Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Women and Queer Femmes Building Humanist Community

This article is adapted from a panel discussion hosted at the 81st Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association in July 2022. Leika Lewis-Cornwell, president of Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association, moderated a panel discussion about Black women creating humanist community. Thank you to Dr. Jé Hooper for organizing this panel discussion.

Olivia Busby, Leika Lewis-Cornwell, storäe michele, and Mandisa Thomas

Leika Lewis-Cornwell: I use they and she pronouns, and I am coming to you from my home in Delaware on occupied Black Lenape tribal land and I will be moderating this panel today. I’m going to ask each of our panelists to introduce themselves.

Mandisa Thomas: I am the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. which is headquartered in the Atlanta, Georgia area. I come to you specifically from Fayetteville, GA. I am a native of New York City—Jamaica, Queens, to be exact—but I am on land that was indigenous to the Coweeta Creek, people in Georgia, I am also a board member for the American Humanist Association, as well as American Atheists.

storäe michele: I am an Afro futurist and a storyteller. I am coming to you from the unseeded territory of the Nacotchtock people, a land in which I also experienced my childhood. I use they/them pronouns.

Olivia Busby: I use she or they pronouns. I’m a poet, a writer, and a creative doula and I am currently in Cincinnati Ohio which is occupied Osage and Myaamia territory.

Lewis-Cornwell: What does a full, expansive, inclusive, expressive humanism look like? What is your vision and what are the ways in which the work that you do, yourself and with your community, contributes to that vision?

Busby: I have been basing my humanism and my experience in theology school in the idea of stories, especially in regards to ancestral stories, and so the practice to me of looking at social stories is communing with the body because that connects us to our ancestors. It’s communing with our home, which is the earth, because that is where our body is centered and grounded. It’s situated me, especially being on this land that I’m in, Cincinnati, which is the border where freedom “became” for black people. It’s allowed me to see the kind of “ghosts” that’re all around us. I situate into my body and stories of my ancestors. I am able to ground and center myself and the story of why I’m here.

The body holds the memory of who you are and where you’re from, and I think that’s been for me where my humanism is. I think that if more people, especially white people, were to situate themselves in their ancestry and the ancestral stories that we have…I don’t think we can reach back into the past to find the ”Truth”, but it would definitely be starting conversations of self-exploration and understanding. What’s being stored in our own bodies that we can explore that connect us to another time? I’m connected to another time that is happening right now, as time is not linear, it’s happening. As I’m in Cincinnati. I’m literally feeling the ghosts of all of the chaos that probably was happening in the past—interactions with that ghost-in-the-space. That’s where my kind of humanism lies, because we are all connected to it all.

“We should not be so in our own worlds that we are not considerate of the people around us… Just simply say ‘I appreciate you.’ That is how we humanize each other.” —Mandisa Thomas

michele: That was beautiful. Thank you for that, Olivia. You touched on so many things that resonate with me and how I came to humanism.

I do a lot of work around speculative fiction. I also believe we have multiple stories that live inside of us, that are surrounding us. And there aren’t really words that can explain all of the things that we are experiencing, all the things that we were feeling. We experiment a lot in order to survive all of those stories daily—especially as black femmes and women. I believe that our lives are, in fact, speculative in that we aren’t meant to survive with them, but somehow we’re still here and somehow we have stories and evidence that prove that we belong here. My humanism is situated there, and the fact that many, many generations before me have lived, and survived, and created stories, and created rituals of survival. I believe that humanism is so right for that type of experimentation, as well, and that we’re not going to get it right all the time. We see that happening, where we have a reprise of so many things that we thought were set in stone, that we’re seeing being turned over.

Literally, to be alive in this time is speculative. It is science fiction. I believe humanism is an avenue in which I can create different ways and different modes of communicating, of being alive, of seeing other people, of listening to not just humans, but to nature. We are part of nature. Everything around us teaches us something daily, and we need to pay attention to that and to know that. We are here to grow from each other’s experiences. So I think that listening and seeing is a big part of how I access my humanism.

Thomas: I really appreciate hearing both Olivia and storäe raise words on what defines their humanism, and so I will add to that by saying that, for me, especially being now for eleven years within the atheist/humanist/secular com­munity, my humanism comes from a multitude of factors.

First and foremost, it’s immersed in blackness, being immersed in our history, being immersed in our culture, being immersed and educated in the fact that our blackness does not simply begin with being enslaved in this country. I was fortunate enough to have had that information taught to me when I was young; being born and raised in New York, I learned that there was more to blackness than just the negative connotations.

Also, I’m a performance artist who has been singing since I was four. And so, combining the history, the creativity, as well as the revolution—I’ve learned all about very strong Black women ever since I was young—and that has always that has always resonated with me and I’ve carried it with me. Another important factor is my lived experiences, my community engagement, through my family, particularly my maternal grandmother who was one of the first non-religious influences in my life.

