In this post, Lauren Strumos and Megan Hollinger report on the NSRN’s 2020 Annual Lecture that was held 10 December, 2020 and presented by Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson. Lauren and Megan summarize Dr. Hutchinson’s lecture, drawing attention to key points related to what it means to be a goddless black woman in the United States and in American atheist and secularist movements.
On 10 December 2020, the NSRN and the Nonreligion in a Complex Future (NCF) project welcomed Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson to deliver the NSRN Annual Lecture, entitled “Going Godless: Black Feminism, Humanism, and Anti-Racism.” The lecture explored what it means to be a godless black woman in the United States and in the American atheist and secular humanist movements. This event report outlines some key points from the lecture, which can be watched in full on the NCF YouTube channel.
Dr. Hutchinson made clear that secular black women in America defy mainstream representations of black female identity. She demonstrated this tension with Girls Trip (2017), a Hollywood comedy that follows four black women in leading roles. These protagonists are significant because they challenge the dominance of white male identity in comedy. What the film leaves unchallenged, however, is the normative representation of black women as religious or theistic in popular culture. One Girls Trip scene in particular portrays the women as Christian when they engage in a group prayer and thank Jesus. Dr. Hutchinson also noted that religious melodramas and urban Christian films have gained popularity among black audiences, leaving little space for black secular films with alternative narratives about black female identity.
Religious expressions of black identity in popular culture resonate with empirical research. Dr. Hutchinson shared findings from the Pew Religion Research Forum and the Kaiser Foundation, which found that the majority of African Americans identify as religious (87%), and that African American women turn to their faith in difficult times more than any other group (87%). She also highlighted the social and political importance of churches in African American communities—an importance largely derived from the support they offer in response to disparities stemming from institutional racism. African American youth, for example, benefit from educational, mentoring and recreational opportunities provided by churches in low-income, segregated communities. Oftentimes these opportunities are not otherwise provided.
Economic disparities were made especially clear when Dr. Hutchinson compared black women’s wealth accumulation and home equity to that of white women. Citing research by the Samuel DuBois Cook Centre, she pointed out that “single white women with bachelor degrees have seven times the wealth of single black women with bachelor degrees.” White women’s higher wealth level is a privilege emerging at the intersection of race and class. The resultant economic disadvantages that black women face contribute to their high levels of religious observance. High levels of religiosity are also found among LGBTQ African Americans, “who are more likely to identify as LGBTQ than any other ethnic group.” Straight, queer and transgender identities, in addition to socioeconomic and material conditions, should thus be accounted for when looking at religion in African American communities and among black women more specifically.
Throughout her presentation, Dr. Hutchinson referenced black women of the past and present who have challenged, and continue to challenge, mainstream representations of black women’s identities. She noted that The Humanist published its first cover story on black women atheists in 2018. The significance of this cover is twofold: it challenges dominant portrayals of women of colour as being religious, and it changes mainstream portrayals of atheists, humanists and secularists. Another example is that of Mandisa Thomas, who founded the national organization Black Nonbelievers. Through organizations like Black Nonbelievers and Dr. Hutchinson’s Black Skeptics Los Angeles, black atheists are able to find community as they transition away from religion. Among other historical figures, Dr. Hutchinson talked about Nella Larsen, who’s novel Quicksand (1928) had the first openly skeptic African American protagonist.
Dr. Hutchinson highlighted that black feminist activists are at the forefront of conversations surrounding feminism, secularism and anti-racism. These women are part of a broader African American secular humanist movement defined by its resistance to oppression, including racism, colonialism, heterosexism, white supremacy and patriarchal Christian morals. This last point stems in part from the Christian morals that shaped idealized notions of western femininity during the era of slavery and the suffrage movement. Black women in this context were seen as a hypersexual ‘other’ to white women, while at the same time being expected to conform to their ‘pure’ femininity. This inequality is still discernible today and relates to discrepancies between black and white girls. For instance, Dr. Hutchinson cited a Georgetown University study that found black girls are seen as being less innocent than white girls. This inequality is further seen in heterosexist representations of black female identity which exclude black LGBTQ women in and beyond popular culture. Dr. Hutchinson challenged this norm by having a black atheist lesbian protagonist in her film White Nights, Black Paradise (2016).
Overall, black women atheists and secular humanists are making intersectional identities increasingly visible in the broader American atheist and secular humanist movements. Dr. Hutchinson emphasized, however, that this diversity is not yet present at secular conferences. These conferences are missing an intersectional focus that identifies the lived experiences of women of colour. Such experiences are particularly important in light of heightened inequalities and state violence in contemporary America. These include white supremacy of the Trump era, heavy policing of African American communities, increasing rates of black mass incarceration, and the relatively high number of black girls in sex trafficking. Such realities simultaneously shape and are challenged by the politics of black feminist secular activists.
The lecture was followed by a statement of thanks from Dr. Lori G. Beaman and a response from Dr. Paul Bramadat. Dr. Bramadat first asked Dr. Hutchinson about her own experience of not following dominant “scripts” as a black nonreligious woman. She answered by describing her upbringing in an African American household in South Los Angeles with activist parents and without religion. This context helped her to critically reflect on the hierarchies of Christian traditions as it manifested in her community. She described how she saw African American girls experiencing inequitable access to reproductive health and knowledge about bodily autonomy and empowerment. She also saw the Black Church failing to adequately address the HIV epidemic’s effect on black bodies and queer communities. Dr. Hutchinson underscored that inequities and inequalities persist in African American communities today. Examples include the gendered hierarchy of ethnic churches and lack of government support for programs, organizations and small businesses in African American communities. These issues perpetuate a history of oppression and flow from the intersection of white supremacy, hyper segregation and global capitalism.
Lauren Strumos is a PhD student in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on religious, nonreligious and Indigenous environmental activism in Canada. Lauren is the Student Caucus Leader for the Nonreligion in a Complex Future project and the Student Representative for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion.
Megan Hollinger is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her research explores combating antisemitism through law and alternative, community-based strategies and initiatives. Her interests also include the intersection of religion and nonreligion in relation to antisemitism. She is the Membership Chair and incoming Treasurer for the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies. She is also a member of the Student Caucus of the Nonreligion in a Complex Future project.