Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical by Sikivu Hutchinson, Pitchstone Publishing, April 2020, 135 pp., $14.95 (paperback) / $6.99 (ebook), ISBN 978-1-6343119-8-4 (paperback) / 978-1-6343119-9-1 (ebook). Buy.
This book made me a humanist.
Back in 2009, I co-founded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Secular Students Association (SSA) with Mike Deigan, Kris Wold, and Joy Nichols. Although we didn’t use the term at the time, our mission was a humanist one. We consciously chose to have the “A” represent “Association” instead of the national organization’s “Alliance,” as we felt “Alliance” embodied a sense of conflict that didn’t resonate with us. Instead, we wanted to dedicate the organization to interfaith dialogue and service to fill a gap not only on campus, but in the surrounding community. We promoted events on campus that engaged with secularism, such as a student production of The Spinoza Project, which discusses religious freedom and the separation of church and state. We contextualized events with open dialogue, including an “Ask and Atheist” event across from the “Pit Preacher,” aka Gary Birdsong, who is known for fiery fundamentalist speeches and condemnations that even many Christian students found extreme. We were also aware that new atheist movements were doing very little to provide a social safety net for communities, especially when compared to religious groups like churches and faith-based resource centers, which offer a strong alternative to government assistance. We sent out information about anti-oppression volunteer opportunities and charity events to our members so they could participate as representatives of SSA. In doing so, we hoped to improve the reputation of secular people in an area known for its dogmatic religious beliefs, and to provide an alternative to houses of worship and faith-based organizations.
Gradually, though, my studies took on more priority, and my worsening mental health made participation in student organizations more difficult. As I evaluated which groups I still wanted to go to, I made the difficult decision to stop going to SSA meetings, which I had worked so hard along with the others to establish in the first place. There simply came a point when I felt too alienated as a person of color to keep participating in White spaces that often devolved into attacks on religion. Many atheists at Carolina were formerly involved with Southern Baptism and its rigid dogma; however, many of them did not examine how they replicated the very same dogma, even if they switched their terms and targets. The Whiteness of those spaces and the Whiteness of secularist philosophy ended up making me feel drained rather than restored. So I left.
I’ve never stopped identifying as atheist agnostic1, but, while I found the term “humanist” while I was in college, I never used it for myself. Perhaps it felt too frou-frou for me. It was absent of any framework of radical dismantling of oppression. Sure, there were lofty ideals, but I didn’t see much about actual praxis. And what organizations there were felt so overwhelmingly White that I didn’t even feel like going.
It’s been 11 years since the founding of Carolina’s SSA. In that time, only Humanists in the Hood has managed to reach me and convert me to humanism, precisely because Hutchinson’s intersectional analysis made me feel seen for the first time in a secular space. I’ve been active in various anti-oppression circles, including those fighting racism, cis/sexism, ableism, sizeism, and heteropatriarchy, yet this was the first time I felt acknowledged as a secular person in a religious context. My prior frustration wasn’t an individual one-off that happened at one single university, but was a manifestation of a systematic disparity.
Hutchinson outlines a powerful and compelling argument that humanism cannot be divorced from real-world oppressions, such as racism, sexism, and economic inequality. Modern secularism does itself a disservice when it focuses on reactionary politics and only mobilizes to fight religious encroachments on the state. Instead, Hutchinson argues that humanism must be proactive and stand behind its belief in the equality and value of all human life. Instead of paying lip service to representation and diversity, humanists must invest the actual work in dismantling the institutions that keep humans unequal.
Hutchinson outlines how religion, particularly Christianity, has worked its way into American politics. Through a lens that examines a Black and African American experience of religion and secularism, Hutchinson breaks down how Christianity has allied with the state to perpetuate violence, such as by normalizing violence against women of color. Hutchinson highlights how religion offers a safety net for communities of color that have been neglected by the government. But too often, that safety net often comes at the price of accepting the abuse of powerful figures, particularly men, in the church.
Furthermore, because religion often fills the gap of providing mental healthcare to communities of color, secular people of color are often forced to choose between an ideology at odds with their very identity or getting the help they need. Especially for Black and African Americans, religion has historically and continues to be a way to cope with trauma, including intergenerational trauma. Humanists in the Hood is a difficult read at times, if only because Hutchinson doesn’t whitewash the reality of what people of color, particularly Black people, face in the United States: depressing rates of sexual violence, criminalization, pathologization, poverty, and the psychic toll of navigating interlocking oppressions on a day-to-day basis. Even as she highlights religion’s role in perpetuating injustice, Hutchinson is careful not to attack religion or faith itself, instead focusing her arguments on the praxis, or concrete action that is taken. In fact, Hutchinson includes suggested steps at the end of each chapter to help the reader see and challenge the failings of White secularism.
