Historically African American women did not have the luxury to be freethinkers because they were constructed as the racialized sexual other. Their bodies were the backdrop to European American notions of individual liberty, humanity, and natural rights. Their labor was the raw material for European American intellectualism. European American freethought traditions were predicated on the enslavement of the racialized sexual other. Within the context of slavery and, later, Jim Crow, women like Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and other first- and second-wave white feminist freethinkers would not have had the license to be secular were it not for the dialectic between the civilized white Western subject and the degraded amoral racialized sexual other. Alice Walker powerfully evokes this theme in her essay, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, which contemplates the contradictions of black female creativity and “genius” within the holocaust-like conditions of slavery.
Black working women were not supposed to be geniuses. In the West, genius and godliness are intimately bound to each other. Black women’s lives were too “cluttered” with the debris of the everyday—the cooking, cleaning, minding, managing, and tending that comes with the earthly terrain of caregiving—to soar to the heavens with geniuses. Small wonder then that the spaces they did find themselves in, that were available to them, became wellsprings for expressions of godliness, both subversive and conforming. That the vast majority of black women were only afforded access to the worlds of work, the family, and church meant that their “genius” would by necessity be a reflection of those worlds. In the turbulence of antebellum America “God” became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing genius, creativity, artistry, mastery, and invention.
Hence, secularism was a dangerous and untenable position because of the way black dehumanization was institutionalized. Where would black women go to be affirmed as persons? The courts, where their rights were not recognized? The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian? Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral children of Ham?
For Latinas coming from Catholic traditions, the ubiquitous image of the pure-as-the-driven-snow, self-sacrificing Virgin Mary is the traditional model for femininity. But the Virgin’s white purity is only validated by the fallen dark whore; the black, Asian, Native American woman or Latina whose body, in the words of bell hooks, is “the sign of sexual experience.” As writer Yasmin Davidds Garrido notes, “It often seemed to me that unless I behaved just like the Virgin Mary I wouldn’t be good enough to win God’s approval. In order to be considered a good girl, I had to be quiet, submissive, and obedient…This is one way Catholicism coerces young girls to mute their voices.”
This is the backdrop against which women of color struggle with religious and secular belief systems. Even as the moral weight of their communities—reinforced by the dominant culture—is placed on them, many continue to seek refuge in faith and faith traditions because they provide a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning. Responding to a survey I conducted on high school aged young women and faith, twelfth grader Vanessa Linares* agreed that African American women and Latinas are packing the pews because many of them “believe that women of color need faith/religion to be moral.” Thus, popular reality shows like the Bad Girls Club and platinum-selling pop artists like wannabe Barbie-doll rapper Nicki Minaj show young women of color that hypersexuality is a quick and dirty form of “validation” for a select few. These women may appear to be flouting conventional sexual mores with “fuck you” alpha-female sexuality, but they are still rigidly bound by them. And, by the same token, the goddess cult that so many women of color flock to is also a cul-de-sac. Goddesses, queens, princesses, and other icons of so-called spiritual authority are by definition floating above the “sorry” muck of mere mortals.
Nonetheless, over the past few years more women of color have stepped up to assume leadership roles in secular, atheist, and humanist organizations. They have done so in a movement that is blithely ignorant of, if not explicitly hostile to, the lived experiences, cultural capital, community context, and social history of people of color in the U.S. In 2011, Kim Veal, president of the Black Non-Believers of Chicago, founded her group after being exasperated with participating in predominantly white groups where she was treated like an “enigma.” Echoing the sentiments of other non-believers of color who have been turned off by the vibe of all-white groups, she says, “this was disenchanting; you don’t know if they are truly interested in getting to know you or are trying to pick the brain of their new token.” Mandisa Thomas started the Black Non-Believers of Atlanta as a safe space for non-believers in the heavily evangelical South. BNOA of Chicago, Atlanta, and my group Black Skeptics Los Angeles have prioritized social justice issues like homophobia in the Black Church, HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive justice, and homelessness. Veal and Thomas, along with Ayanna Watson of Black Atheists of America, Debbie Goddard and Jamila Bey of African Americans for Humanism, and Bridgette Gaudette of Secular Woman, are part of a new wave of women of color who head atheist organizations.