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Black Scholarship, Non-Theism and Radical Politics: Where are the Writers?

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by Sikivu Hutchinson

To hear white institutions tell it, Black non-theists have nothing important to say about the human condition. But, in fact, “Black secular humanist critical inquiry stretches back to Frederick Douglass's era to the Harlem Renaissance and into the 1960s Black Power movement.” Such thinkers have been central to “a tradition of Black liberation struggle against white supremacy.”

Black Scholarship, Non-Theism and Radical Politics: Where are the Writers?

by Sikivu Hutchinson

The dominant culture and mainstream media often act as though Black intellectual traditions don’t exist.”

When I began researching my book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars in 2009 I was interested in discovering what other Black writers had published on the intersection of non-theism, feminism, and Black liberation. Historically, Black writers and scholars have been marginalized by what might be dubbed the To Kill a Mockingbird or The Help effect, i.e., that all-American phenomenon wherein a white writer playing cultural anthropologist on domestic safari travels to the ‘‘hood” to capture some aspect of Black lived experience and garners international acclaim and legitimacy denied Black writers publishing on similar topics. Commenting on this theme in her book Talking Back, bell hooks’ contends that, “Until the work of Black writers and scholars is given respect and serious consideration, this overvaluation of work done by whites, which usually exists in a context wherein work done by Blacks is devalued, helps maintain racism and white-supremacist attitudes.”

While scholarship on Black non-theist traditions is not as extensive as it is in other areas of Black cultural production, a robust, if still emergent, body of work does exist. Early on in my research I read and was enlightened by the work of Anthony Pinn, Norm Allen, and Donald Barbera. Pinn and Allen framed their scholarship within the context of early-to-late twentieth century African American humanist social thought; Barbera assailed the hypocrisy of the Black Church vis-à-vis contemporary mores. Pinn and Allen delineated the rich heritage of Black humanist literature and criticism espoused by thinkers like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Nella Larsen, Hubert Harrison, James Forman, and Zora Neale Hurston. These writers challenged the racist, sexist, classist foundations of American democracy, citizenship, and human rights. A majority adopted radical postures on Black humanist thought, connecting it to a tradition of Black liberation struggle against white supremacy. Critical inquiry into non-belief and humanist intellectual discourse was positioned as a vital part of Black identity, culture, and political resistance.

These writers challenged the racist, sexist, classist foundations of American democracy, citizenship, and human rights.”

So, honoring radical Black scholarship in marginalized areas of Black cultural production is important because the dominant culture and mainstream media often act as though Black intellectual traditions don’t exist. Emily Brennan’s recent New York Times article on Black atheists is a prime example. The article highlighted the challenges of coming out as an atheist articulated by Black non-believers like Mark Hatcher, founder of Howard University’s Secular Students Alliance, and Ronelle Adams, author of the children’s book Aching and Praying . Although it was heartening to see mainstream coverage of Black atheists, the article situates Black non-belief in a historical vacuum whilst egregiously ignoring contemporary Black non-theist discourse and scholarship. Evoking the now familiar theme of Black atheist alienation from hyper-religious Black culture, there is no reference to research or scholarship that might situate this dynamic within a broader sociological or political context. Rather, Brennan makes the totalizing claim that Blacks are “seeking a public intellectual of their own,” ala rock star white male authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. To underscore this “deficit,” the article trots out physicist Neil De Grasse Tyson, an agnostic who has made it crystal clear that he doesn’t want to be known as “the Black” anything.

It is crucial that black secular scholarship goes beyond the current fixation with online groups, You Tube videos, and conferences.”

It is inconceivable that analysis of the global influence of atheism would omit the work of Dawkins, et al. and their reverence for scientism. By kicking Black scholarship to the curb the Times managed to give the false impression that Black non-theism isn’t grounded in a legacy of intellectual tradition or public discourse with a distinctly political lineage. In point of fact, Black secular humanist critical inquiry stretches back to Frederick Douglass's era to the Harlem Renaissance and into the 1960s Black Power movement. It is critical to an understanding of how race is made in the white supremacist United States, as well as to the relationship between capitalist exploitation and faith-based heterosexism. And what is perhaps most pronounced about the growing visibility of Black atheists is how it has coincided with the re-emergence of a virulent white nationalism steeped in theocratic control and hyper-religiosity. There is a dearth of scholarship on this phenomenon. So as black economic disenfranchisement in the so-called Occupy era deepens, it is crucial that black secular scholarship goes beyond the current fixation with online groups, You Tube videos, and conferences to document on-the-ground social justice organizing exemplified by multi-talented activists, organizers and intellectuals like Mandisa L. Thomas and Kimberly Veal of the Black Non-Believers of Atlanta and Chicago, Naima Washington of Washington Secular Humanists, author Donald Wright of the Houston Humanists and Alix Jules of the Dallas Coalition of Reason.

