I recently submitted a course proposal entitled “Going Godless: Challenging Faith and Religion in Communities of Color” to a School of Religion at a prominent university in California. After many gyrations, it was shot down due to “lack of funding”. The course focuses on the intersectional politics of secularism, atheism and humanism, as well as the work of secularists of color like Anthony Pinn, Mandisa Thomas, Heina Dadabhoy, Juhem Navarro Rivera, Sincere Kirabo, Candace Gorham and the D.C. group Secular Sistahs. The uptick in Americans identifying as secular Nones has led to the creation of more secular courses, many of which are housed in Religious Studies departments. Despite the much ballyhooed “Rise of the Nones” there is currently only one bonafide Secular Studies department (based at Pitzer College and helmed by secular scholar Phil Zuckerman) in the U.S.
For the most part, Secularism in the American academy is a cobbled together affair, featuring one-off courses dominated by white academics with the book contracts, privilege and ivory tower “cred” to do secular work without worrying about censure or professional ostracism. Although social media bustle with black folks tweeting, blogging and sounding off about embracing atheism; the same handful of white faces preside in the academic industrial complex as “authentic” scholars of the secular, atheist, humanist experience. As a result, scholarship, classes and curricula that capture the lived experiences, politics and world views of secularists of color, especially those of women of color, are still scant to nonexistent. To date, the Humanist Institute is the only organization in the country to feature an online course I developed entitled “Women of Color Beyond Faith”.
Why is it important that secular people of color teach, write and publish book length scholarship, analyses, narratives and fiction on our social history? The hijacking of rock music from the African American composers and musicians who originated the genre is a case in point. African American scholar/historians like Maureen Mahon and Jeffrey Othello are among the few in the white male dominated field of rock and roll musicology and music history. This dearth, combined with the whitewashing of rock by white male critics, musicians and the music industry, has ironically marked the genre as “in-authentically” black. Recent critical works by white writers like Jack Hamilton and Gayle Wald document the travails of African American rock artists in a field black folk pioneered but are now viewed as oxymoronic in (one need look no further than the lily white bands in this year’s crop of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees to see how white supremacy informs the corporate rock establishment). The lockstep association of “black music” with rap, hip hop and R&B continues to marginalize black rock musicians. That said, if it’s black and obscure, white folk will find it, document it, and anthropologically “redeem” it for the masses as valid art and noble artifact. It’s no revelation that white validation is often the primary criterion for legitimizing black cultural production, critical theory or art in the mainstream and in academia. As August Wilson once noted, “Blacks have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set themselves up as custodians of the black experience.”
When it comes to secularism, even when secular people of color appear in academic spaces, the range of lived experience that they are allowed to represent is limited and reductive. The standard caricature that bubbles up into mainstream consciousness is one of smug atheist blacks and Latinos condemning God and Tyler Perry-esque evangelicalism among folk of color. Rejecting religion becomes an end in and of itself, and not merely symbolic of a more politicized belief system based on social justice, ethics, black liberation, black feminism and serving black communities within the context of heightened anti-black state violence, segregation and misogynoir. Because black bodies have always signified an irrational supernaturalism positioned as the antithesis of the Western universal subject, black humanist atheist praxis can upend traditional constructions of racial authenticity and identity.
Similarly, black lived experience, faith and secularism are largely MIA in the literary arts; be it narrative film, theatre or fiction. While questioning faith is a familiar theme in these genres (e.g. in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain), politicized rejection of supernaturalism and religion, as a sustained critical theme in fictional works by black authors, is still rare. Indeed, only the works of Richard Wright (Black Boy and The Outsider) and Nella Larsen (Quicksand) occupy this space of aesthetic and ideological possibility. Often in black cultural production, there is the presumption of faith-based, religious or spiritual world views and experiences that preclude more complex portrayals of black life. The straightjacket of faith, spiritualism and religiosity is particularly problematic when it comes to black women characters who are allowed none of the nuances of belief and individual license afforded “maverick” male characters. Fictional black women who espouse atheism outright are either punished as traitors (Beneatha Younger in Raisin in the Sun) or domesticated and suppressed (Helga Crane in Quicksand).
This brand of gender policing is even more pronounced in mainstream TV and film. Browse the array of popular—often straight-to-video—black films in the few video stores that remain and the majority feature stereotypically melodramatic tropes of sex, faith, relationships and family woes that are presumably designed to appeal to all black women. In his article “Black Atheists in Film and TV”, Black Skeptics Los Angeles writer and attorney D. Frederick Sparks identifies a handful of portrayals, noting the dearth of black women and the latitude allowed black men (a situation reflected in a recent episode of the sitcom Black-ish, which tamely explored the lead characters’ eldest daughter questioning God’s existence).
This erasure will become even more insidious as evangelical Trumpist white America reloads and reboots. The rising tide of reactionary Religious Right legislation against racial justice, LGBTQI rights, women’s rights, reproductive justice, public education and climate change demands concerted response and resistance from secular radicals and progressives. Countering the literary and academic whiteness of secular space and secular studies is another form of critical resistance in this neo-fascist era.