As we talk about hospitality and humanism, I come from the hospitality industry. I learned how to engage people and it wasn’t easy to do. Being able to just talk to people and not talk at them and being able to express my blackness as well as my understanding of world history. That goes beyond simply being black but also how we connect with each other on that and being able to incorporate critical thinking. There’s also the expression that comes from black communities, particularly black women and those of us who do identify as LGBTQ+.

I realized that I represent for a lot of people and that being a humanist is not simply what we say. It is always in what we do, how we live, how we engage people. And we don’t always have to just say that we’re humanists in order to show that we are. My work is rooted in direct action. It is rooted in how we live, and how we love, and also how we engage and encourage people to be a better version of themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be simply rooted in how we educate ourselves, but also how we show that peer support for each other, as well as hold each other accountable and just try to be better.

“Just that touch of kindness can remind people why we’re still here… and why it’s okay to let go and just be present with someone.” —storäe michele

Lewis-Cornwell: Pivoting now to the to the hospitality part of our topic: What do you imagine, envision, hope for in a hospitable humanism? What work does this humanist/atheist/freethinking/secular community need to do in order to bring that future about?

Thomas: Having come from the hospitality industry…whether people realize it or not, the hospitality industry directly employs many people of color, oftentimes who are unseen, oftentimes who are in positions that we take for granted—those of us who organized, who set things up, who make these things happen—and it’s oftentimes thankless.

We often deal with people who are dealing with other life issues. They feel like what they’re doing is more important, so that the people that they’re talking to are insignificant and that we somehow deserve to bear the brunt of their frustration. We are seen as not being human. We are seen as people who are just there to service. I’ve previously spoken on what our community can learn from the hospitality industry about what it means to better engage people. How to just simply be nicer to people. Common courtesies like saying hello, saying thank you: these are things that shouldn’t be hard to do.

We should not be so in our own worlds that we are not being considerate of the people around us. Even if this is a job that we’re supposed to do, just simply say “thank you” and “I appreciate you” for it. That is how we humanize each other and really come down from this idea that we’re too good to take on certain tasks.

I remember in my capacity as the event services manager at the Centers for Disease Control Conference Center, I was never too good to pick up and pull trash the same way my employees did. I was never too good to do any of those things that were considered menial or considered beneath me, because it wasn’t beneath me—it was teamwork, it was me helping my staff, it was me taking care of the clients and the customers.

As a community, we must realize the art and service to each other. It means that, at times, we have to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty and do the things that we wouldn’t necessarily do. Rethinking of it in that framework is important. We also need to think about who are in those positions? They may not necessarily have the same academic credentials as other people, but they are just as important, if not more so because they are doing things that you may not necessarily feel are important, or even want to do. Putting yourself in those shoes is going to make a huge difference.

michele: Thank you for that, Mandisa. It reminds me of a book that I recently read where an individual was questioning why she decided to have lunch every day, at the same spot with people who were unhoused. She thought she was giving them dignity by sitting down and having a conversation with them and giving them food. She thought, “I’m doing a good thing. I’m giving them their dignity back.” And then she realized, after years of reflection, after doing the same thing for seven years, “I can’t give anybody their dignity. All I can do is see them and their dignity, but it’s not mine to give. I don’t hold that power.”

You talk about leveling the playing field, so everybody knows that we’re all equal. We all have jobs, we all have things to do, we all have families. And it is nobody’s responsibility to try to over-engage in ways that make people feel uncomfortable, because that happens: people try to over-engage so they can say they did their good deed for the day—we’re talking about true engagement. Just seeing people meeting others where they’re at just like people meet you where you’re at every day. And the fact is that we make choices to do that.

“I am an ancestor right now and what I do matters…” —Olivia Busby

We make choices to see people. We make choices to understand that, as you said people have whole other lives outside of doing the one thing that you see them do, and honoring the fact that they are coming from different perspectives, different places. But also, as you mentioned earlier, Mandisa, being that symbol of what it means to be a humanist without even saying it. Thinking, how can I engage, how can I add my own humanism, with everybody that I meet, no matter what they do that differs from me? I think that is so important to remind yourself, when you are encountering people in hospitality—when you’re encountering anyone, in fact—that this is vital for who we are as a community of people surviving this world. Because of the very things that are happening in this world, there’s so many examples that can show us that the world is going to hell, but it really takes just that touch of kindness to remind people why we’re still here, and why we should still be engaging, and why it’s okay to let go and just be present with someone.

Busby: I agree with everything these beautiful people are saying and I guess I especially agree with the idea that it is in action.

I’m working with the Susquehanna Valley Ethical Society and I noticed in that community that it’s important to give people a space to share themselves. I was welcomed into that community for sharing that I needed an outlet to share poetry. They welcomed me to share poetry, and then it became like a community.

