Respectability Among Heathens: Black Feminist Atheist Humanists

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By Sikivu Hutchinson

After a barnstorming night of raunchy revelry, the four black women protagonists in the 2017 Hollywood comedy Girls Trip cap off their adventures with a group shout out to Jesus in their hotel room.  Kneeling down in prayer, they thank Jesus and trot out their blessings.  The scene is presumably intended as an antidote and winking mea culpa for the scandalous no holds barred behavior the women indulged in moments before.  Girls Trip raked in over 50 million at the box office and was hailed as the first black women’s film to shatter the glass ceiling of white male dominance in comedy.  Yet, in a movie that aspires to “bust stereotypes” and upend black respectability politics, the prayer scene is a clunky reminder of how faith is used as shorthand for the black female experience.  While Girls Trip superficially challenges certain conventions of heterosexual gender politics, its faith-based respectability politics are a not so subtle caveat to black women that failing to give props to God is unacceptable when it comes to expressions of black female identity.

Scholar Elizabeth Higginbotham first coined the term “the politics of respectability” in reference to confining social mores and cultural conventions that were imposed on the black masses, often by middle class African Americans.[i]  Higginbotham argued that the politics of respectability “disavowed, in often repressive ways, much of the expressive culture of the folk.”  Here, “respectability” domesticates or sanitizes black expressivity in service to bourgeois class norms that would ostensibly make blacks more palatable to mainstream white America.[ii]  Over the past decade, respectability politics have frequently been cited by writers, activists and artists as an insidious influence on black folk vis-à-vis higher education, politics, state violence and popular culture.  Nonetheless, there has been very little commentary on the role respectability plays when it comes to the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and secularism among African American women.  For example, despite the much vaunted rise of so-called religiously unaffiliated “nones” in the U.S., pop culture portrayals of non-theist or secular views in African American communities are few and far between.[iii] 

Pop culture is a reliable guide to the ubiquity of religious dogma in the African American community in general and among African American women in particular. From the prevalence of black luminaries thanking Jesus at awards shows to caricatures of Bible-thumping, scripture-spewing black women characters in Tyler Perry films to the OWN network’s popular black church family drama Greenleaf, representations of faith are a booming business in black America. 

For African Americans, faith is a deeply public cultural affair, borne of centuries of struggle, segregation, and strife. Because of racial segregation and white supremacy, black churches became an epicenter of African American solidarity, civil rights organizing, and civic engagement.  They remain vital to many African American communities because of black economic disenfranchisement and the intractability of institutional racism in housing, employment, and education.  Of course, black women have always been essential to leadership in black churches but continue to be eclipsed by a male dominated leadership steeped in patriarchal Christian notions about controlling black women’s self-determination, sexuality, and roles in the family. Historically, the plight of black women pastors “was intensified by the fact that the church has traditionally been the primary vehicle for black men to exercise both religious and political power.”[iv]

According to the Pew Religion Research Forum and the Kaiser Foundation, 87% of African Americans are religious, making African Americans among the most religious communities in the U.S.[v]  As the Kaiser Foundation survey notes, “in times of turmoil, about 87 percent of black women — much more than any other group — say they turn to their faith to get through.”[vi]  A majority of black women go to church on a regular basis, read the bible on a regular basis, and tithe a significant portion of their incomes to churches and faith-based institutions.[vii] 

According to Kaiser, faith is of a higher priority to black women than having children or getting married.  It is the glue that holds the lives of many black women together, often substituting for more traditional therapeutic approaches practiced by the Western medical establishment.  By contrast, a 2014 Pew survey indicated that while 18% of African Americans were religiously unaffiliated (or “nones”) a miniscule 2% identified as atheists or agnostics.[viii]  A majority of African Americans nones (a category that includes those who consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious”) believe in God (57%), heaven (67%) and hell (51%).[ix]  Not surprisingly, more African American men (56%) than women (44%) identified as religiously unaffiliated.