In the wake of continued attacks on “secular progressives” by Uncle Tom Christian fascists like lay minister Herman Cain and charlatans like Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich, African American radical secular discourse and activism are all the more urgent. If Black non-theism is to have any teeth or traction beyond the white-dominated secular movement it must return to its radical roots and ethos of struggle.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles.

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Frederick Douglass: A Precursor to Liberation Theology...

The idea that Frederick Douglass was an non-theist / atheist is quite a stretch - though apparently he did vigorously challenged stereotypical / traditional religion- particularly slave-oriented Euro-Christianity as espoused & practiced by white racists! In fact- Douglass was an African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) Church clergyman, who stated that "God is our common Father and Creator" - "the Most High, who is ever the God of the oppressed..." Those are hardly the actions & words of an atheist! [Note: I once had a person commenting here @ BAR insist to me that Mark Twain also was an atheist- but according to Wikipedia: > Though Twain was a Presbyterian, he was sometimes critical of organized religion and certain elements of Christianity... stating that '"If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian." - Twain also stated that he believed in an almighty God & that "the goodness, justice, and mercy of God are manifested in His works," but also that "the universe is governed by strict and immutable laws..."] 

Of course there are these Douglass quotes: 'I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.' [Which is same vane as what the old folks use to always say- 'God helps those that help themselves' & 'If you make one step God will take 2 extra steps for you'.]

And Also: 'I can see no reason, but the most decietful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, the grossest of all libels... - I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes-- a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Where I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me...I...hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.'

Yet this does NOT confirm that Frederick Douglass was an atheist - just that he critiqued in no uncertain terms white racist slave oriented Euro-Christianity [or Christianity as practiced by white racists- enslavers & oppressors]. IMO: 'Frederick Douglass: A Precursor to Liberation Theology'- by Reginald F Davis, hits the nail on right the head:

[> Liberation theology is a major theological school of the 20th century. However, such theological developments do not occur in a vacuum, thus one should be able to look back into the past and see evidence of such thinking and acting among people of the past. Such as the case of Frederick Douglass. We label Douglass a liberation thinker not because he constructed a systemic theology, but because in his speeches, writings and actions he hit upon parallel patterns of thought of liberation theology. Moreover, Douglass lived his theology. His life was a prime example of what the oppressed can do to gain and secure freedom. His was a carefully considered and philosophically (and theologically) sound program of argument and action for emancipation. Douglass formulated the idea that liberation could not be left to chance or 'miracle'- it was something that his oppressed people must strive for - for themselves. This would be a very significant insight, for it is part of this insight that forms the foundation of liberation theology... Douglass criticized main-stream Euro-Christian denominations, which were linked to preserving the system of white supremacy. Douglass maintained that liberation must begin with the oppressed liberating their own minds from the ideas of their oppressors. This meant rejecting the prevailing interpretation of the {slave-oriented Euro}Christianity of his time and reinterpreting theology based on a fundamental committment to the liberation of the oppressed. Like a true liberation theologian, Douglass rejects any interpretation of faith that justifies oppression. Douglass also stirred the masses into action by rejecting a "pie in the sky after you die" mentality; he maintained that the oppressed must be ready to struggle for their liberation. Nevertheless, Douglass maintained a deep faith in the Biblical call to 'Set the Captives Free' {that's one of the main verses of Bob Marley's 'Exodus'}... " <]

Thus, as Reginald Davis deduces, Douglass should more properly be viewed as a forerunner to Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X [aka Minister Malik al-Hajj Shabazz], Rev Dr ML King, Bob Marley, etc... who used their belief in God to inspire them to take a valiant stand for the liberation of their people! And though they may have rejected slave-orientated Euro-Christianity - that is NOT the same as rejecting the GOD IDEA! - IMO: One can not find any Afro-centric scholar, institution &/or society prior to 1500 ACE- IE: before the beginning of Europe's all out assault on the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, & the Americas, Australia, etc- [and would be hard pressed to find any prior to 1900 ACE] that espoused atheism / non-theism. IMO: atheism is basically as Euro-centric as Catholicism / Euro-Christianity - it's just one claims to be scientific & logic based while the other claims to be faith-based!

Thanx Nixakliel --

This is all Zio-Leftist illuminati talk. They're promoting this stuff over at the "Black" site -TheRoot- as well.

Be prepared for the massive Moral destabilization program in 2012 (not that Black people haven't already been subjected to this..) to coincide with economic break down, dictatorship and World War.



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