“Innocent” From Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels

Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s popularity amongst conservative women highlights the gender nuances of America’s Jim Crow era nostalgia. God’s body has both religious and secular overtones in the pop culture fixation on and battle over women’s fertility. Over the past decade there has been an explosion of super mom reality TV shows featuring tabloid ready teenage mothers, white suburban mothers of multiples, alpha nannies and mega breeders like the ultra Christian fundamentalist Duggar family. The vast majority of these programs spotlight white families and traditional straight two-parent households.

The intersection of voyeurism, fertility innovations, and reactionary family values has kept these shows profitable. Similarly, tabloid obsession with the pregnancies, babies and reproductive dramas of (generally) white celebrities have also become an integral part of mainstream discourse. Littering the Internet, the first titillating pictures of celebrity baby bumps have become the prenatal equivalent of porn money shots. Despite all the mainstream media’s chest-beating post-feminist rhetoric, it is implied that having a child is still the pinnacle of femininity. Tabloid validation of fertility becomes a female celebrity’s most coveted honor as websites breathlessly chart the progress of Beyonce, Britney, Mariah, Tori, Celine, ad nauseum. This theme is amply borne out in the train wreck appeal of popular reality shows like Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant, whose young white “stars” are regularly featured in the pages of People, In Touch, and US magazines. Lauren Dolgen, mastermind of both Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant claims that both shows are supposed to be cautionary. The audience becomes absorbed with the experiences of young girls confronting the life challenges and hardships of premature parenthood. Many of my students confess that watching these shows has become a guilty pleasure. But as young black and Latina women they are quite clear that none of their friends will ever be spotlighted as sexy baby-to-bling Horatio Alger success stories in the tabloids ala teen mother and GOP evangelical poster child for illegitimacy Bristol Palin.

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“Straight To Hell” from Godless Americana, forthcoming Fall 2012

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Northerners are trained to revile the “primitivism” of the South. It’s a reflex borne of the legacy of slavery as well as an American gothic of trailer parks, inbred cousins, moonshine swilling troglodytes, toothless Klansmen wielding Confederate flags, redneck police brandishing fire hoses. In the newsreel of the unconscious, the South becomes the face of drooling unvarnished Bible-drenched racism, the North’s demonic double. It is envisioned as the site of racism’s “original sin,” even though one of the first and largest slave strongholds was in 17th century Manhattan.

But the Black Northerner has a complex, ambivalent relationship to this narrative of opposites. In the early-to-mid 20th century Southern terrorism and economic inequity spurred the Great Migration of African Americans to Northern cities of “opportunity.” The Northern drive was the stuff of legend and lore, firing the prose of writers as generationally diverse as Richard Wright and Toni Morrison. Black church denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church played a big role in helping African Americans transition to deeply segregated Northern black communities that were often hostile to Southern transplants. Yet kin and communal ties kept black migrants spiritually and emotionally wedded to the South. As much as the South was the primal scene for black slavery it was also a source of close knit black community, culture, and linguistic traditions. It was a space where African Americans were segregated yet provisionally self-sufficient, forced by necessity to establish their own businesses, schools, banks, medical practices, and cultural centers.

Writer Zora Neale Hurston notoriously rejected the antidote of “Northern” integration. In much of her work she extolled the virtues of black self-sufficiency and rugged individualism. For Hurston, these values were best embodied by her adopted hometown Eatonville, Florida. Reflecting on the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision Hurston wryly noted that “it is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.” Southern black cultural traditions were an example of that venerable heritage of self-association. Hurston disdained what she perceived as blacks’ tendency to grovel for white moral and social validation. Not only was integration a smokescreen but it falsely absolved whites of their complicity in the institutionalization of white supremacy. Contemporary bromides about the increase of multiracial relationships, expanded U.S. Census categories for multiracial people, and the alleged decline of racial identification amongst the “Millennial” generation only disguise the folly of post-racialism. Indeed, according to a 2011 survey by Colorlines Applied Research Center, the claim that Millennials believe racism has magically receded in the age of Obama is invalid. Race and racism are very much relevant to so-called Millennials, especially when it comes to issues of over-incarceration and employment discrimination.

