Black Humanism In the Hood

I became captivated by the peekaboo facades of storefront churches in South Los Angeles as I searched for a cover photo for my first book about Black atheists. In my community, churches of every size, architectural style, and denomination sit totemically between daycare centers, liquor stores, dry cleaners, 99 cent stores, and beauty shops. Sometimes they are stuffed in three to a block — drab storefronts barely visible, upstaged by older, freestanding churches jutting out from corners in majestic glory.

The storefronts are among the most enduring examples of how white supremacy and spatial apartheid shape the landscape by tethering poor communities to tax-free faith regimes which suck up commercial space that could be devoted to non-religious community organizations. As vestiges of Jim Crow and the Great Migration, they represent a unique bridge between the past and present. Like other Black churches, storefronts emerged as refuges from racism. They were often the only affordable properties Blacks could rent or buy in segregated neighborhoods. They were accessible social and community centers, antidotes to traditional, middle-class congregations where pomp, circumstance, and jockeying for status reigned.

As a Black atheist humanist, if I had a dollar for every time someone from my local community trotted out faith or lauded God in a professional context, I’d have a nice little chunk of change.

According to the Pew Research Survey, African Americans are among the most devout groups in the nation; 87 percent are religiously identified, and the vast majority are Christian. The top six wealthiest pastors in the world are African or African-descended, and the Bible is the number one book in Black households. So, when Black folks across the economic spectrum look to social welfare, educational, and civic organizations, they often tap into those provided by or connected to faith-based communities. Their pervasiveness can be problematic for secular, humanist, and atheist African Americans seeking alternatives to faith-based social justice institutions. While the number of religiously unaffiliated African Americans (or Black “nones”) has increased over the past decade (especially among millennials and Generation Z), our numbers are still small. There are virtually no secular humanist Black institutions that provide social welfare resources such as food, housing, employment, or educational services.

Humanism is a worldview based on the idea that human beings, not gods, determine morals, values, and ethics. African American humanism draws from Antebellum traditions that privilege the racial struggle of enslaved Africans. It emerges from resistance to European American notions of humanity based on white supremacist control over the bodies, labor, and reproduction of people of color.

The majority of forerunning 20th century Black humanists like A. Philip Randolph, Hubert Harrison, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Carter G. Woodson, and James Forman (with the notable exception of figures like Zora Neale Hurston, and Black conservative intellectual George Schuyler) were progressive, socialist, or communist-aligned, and actively condemned the way capitalism and white supremacy harm Black communities. For example, Civil Rights leader Randolph believed religious indoctrination prevented African Americans from radical grassroots organizing, while former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Secretary Forman argued that churches perpetuate a dangerous god myth which keeps poor Black folks downtrodden. Although the contemporary humanist movement likes to paint itself as open and inclusive, race, gender, sexuality, class, and cultural differences are divisive flashpoints.

While humanistic belief systems span cultures and ethnicities across the globe, the face of mainstream humanism in the US is white and prominently represented by organizations like the American Humanist Association and Foundation Beyond Belief. As Black humanist scholar Anthony Pinn notes in When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race, European American humanists privilege the “objectivity” of science and reason, swaggeringly ignorant of their own cultural biases.

For humanists of color, this merely reflects the same violence that normalizes racial segregation in the US. White humanists and atheists who cling to myths of objectivity actively benefit from economic apartheid. They largely control the discourse on what is considered to be “humanist” and “secular” in mainstream forums about movement organizing and public policy. They capitalize on the “wages of whiteness” (W.E.B. Du Bois’ term for the public and psychological wage which confers white folks with economic and political privilege) by divorcing secularism from the intersectional lived experiences of people of color for whom church/state separation — particularly when it pertains to education, LGBTQI enfranchisement, and reproductive justice — is fundamentally linked to economic justice.

Thus, it’s no revelation that humanism must have an economic justice platform to have any relevance for Black resistance to organized religion and contemporary issues confronted by communities of color.

But the historical record on American humanism and economic justice has been problematic, shaped by the same racist echo chamber that fuels mainstream atheism. The first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933 during the Great Depression. It articulated a commitment to racial inequality, economic justice, and redistribution, and didn’t frame secularism and religion as being in conflict with each other.

Yet, this explicit emphasis on economic justice is at odds with the humanist movement’s present-day disengagement from critiquing wealth distribution or capitalism. In the post-World War II era, humanism shifted from a class and justice-focused agenda to a more traditional secular, church/state separation agenda. Headed by white elites, who never deign to criticize capitalism, segregation, or unequal wealth distribution, the contemporary movement “looks upon problems of poverty and economic inequality, when it looks upon them at all, as low priorities for secular activism and remedial public policy.”

In the final analysis, critiquing class inequity has never been incidental nor parenthetical for Black freethinkers and humanists because the dominance of organized religion in the US is fundamentally based on race and class disparities. The storefront churches that often hide in plain sight in our communities are enduring and troubling, monuments to this legacy.

About the Author

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and the novel White Nights, Black Paradise (2015), on Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre. Her speculative fiction web-series Narcolepsy, Inc., based on her 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival play, debuted this March.