On top of being an excellent manifesto for a radical vision of humanism, Humanists in the Hood is also one of the best, up-to-date references on Black feminism that I’ve come across. As a millennial who came to a lot of consciousness about oppression through the internet, I’ve often been frustrated by how the history behind ideology gets erased online, most visibly in the lack of citations for the originators of terms and concepts. Those ideas then go on to be co-opted by White feminism, such as what has happened with the #MeToo movement, which Hutchinson uses to illustrate this very dynamic. Humanism in the Hood provides the citations, links, and references to the original sources where concepts like “intersectionality” and “respectability politics” came from (Kimberlé Crenshaw and Elizabeth Higginbotham, respectively). In a society where Black women’s labor is so often devalued and co-opted, Hutchinson’s thorough timelines and meticulous citations offer an invaluable record of history and a roadmap away from that erasure.
Even though Humanists in the Hood is a mere 135 pages long and written in non-academic, accessible language, I still found myself taking a while to read it, simply because Hutchinson expresses so much in such a compact space—it’s truly a marvel; I’ve read books over 400 pages as long that weren’t even half as informative. Rather than try to sum up every one of Hutchinson’s arguments, I’d like to expand on her analysis by providing decolonial and Chinese-American additions.
Hutchinson touches on how Enlightenment-era philosophy shaped contemporary humanism and how ideologies of racial difference are used to justify inhumane acts on people of color; she also notes how the mind–body division found in Christianity undermines the mission of improving the human condition on Earth while one is alive. Hutchinson dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the economic injustice of capitalism and income inequality. Yet, while Hutchinson does mention imperialism in a few places, there is a notable absence of critiques about coloniality. Many of the myths people in the United States have about progress and modernity, including beliefs about the infallibility of science and the vision of the “American Dream,” are rooted in colonialism’s spread over the globe. Capitalism was not always the status quo; racial difference was not always codified into institutional power differences. The United States is not unique in its oppressive beliefs, as the United States is deeply shaped by the same coloniality that took over the world. A thorough understanding of coloniality and decolonization would only advance the cause of an intersectional humanism.
I would also like to expand on Hutchinson’s comments about mental health and religious organizations’ exploitation of worshippers. Mental health is a critical issue in Asian-American communities, where language barriers, cultural barriers, poverty, faith, pseudoscience, and distrust of Western medicine combine to create low rates of people seeking help for psychiatric issues. Financial exploitation of worshippers is not unique to Christianity, either. No more than 20 minutes away from South LA, where Hutchinson’s work is centered, is Rowland Heights, an Asian-American hub. The city is host to one branch of a religious group called Bodhi Meditation.
I can’t claim to know all their inner workings, as I only went to one of their sessions. I found myself disturbed by the focus on the (male) leader Grandmaster Jinbodhi. His words seemed to be sacred in themselves as a video played of worshippers who claimed that various physical ailments had been cast out of their body via meditation, almost like a Christian exorcism: one person claimed that, as she meditated, a ball of energy burst from her body, ridding her of her chronic pain. There was an extensive gift shop attached to the meditation center. Buddhist institutions are no stranger to hosting lavish displays of wealth as religious offerings, and can exploit religious ties to economic injustice just as readily as Christians. Furthermore, while I recognize that the full benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are not yet fully understood, the fact remains that many of the tinctures and remedies are not as efficacious as Western drugs. Still, many immigrant communities, including Asian ones, are suspicious of Western medicine because of its reported side effects. Furthermore, mental health intervention, whether or not it includes medication, is often stigmatized and considered something only White people seek. This web of pressures is yet another manifestation of how religion and faith can be used to control and deprive, and another manifestation of where secular humanism can provide immense value to a community.
Humanists in the Hood is a stellar piece of nonfiction, one that I’d hold up as a prime example of how to make something purportedly high-concept accessible to the masses. For White people wishing to work together toward a humanist vision of the future, Reverse Integration: Helping White America Join the Village by Jay Klusky, Ph.D.2 is an excellent companion to expand this dialogue. In the introduction, Hutchinson notes, “With Humanists in the Hood, I’m writing not only the book that I’ve wanted to read but also the book that I (to quote [Alice] Walker) should have been able to read.” (24, emphasis in original) This is also the book I should have been able to read while organizing in college, the book that would have provided the tools I needed to critique and resist the discomfort I felt in White secular spaces. But Hutchinson notes in the conclusion that it will be Millennials and Gen Zers of color who will change the discourse around humanism in the United States. I’m proud to say that, as a Millennial of color, Humanists in the Hood has resonated with me. I will be sure to pass it on to others so they, too, can be seen and work toward a better future for all humankind.
1 Which is not a contradiction. For me, “atheism” means a lack of belief in a god or gods, while “agnosticism” represents the belief that human beings are inherently limited and cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods, thus a- and gnosis, for “knowledge.”
2 Interestingly enough, Dr. Jay Klusky credits Dr. Joy DeGruy as one of his closest friends and as an invaluable cultural consultant. Sikivu Hutchinson cites Dr. Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing in her analysis. Small humanist world.