Beyond the Sacrificial Good Woman: Black Feminism and Freethought

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the 1997 film The Apostle Robert Duvall plays a white Southern Christian fundamentalist preacher and murderer on the lam seeking redemption. The film is literally cluttered with images of devout blacks, from black women swaying in the breeze at a big tent church revival to a particularly indelible church scene of dozens of black men chanting “Jesus” in rapturous response to Duvall’s pulpit-pounding call. I found The Apostle perversely fascinating because it trotted out this totally revisionist romanticized narrative of black obeisance to yet another charismatic but flawed white renegade savior figure in Louisiana (where, contrary to Hollywood flim-flammery, most of the congregations are racially segregated). These popular fantasies of black religiosity always seem to revolve around images of good, matronly black women eternally quivering with a strategic “Amen” or “can I get a witness;” subject to break out into a Blues Brothers back flip down the church aisle at any moment.

It’s a caricature of black feminine servility—in homage to the Lord, the good book and the white renegade—that exemplifies what Toni Morrison has characterized as the “serviceability” of blackness and the black body. In her 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison argues that blackness and the black body—or what she dubs the Africanist presence—have historically functioned as vehicles or props for white subjectivity. In 18th century America, the Africanist presence allowed the new white man of the emergent slave republic to pose and explore fundamental questions about what it meant to be free, what it meant to human and what it meant to be a citizen within a founding “democratic” society. In 19th century Europe, the Africanist presence was literally articulated through the exhibition of black bodies, most notably that of Saartijie Baartman, aka the so-called Venus Hottentot, a young South African Khoi woman. Baartman was paraded all over Europe and displayed in salons in museums by the European scientific establishment. For the hoards of gawking white spectators who paid to see her “perform,” her “grotesquely exaggerated” anatomy demonstrated that there were clear boundaries between the civilized self and the savage sexually deviant Other.

Caught in the crossfire of science and superstition, black femininity has been critical to defining Western notions of “the human.” Negotiating the journey to the human on their own terms has been a centuries’ long quest for black women freethinkers, veering between religion and skepticism, faith and humanism. Bringing a black feminist secular humanist freethinking tradition “out of the closet” requires an assessment of the way black women have intervened in their historical construction as racial and sexual Others.

For example, when preacher and abolitionist Sojourner Truth purportedly rolled up her shirt sleeve during her historic 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech before the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio to show how many rows of cotton she’d plowed, she simultaneously rebuked notions of genteel white womanhood and degraded black femininity. By celebrating her flesh as a field slave and mother of several children “who didn’t need to be helped over ditches,” she was challenging the gendered division between body and intellect, men’s space and women’s space.

Black feminist secular humanism emerges from the legacy of Truth’s humanist intervention into the dualities of Western empiricism and Judeo Christian dogma. Enlightenment and Judeo Christian ideologies of black racial otherness and black sexuality reinforced each other. Blackness was outside of the human, the rational, the sovereign, and, of course, the moral…


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