  Thus, in addition to longstanding cultural religious traditions in the African American community which stretch back to slavery, black women’s economic status is a primary factor in their high level of religious observance.  Moreover, black women have the lowest proportion of household wealth in the U.S., possessing only pennies to the dollar of white families.  In a Forbes magazine article entitled “Black, Female and Broke”, Maya Rockeymoore noted, “Single black women, for example, own only $200 in median wealth compared to $15,640 for single white women. Those with children have a median wealth of $0 compared to $14,600 for single white women.”[x] Even more damningly, although black women have some of the highest workforce participation and college-going rates among women in the U.S., these factors have not contributed to commensurate increases in wealth.  For example, according to a 2017 study by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center, “Single white women without a degree have $3000 more in wealth than single black women with a degree.”[xi]  Single white women with bachelor’s degrees have seven times the wealth of single black women with bachelor’s degrees.[xii]  Not surprisingly, these disparities increase with marriage.  Married black women with bachelor’s degrees have five times less wealth than married white women with bachelor’s degrees.[xiii]

Thus, on every demographic indicator, black women fare significantly worse than white women in wealth accumulation.  Age, educational level and marital status did not equalize their access to wealth relative to white women.  Wealth accumulation is strongly influenced by residential and housing patterns.  Because black women of all classes live in disproportionately segregated communities with high levels of poverty and transience they have less access to the home equity that constitutes the primary source of American wealth.  As a result, white women’s across the board advantages vis-à-vis black women is rooted in the intersectional privilege of race and class.  White women have historically had the advantage of “intergenerational transfers like financing a college education, providing help with the down payment on a house and other gifts to seed asset accumulation (that) are central sources of wealth building.”[xiv]

Consequently, gaping wealth and income disparities between African American women and white women play a key role in shaping high levels of religious observance among black women.  Black women’s relatively high levels of education also belie the reductive claim that their lack of education is a primary factor in their devoutness.

Over the past decade, more data has emerged about gender and sexual diversity in African American communities.  These demographic shifts further challenge single variable and hetero-normative analyses of black female religiosity.[xv]  According to the Pew Research Forum, African Americans and other people of color are more likely to identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual than are whites.[xvi]  A study by researchers associated with UCLA’s Williams Institute concluded that black LGBTQ folk have higher levels of religious observance than LGBTQ whites.[xvii]  This seemingly counterintuitive pattern may be due to the foundational support provided by non-traditional or non-denominational churches to queer black folk (although the study also noted that a large number of LGBTQ folk of color reported attending churches that weren’t supportive).  In addition, African American LGBTQ families are more likely to have children than their white counterparts, perhaps making access to the resources and social services that faith-based institutions provide even more critical.  Black and Latino LGBTQ folk are also more likely to live at or near the poverty line.  And black trans women have some of the lowest incomes and highest risk of being victimized by sexual and intimate partner violence—factors which contribute to long term economic instability and poor health outcomes.

Attention to the material and socioeconomic conditions of straight, queer and trans black women’s lives rarely inform mainstream considerations about their receptiveness, or lack thereof, to non-theism, secularism and humanism.  In a highly religious cultural and national context, the barriers to embracing an explicitly non-religious and non-spiritual ethos are especially challenging for black women.  As the not-so irreverent Girls Trip protagonists attest, being perceived as a good soldier for Jesus is practically a prerequisite for establishing authentic straight black hetero-normative femininity.

Again, the absence of portrayals of black women or women of color secularists in mainstream media, art and politics contributes to this vacuum in real life representation. Black female faith in god becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as “art imitates life imitates art.”  Questions about gender, sexuality, family, heterosexual relationships, motherhood, home, and work are invariably filtered through a faith-based, spiritual or religious lens.  Even portrayals that highlight the pitfalls of organized religion still promote certitude about and belief in god(s) as an essential, redeeming life force.[xviii]  In these narratives, the flaws of organized religion and the Black Church are implicitly contrasted with having unmediated access to God’s benevolent and affirming influence (as signified by the increasingly popular declaration that one is “spiritual” not religious). 

While spiritualism may be a refuge for black women recovering from organized religion, religious melodramas remain hugely popular with black audiences.  Inspired by Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes’ successful line of faith-based morality tale films, a cottage industry of independently produced, straight to DVD “urban” (generally a euphemism for black) Christian films has sprung up over the past decade.  Often featuring black women protagonists grappling with a moral crisis which puts them on the inevitable road to redemption through God, this popular sub-genre has heavy rotation on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.  The bustling market of urban Christian films (in a genre that has proven to be globally profitable), underscores how problematic the climate is for black films that have an explicitly secular message or theme.

