Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson has written several books about her life as a Black atheist, including Moral Combat and Godless Americana. She doesn’t just limit activism to her writing, though. She founded Black Skeptics Los Angeles, which, for years now, has given away scholarships to “secular, LGBTQI and undocumented” students who are first in their families to attend college — this year’s deadline is June 26. She is also the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a Black feminist, humanist civic engagement and mentoring program for South L.A. girls of color.
Her latest book couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s called Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical, and it’s all about how to put Humanist values into action in the fight for equality.
In the excerpt below, Hutchinson gives us a glimpse into her upbringing and how it influenced her worldview:
Feminism and atheism are dirty words that Americans across the political spectrum love to hate and debate. Throw them into a blender and you have a toxic brew that defies decency, respectability, and Americana. Trot them out in debates about abortion or LGBTQI rights and you can unite white conservative evangelicals and Black “Hoteps” (Black folks who subscribe to a narrow version of Afrocentrism) in a sneering, strange-bedfellows lovefest.
I came to feminism as a “baby” atheist growing up in South Los Angeles. My first pangs of unapologetic godlessness were in Catholic school. Sitting in dreary religion classes run by sanctimonious white male teachers made me despise the Bible, its moral hypocrisies, and its violent woman-hating language. It was inane to me that a centuries old “good book” could dictate that I remain silent, bow down to patriarchs, step back as chattel, and view my body as an impure vessel of original sin redeemable only through self-sacrifice and submission to a male deity. It was madness that these atrocities could be justified by the unquestioned moral righteousness of a Christian tradition that condoned slavery, rape, and homophobia. The “beauty” and majesty of the good book, and the omnipotent god at the cosmic switch of the universe, were a patent lie in the face of all the suffering and inequality I saw right in front of me. So, while some were able to compartmentalize these fascistic tenets, cherry pick the good stuff ad nauseum, and divorce the bad stuff from “God,” I decided that it didn’t make sense to give the Bible — nor any so-called holy book that gave supernatural beings dominion over “mere” earthlings — a pass. Why not cut out the theological claptrap and chuck gods altogether? Why not concede that the crazy quilt of theistic belief systems, creeds, and dogmas that sprawl across cultures and nations was a far greater testament to human artfulness than godly omniscience? As a twelve year-old, accustomed to hearing about how that conniving temptress Eve screwed up folks’ residence in the Garden of Eden, it was clear to me that much of the policing of femininity that I and other girls encountered had a strong basis in Christian religious dogma. From the moment we’re assigned the female gender at birth, girls’ sexuality is a commodity, an object, an asset, and a “liability” to be marketed, bought, sold, and controlled in a birth-to-death cycle in which girls and women are straightjacketed by a litany of dos and (mostly) don’ts. Don’t sit this way, walk this way, talk this way, dress this way. Don’t go there, hang out with them, drink, smoke, act like a bitch, act like a ho, act like a dude, get yourself raped or knocked up. And when you get older, supposedly beyond the regime of the sexualizing male gaze, don’t ever think you will be relevant, whether you have kids or not. At every stage, organized religion, through the language of a grindingly policing theism, is there to impose boundaries and limits.
The Catholic school that I went to for one year was a perfect training ground for this dance of invisibility. In the Reagan years, it was widely viewed by some middle-class Black and Latinx parents as an antidote to the “bad” schools in South L.A. and neighboring Inglewood (then a predominantly Black community that had been largely white up until the late 1960s). On the surface, the school’s virtually all-white faculty and ethnically diverse student body were poster children for multicultural integration. Beneath that shiny facade, the school had the usual cauldron of hierarchies: bullying cliques, authoritarian religious bureaucrats, predatory jocks, and favorites-playing teachers. Then, as now, private religious schools were microcosms of a segregated two-tier educational system. Middle-class and working-class parents of color desperate to give their children a leg up bused them to elite schools hoping against hope that the racial tensions that fueled post–Brown v. Board of Education desegregation battles wouldn’t affect their babies. These tensions were crystal clear at my high school. Upper-middle-class to affluent white students lived in tony single-family homes and condos that dominated the multi-million dollar beachside community where the school was based. Black and Latinx students crammed public buses, traveling from the demonized “inner city” to the mostly white Westside. The implications of this dichotomy would shape my budding consciousness about public education, public space, race, and gender. Institutional racism, sexism, and heterosexism were critical to the disciplinary regime of the white savior patriarchs and matriarchs who adopted a missionary mentality about youth of color while policing girls’ bodies and conduct.
Humanists in the Hood is now available online, in paperback and Kindle.