It’s very important to be able to see people as more than just what you see them do and to welcome the totality of them, and allow the space for them to bring the totality of them. I think of it often as people are like a reflection and a mirror to yourself, so what you see in another person is always in some way a reflection of how you view yourself. Whether that is viewing someone kind of lower, and so you put on this false high sense of self. But, really, you probably see yourself on that lower level. It’s just like this mirror is constantly happening and so it’s very important to expand your own sense of self so that you’re able to see many different reflections.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about is Black ancestral process theology. It came from sitting in theology school and noticing a lot of white nihilism. I think, again, back to the ancestry, knowing the story of how we are so connected from past and present and future. One thing I’ve been reflecting on is that I am an ancestor right now and what I do matters. If you reflect on your parents, your grandparents—the people that made you, and what they did in community and how they interacted with people—it really positions you in a space where the actions that you do are absolutely going to influence some future generation.

For me thinking about the nonlinearity of time and being an ancestor now and being Black has shifted me to a point that I can’t indulge nihilism because I’m aware of a Community around me. I think just reflecting on your own place in space and time, and what you can offer to people, and how you are able to expand yourself beyond yourself and contract back in to do your work is very important in community. Being hospitable is being able to do that outward relationship constantly. That balance between internalization and externalization is always a good way to be in community and build hospitality.

michele: I just want to add something really quickly because what you just said, made me think about how hospitality is also a practice. It’s not something that is necessarily a need for all of us, sometimes we have to practice until it becomes a part of our environment. And so, in that practice, you have to allow yourself to be uncomfortable. We’ve had ancestors, and we have lived an uncomfortable fit for the majority of our lives, in so many different spaces, especially white spaces. Think of hospitality as a chance for you to practice that uncomfortable practice, sitting in it, and maybe not knowing, but just being present and observing. If you don’t know what to do, observe.

“The humanism of ‘I think, therefore, I am’ has to include feeling and expressing… not just with our brains but also our hearts, our bodies, all of ourselves.” —Leika Lewis-Cornwell

Thomas: It takes listening and learning, as well. It is a skill to be able to put that into practice, some of us have had more experience than others. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are better, but it gives us the opportunity to teach and be able to guide those around us, who may be new to this.

I had to come to a place where I realized that there are some things that some people just aren’t aware of, and that they may not know, and it is okay to say you didn’t know. But what’s not okay, is to continue to not know. Once you learn better, it is not okay for you not to put that into practice. How we continue to navigate that is a constant process.

We really can help each other. It doesn’t have to stay uncomfortable. As Olivia and storäe said, I feel like I am more connected to my ancestors as an atheist and humanist because I am able to better understand the pain and the joys that they went through. I can better understand that, even if something was done a certain way before, it may or may not necessarily be a good thing to do now. We can also take some of those lessons and move them into the future.

Lewis-Cornwell: Thank you all for like really connecting those pieces. Everyone is quite familiar with the phrase, “I think, therefore, I am.” I feel like the humanism of that, the humanism that can exist into the future also has to include feeling and expressing. It has to include thinking, not just with our brains but also our hearts, our bodies, all of ourselves. What practices could people undertake to expand? What does it look like if you’re not someone who considers themselves an artist, or if you’re not someone who considers themselves a performer? What does it look like to learn to feel into your body, to feel into your humanism?

michele: I was just quickly reflecting on my own journey and humanism, which started roughly about ten years ago when I was in theology school and realized, for the first time, that I was an artist. I had been creating my whole life, but never claimed to be an artist, never thought that I was that type of creative person, definitely didn’t think I was a performer.

I think we’re taught that you just do one thing really well and that’s the one thing that you’re able to do. I just believe that there’s so many access points to embody, to create. Creation doesn’t just have to happen on your own. Creation can happen in community.

One of the ways that I get to practice my humanism is when I create art and I invite others to that artistic ritual, to that artistic process, the workshop. I would invite those that are curious about how to embody to just try it. Join a group to sit down and write and see what comes up for you. A lot of times we can hinder ourselves when we feel as if we have to have certain skills to do something. Who said that? There are so many self-taught artists—there are so many self-taught anything. Cooking is such a beautiful culinary art, the ability to share who you are by creating foods together. To share a meal together, that’s art as well. That’s ritual as well.

Those are very simple ways of challenging yourself to do something new, to get to know someone, to get to know yourself differently. I don’t think that there’s any formula, necessarily. I think it just takes being brave enough, being vulnerable enough, to want to connect to yourself, so that you can fully be yourself and connect with others. I think that’s the foundation of it.

Busby: I’m a naturally very quiet and observant person. A practice that has helped me is using observation and listening to really deepen relationship. This could look like joining a space where you don’t necessarily see yourself and just being able to observe and listen and grasp the atmosphere. Like storäe mentioned, I am also in the space where I’m discovering being an artist and I think it came from a lot of journaling and automatic writing.

Thomas: I would just add to all of the wonderful things that have been shared is that, for me, it took unpacking any trauma that I experienced and really working to heal and overcome from that and recognizing what I could bring to the table, as well as being in community to not just learn from, but also work with others. That does take listening, that does take time and it may take time. It’s important to recognize what I may be good at, and what others, may be good at as well, and then how we can work together with that.

Lewis-Cornwell: That was beautiful. Thank you all.