Mindful of this, I shot a film version of my 2015 novel White Nights, Black Paradise, which features perhaps the first narrative film portrayal of a black atheist lesbian protagonist.  The film focuses on the interlocking lives of a multigenerational group of black women members of San Francisco’s Peoples Temple church, which was founded by the Reverend Jim Jones in the 1950s.  It chronicles the events leading up to the Temple’s demise in the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana massacre.  Pushing back against respectability is a recurring theme in the development of the identities, politics and relationships of the film’s characters.  Each woman rejects orthodoxies of religion and culture in pursuit of a more radical vision of self and community.  The question of what constitutes authentic black community, given decades of de facto segregation in the so-called Promised Land of California/the North, informs the lead character Taryn Strayer’s ambivalent attraction to the secularized, activist Temple.  Insofar as the Temple questioned the white supremacist foundations of Judeo Christian religion it was a radical alternative to mainstream black churches and a diverse community for folks from all walks of life.  In the novel and film, Jonestown (intended as an independent agricultural settlement) also functions as a platform for allowing black women to fulfill the revolutionary possibility of building a multiracial society outside of the capitalist U.S.  Its promise sprang from the diasporic hopes and dreams of African descent black folk whose desire for a homeland free from white terrorism fueled by the Great Migration.  In the end, the failure of Jonestown was also a cautionary tale about idolatry, as Jones, the self-proclaimed Marxist atheist, required his parishioners to bow down to him instead of the Judeo Christian god.

Ultimately, respectability politics, in service to white supremacy, was one of the factors that prevented Peoples Temple from being a site of genuine revolutionary struggle and change.  The white leadership largely excluded the black rank and file who sustained the Temple and Jonestown.  In this regard, Peoples Temple was a microcosm of the fractious racial politics of the second wave women’s movement, as well as a brand of secular feminism that quietly looked askance at traditional religious institutions.  Yet, while white women had greater luxury to be openly scornful of organized religion and false prophets, black women risked social ostracism and policing about their morals.

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Twitter @sikivuhutchwww.sikivuhutchinson.com
Author, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars White Nights, Black Paradise  a novel and play on Peoples Temple & the Jonestown Massacre    

Originally published in Humanism and the Challenge of Difference, 2018


ENDNOTES

[i] Elizabeth Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 251-274.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] According to the Pew Research Center, “Religious ‘nones’ – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population…a stark increase from 2007.” Michael Lipka, “A Closer Look at America’s Rapidly Growing Nones,” Pew Research Center, May 13, 2015 (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/.

[iv]Ari Goldman, “Black Women’s Bumpy Path to Church Leadership,” The New York Times, 1990 (http://www.nytimes.com/1990/07/29/nyregion/black-women-s-bumpy-path-to-church-leadership.html?pagewanted=all&mcubz=1); It’s estimated that black women comprise between one and four percent of black clergy. See Sandra Barnes, “The Alpha and Omega of Our People: A Sociological Examination of the Promise and Problems in the Black Church,” in Juan Battle, Free at Last, Black America in the Twenty First Century (Routledge: New York, 2006), pp. 149-172.

[v] Pew Religion Research Forum, “A Religious Portrait of African Americans,” January 23, 2009 (http://www.pewforum.org/2009/01/30/a-religious-portrait-of-african-americans/).

[vi] Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll of Black Women in America (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/nation/black-women-in-america/)

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Pew Research Forum, “Religious Composition of Blacks,” (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/racial-and-ethnic-composition/black/), 2014.

[ix] Pew Research Forum, “Blacks Who Are Unaffiliated (Religious Nones),” (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/unaffiliated-religious-nones/racial-and-ethnic-composition/black/) 2014.

[x] Maya Rockeymoore, “Black Female and Broke,” Forbes Magazine, 2017(https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetnovack/2015/09/30/black-female-and-broke/).

[xi]Khan Jaw, et al. “Women, Race and Wealth,” Volume 1, January 2017, Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Equity and Insight Center for Community Economic Development, 1( https://www.insightcced.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/January2017_ResearchBriefSeries_WomenRaceWealth-Volume1-Pages-1.pdf).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 3.

[xv] The term “single variable” refers to traditional analytical approaches that do not consider the multiple factors informing identify formation, social development and subjectivity.  Single-variable is the opposite of intersectional approaches which frame identity formation, et al. through a dynamic lens which is more inclusive of non-dominant communities.

[xvi] Pew Research Center, “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” June 2013 (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans/).

[xvii]David M. Barnes and Ilan H. Meyer, “Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Volume 82, Issue 4, October 2012, 505–515.

[xviii] Recent depictions that are critical of certain elements of the Black Church (e.g., homophobia, sexual predation, prosperity gospel exploitation) such as the 2016 TV series Greenleaf and the 2012 film The Undershepherd come to mind.

About the Author Karen Garst

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