”, a term created by Kimberlé Crenshaw (Black Diamond Queens). These women raged on, expressing themselves creatively, while trying to make a name for themselves despite being overlooked by many. They are Black women, which requires certain attention for both identities being at risk.

African American Humanism is an important concept for Gen Z to be familiarized with. Many issues can be viewed and taught from a secular perspective, and will be successful with concrete, real-world examples. Using social media platforms such as Tiktok, Instagram, and Twitter, African American Humanism can be accessed and promoted to Gen Z.

An important action should be highlighting the importance of African American Humanism in today’s world. It is often that Gen Z questions, “why should we care?” and it is especially hard to sustain the attention of Gen Z when they are constantly presented and bombarded with new information. Gen Z, however, is a generation that values social justice and equality in a manner unlike any previous generation, which aligns with humanism. They can be presented with ways to engage, such as volunteering, donating to causes, and participating in social justice movements.

African American Humanism deals with issues like police brutality, systemic racism, discrimination in healthcare, and expanding access to healthcare, contraceptives, and safe-sex awareness, which all disproportionately affect Black women. These are issues that are easily observed in everyday life by Black people and intersect with humanism.  What will really gain the attention of Gen Z is having young, humanist figures to look to and learn from. Building from the foundation set by secular humanist figures, such as Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, and their achievements can set a pathway for future Black secular humanists. Black humanists do not have to be larger than life, “historical” figures such as the two writers, though. There should be an emphasis on finding humanism in the everyday, the small moments: they are our teachers, professors like Sikivu Hutchinson, neighbors, family, and guy at the deli. Still, I encourage the discovery and featuring of contemporary examples in literature and positions of power.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one I’ve discovered. He calls himself an atheist in an article published by The Atlantic. He writes: “I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.”

Atheism does not have to be scary and demonized; I felt this from guest atheist speakers for this class, Danile Rogiers and Bria Crutchfield. In my experience, atheism has not been presented in a positive light, and instead left to be vague and unknown. After hearing about Bria and Ro’s individual experiences with spirituality and eventually atheism, I began to think differently about atheism and form new connections. This is the power of African American Humanism and creating community separate from religion. It is imperative that a community and sense of belonging be facilitated for African American Humanism to succeed.