What Would My Momma Think? Humanist Reflections of a Radical Black Femme

Ramya Herman

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 will be posted next week. Both articles were previously posted on the Black Skeptics LA website.

During the course of my life, it has been continuously reaffirmed that my existence is inherently radical. With consistently rising Black maternal mortality rates, even my birth was an act of resistance on both the part of my mother and myself. Before I was old enough to have the language for this, however, I was still made to be hyperaware of the weight that my being carried. This information was often framed as being a gift from God, my mission from Him, or His good grace. While the notion of God “always watching over us” probably brings many people comfort, it constructed a surveillance state around my childhood. I lived in fear of upsetting this “higher power” who was giving but jealous, everywhere and unseen; afraid that he would take all that was good in me the moment I didn’t acknowledge him for it. As I have grown older and developed my own sense of self, I am no longer as deeply entrenched in religious fear.

This is why the African American Humanism course that I took this spring at Pitzer College was so impactful to me. I knew very little about what Humanism was, let alone what it meant to be Black and Humanist. In fact, I didn’t know that I had already been thinking, behaving, and reading like a Humanist for years. And I was riddled with anxiety upon realizing what class I had signed up for. Midway through my first lecture, a guest speaker from the Bible Belt criticized the Black church. It felt like everything I had always felt too uncomfortable to voice in full had suddenly become a semester long course. It was my first time hearing someone other than myself and a few of my friends express these views. It was eye-opening hearing someone who was not only Black and a woman—but also a recognized academic—suggest that organized religion was essentially a globally (and forcefully) legitimized cult.

Throughout the semester, I was provided with language to describe the reason behind my skepticism surrounding the church, alternative methods of uplifting the self without the involvement of an unknown entity, and the reassurance that my life would not crumble if I was no longer tethered to the rickety foundation that religion offered. Three works in particular that really took root in my mind were, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker, Baby Suggs’ oratory “In this here place, we flesh”, from Beloved by Toni Morrison, and the poem “won’t you celebrate with me”, by Lucille Clifton.

As I approach my senior year and prepare to enter law school, I often ask myself; who would I be if my hobbies were my life? My later adolescence has consisted of me attempting to fully internalize the fact that my purpose does not lie in what I am able to offer others or the value that they assign me. I have no duty to overextend myself to validate my existence, earn my keep, or prove my worth. Black excellence lies in the being and not in the doing. It is for this reason that I connected with In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Walker questions how Black people were capable of sustaining their existence as creatives despite the fact that, for the majority of our time in the U.S., Black literacy has been illegal or stifled. She later asserts that “this is not the end of the story, for all the young women—our mothers and grandmothers, ourselves—have not perished in the wilderness.” Reading this statement, I was instantly affirmed. As someone who incorporates my artistic interests in my academic work, it is an important reminder that the “wilderness” I am entering does not dictate my creative mind, it only informs it. In the same way that my grandmother, my mother, and I have persisted beautifully in the face of a culture that is hell bent on erasing Black women, my artistic spirit persists alongside me.

Baby Suggs’ proclamation that Blackness is not loved or valued but rather continuously sought after to exploit and abuse, has resonated as true throughout my life. I am grateful to have encountered Sugg’s words within the context of this class. It gave me the platform to be critical of what it means to not have your well-being secured within the Black community as a Black woman, and to offer that criticism to supportive, open ears. As I enter into adulthood, I’ve also begun reminding myself that I am a human being and not a project, and that I do not have to be in a constant state of revision, I can just be. I do my best to internalize this concept while navigating generational trauma, personal growing pains, the trap of loneliness, and the burden that comes with the cultural expectations of “strong Black womanhood”.

In theory, it seems logical to treat myself like a person and to be kind to the body and mind that I’m journeying through life with. Yet, to know this and imbed it into my life are two very different things. Suggs’ words were a reminder that this treatment is not second nature for Black women. So, I’ve been focusing on pursuing a gentle approach, as I engage in the groundbreaking work of self-love.

Lucille Clifton’s poem, “won’t you celebrate with me” is the course reading that resonated with me the most. Since being introduced to the piece, I often reference it in my writing because it has so much relevance in my life. Despite always considering my existence as an act of radicalism, I have spent the later years of my adolescence revising that meaning for myself, coming to terms with what it means for my joy, my peace, and my love to be these powerful counteractions to the oppressive systems that impact queer Black femmes. Clifton’s piece felt like a testimony to that revision. I often find myself considering the final lines of her poem, “Come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed” as a boisterous beckoning to not only acknowledge the radical nature of Black feminine joy but to actively engage in it. From the day that my mother was able to survive the treacherous task of birthing a Black child, systems have been at play to kill both of us. While she credits our survival to God, I give credit to her—so I guess my “God” is a Black Woman. This class has given me the grace and the space to make that statement with confidence. Everyday something has tried to kill us; and every day it will continue to fail.

The relevance of African American Humanism to Gen Z is as inherent as my radicalism. Our world is in a state of rapid decline that suggests a potential end to our society, as well as an end to the American empire as it has stood for the last couple of centuries. As the individuals who are inheriting the crumbled pieces of humanity, it is critical that we sustain and rebuild our society so that it is one where all humans are recognized and treated as such. Hopefully, one day we will reach a point, both within the Black community, and throughout our society, where it is not demonized to be human in any form. I believe African American Humanist thought, and classes that provide a platform for educating youth about it, will be the groundwork and guiding force for that transition.