From where many of us living in areas that have been demonized as ghettoes, inner cities or urban jungles sit, the social construction of the black and brown other is still a vital part of white Christian nationalist solidarity. Poll after poll has shown that the Tea Party and white evangelicals speak with the same voice. Historically, much of this sentiment emerges from the kind of deep white supremacist and class-based resentment exemplified by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. The Tea Party’s antipathy toward the recent Occupy Movement demonstrated that it is not really interested in upending the status quo but in exploiting anti-establishment rhetoric to maintain white supremacy and capitalist disparities in wealth and power. Most of the top Republican presidential candidates have heeded this clarion call to Manifest Destiny. From former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s entreaty to shiftless black folks on food stamps to Senator Ron Paul’s reputed warning about a black driven “race war,” the politics of black-baiting will never become out of date or unprofitable when it comes to appeals to white nationalism. In trying to shore up its Midwestern and Southern base the GOP has engaged in a particularly fantastical brand of doubletalk, framing the tepid Obama administration as the architect of a war against Christians. It is tempting to attribute this smear to Obama’s specious reputation as a liberal Democrat. Yet there was no such culture war propaganda during the Clinton administration. Clinton was a good Southern Baptist who could quote scripture and hold forth on biblical truths with the best evangelicals. But Obama’s oft-displayed ties to the Black Church have done little to raise his stock with white evangelicals. Apparently no amount of mugging with megachurch pastors or weaving scripture into his presidential addresses will alter the right’s view of Obama as a rabid secularist. For the right, Obama’s fireside God bless America’s have about as much purchase as Phyllis Wheatley’s paeans to the moral purity of Africans did for Virginia slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson. All God’s children may have wings, but in the post-racial U.S. a “nigger” with a bible, a Harvard degree and the biggest seat on Air Force One is still just that.

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Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels

Excerpt: Godless Americana, Forthcoming Summer 2012
ISBN: 978-0615586106
By Sikivu Hutchinson

The Judgment day billboard sprawls luminously below like a big tricked out index card over Memphis. The Rapture is coming, a world-wide crucible spreading death and destruction to the unrepentant of Graceland and beyond. One month before the Christian zealots’ judgment day and the Memphis airport vibrates with the ant flow of disembarking passengers and carnivores getting down to the serious business of waiting in line for ribs. There are rib joints bulging with impatient customers every few feet, underscoring why the Bible Belt struggles with epidemic obesity. Torrential rains and a tornado watch in Alabama, where I am scheduled to give a talk, have delayed planes and stranded hundreds. Passengers pace, prattle into their cell phones, slump morosely onto the floor, eyes scanning the horizon anxiously for any sign that the clouds will part, disgorge a plane and free them from the finger-licking blitz of Neely’s Barbecue.

But this is God’s country, and deliverance is all in good time. As only the fifth most religious state in the U.S. Tennessee bows to its neighbors, Alabama and Mississippi, in nationalist fervor and divinely ordained racist splendor. Decades after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Southern states have risen up in a spasm of anti-undocumented immigrant xenophobia. Following Arizona’s lead, Alabama, Ole Miss and Tennessee have passed legislation that either encourages or mandates criminal profiling of undocumented immigrants and their families, a most Christian ethos. What will judgment day look like for racist xenophobic states and their neo-Confederate policy makers? Harold Camping, geriatric mastermind of the now faltering California-based Christian radio empire that launched 2011’s doomsday cult, offered no clue. For fundamentalist Christians, racism—disguised as “America first”, patriotism, bootstraps free enterprise or any number of claptrap euphemisms—has always been a badge of honor.

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Moral Combat, An Enlightening Book from a Feminist Point of View


April 28, 2011, Lecture @ University of South Alabama


Amazon Reader J. Gomez writes:

“Moral Combat” is an enlightening book about the current struggle of black humanist atheist beliefs from a feminist point of view. This informative 280-page book is composed of the following eight chapters: 1. “Out of the Closet”: Black Atheists in Moral Combat, 2. This Far by Faith? Race traitors and Gender Apostates, 3. The Politics of Urban Religiosity, 4. Black Infidels: Secular Humanism and African American Social Thought, 5. Not Knocking on Heaven’s Door, 6. In God We Trust: Whiteness and Public Morality, 7. The White Stuff: New Atheism and Its Discontents, and 8. The Road Ahead.

1. Well researched, elegant and passionate prose.
2. I love books that provides me with a unique and new perspective on topics that I care about and this book does exactly that.
3. A book with conviction. Ms. Hutchinson provides compelling arguments for all her positions.
4. Great use of studies and well grounded references to back up her points.
5. This is the first book that makes it perfectly clear to me why African Americans embraced Christianity. With a number of well conceived explanations that hammers the point home. Bravo!
6. The key differences between black and white atheists.
7. An understanding of African American politics.
8. The courage to come out as an atheist in the black community.
9. The role of patriarchy and its impact.
10. The stranglehold of religion in the African American community.
11. Great wisdom throughout, “When the language of a given creed opposes human rights, no moral high ground can be claimed.”
12. Religion and economics.
13. The dangers of faith based initiatives. Including the prison variety…
14. Prayers as the primary means of emotional therapy and why that is so.
15. Great quotes from African American atheists. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” – James Baldwin.
16. Frederick Douglass the intellectual pioneer of African American free thought.
17. A historical look at African American atheism.
18. How the business of organized religion is detrimental to poor blacks. Fascinating topic.
19. How the Bible’s view of violence against women justify treating them like property.
20. The truth about morality.
21. Thought-provoking book that challenges old cultural views. Example, scientific studies that indicate that there is “little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.” My skeptic nature will force me to follow up on this since it goes against my preconceived notion but I will accept the facts according to the best evidence.
22. So much enlightening history in this book including recent history such as the Texas Board of Education making a mockery of the very institution they are suppose to uphold.
23. The issue of abortion.
24. God as the last refuge of scoundrels.
25. Pigliucci versus Harris on “scientism.”
26. The importance of atheist movements incorporating more women and people of color.
27. Moral values in proper context.
28. Park space and its impact to children, interesting.
29. Incarceration rates and race.
30. Secular Humanism and the power to do good. In the African American community this will only be viable if it is culturally relevant.
31. The links worked great! Great references too.
32. One of the best Kindle values!

1. The focus was on the African American atheist experience in Los Angeles so I wonder if that correlates to the rest of the country. I would assume so.
2. Graphs and illustrations never hurt to better illustrate points.
3. So many great books mentioned, a separate bibliography would have been welcomed.
4. Having to wait for Ms. Hutchinson’s next book.

In summary, this is an enlightening book. One of the main reasons I love to read it’s because great authors like Ms. Hutchinson take me to a world that I admittedly know very little about and expose me to new and interesting perspectives. The author summarizes in one sentence many of the topics covered in this excellent book, “For many black atheist women, atheism’s appeal lies in its deconstruction of the bankrupt more, values and ideologies that prop up patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism, racism, white supremacy, imperialism, and economic injustice.” An important book, I highly recommend it!

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Moral Combat Explored

Moral Combat Explored: A Chat with Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson


She’s black; she’s a feminist; and she’s an atheist. Author and lecturer Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson makes no pretense about her progressive “non- beliefs.” In her book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Dr. Hutchinson reveals how atheists of color are challenging the whiteness of “New Atheism” and its singular emphasis on science at the expense of social and economic justice. The book also highlights the cultural influence of African American humanist and atheist social thought in America. Dr. Hutchinson spoke with us more about the foundation of her “non-beliefs” and how they influenced the writing of her book.

BM: Hello Sikivu, it is an honor to be able to speak with you today. Atheism is a term that is not usually acknowledged within the Black community. Can you tell us what it means (to you) to be an African American female atheist?

SH: It means being able to question the orthodoxies and conventions of mainstream African American experience, particularly when it comes to how black women are supposed to behave and what they are supposed to believe.

BM: When/how did atheism enter your life?

SH: I grew up in a secular household. My parents were progressive and politically conscious. They were both steeped in the radical activism and intellectual foment of the Sixties. My upbringing was very black-identified; black literature, black social history, black activism. There were no Bibles on our bookshelves Prayer and God talk was never a part of the home culture of my immediate family. Because there was no indoctrination into God belief I had no authentic emotional connection to this idea of a supernatural omnipotent being manning the universe’s puppet strings. Naturally though most of my extended family and friends were religious so my limited church connections came through them. In retrospect however, my parents were no doubt mindful of the stigma black communities attach to non-believers and non-belief. So although there was never any explicit talk about atheism in our household I began to self-identify as one after enduring the hostile cultural backwater of my Catholic high school, where writing Beatle lyrics on your paper (as I did in 9th grade) got you branded a reprobate.  MORE@


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“Sikivu is an amazing scholar and writer, with the courage to ‘betray her culture’ (as some would see it) by renouncing the religion that gives so much comfort and identity to so many people. But she does it with grace, inviting readers to escape dogmatic dependency and embrace reason, science, and humanistic morality.”

–Dan Barker, Freedom From Religion Foundation


“…filled with a dialectical analysis of why it is people of color are so religious. I think the thing I really enjoyed about the book is that explored how it is most people of color come to being an atheist in the first place, COLONIAL EXPLOITATION!”

IKONOKLAST, People of Color Organize 


“This book is filled with relevant information regarding Christianity and its magnetic relationship with the African American community, as well as explanations of the segmentation of nonwhites, including Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. Although written in a scholarly fashion, the book is accessible, relevant and straightforward. If understanding the nature of genderphilia, racism’s role in morality and the coded world political pandering, this book is for you.”

–Don Barbara, author, “Black and Not Baptist: Non-Belief and Freethought in the Black Community” 

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Ordering Info for Moral Combat



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Sikivu Hutchinson Winter-Spring Book Signings & Appearances

January 5 @10:20 p.m., WBAI NY Women’s Collective radio show February 19th, Secular Student’s Association Conference, Thousand Oaks, CA, 3:00 p.m. March 14, Interfaith Voices radio interview, interfaithradio.org, 6:00 p.m. EST March 20th, Center for Inquiry, Costa Mesa, CA March 23, … Continue reading

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Moral Combat: Release February 2011

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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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