The black body has always been an object of deep and abiding obsession in the American imagination. Be it cavorting with “funky” abandon on a dance floor, vaulting off a basketball court in dunk mode, suckling apple-cheeked white babies, trotted out in a police lineup, or greased down, poked, prodded, and displayed on a slave auction block, the black body occupies that mystical place between corporeality and supernaturalism.
Recently, Ernest Perce V, the Pennsylvania state director for American Atheists—a predominantly white group with a largely white leadership—slapped up a billboard in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, neighborhood featuring a picture of a shackled, naked black slave and a Bible quote that said “slaves obey your masters.” The ad was intended to protest Pennsylvania’s boneheaded declaration of 2012 as the so-called Year of the Bible. Much to the “astonishment” of the organization’s representatives, the billboard was reviled, defaced, and labeled a hate crime by some in the African American community. A complaint was filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. According to the Patriot-News, Harrisburg resident Aaron Selvey said, “If this had been Detroit, there would have been a riot.” Apparently offended black folk just weren’t intelligent enough to grasp the sage lesson that American Atheists, prominent champion of antiracist social justice, was trying to teach them. Instead, some “misconstrued” the message as racist, concluding that, in a country where white nationalists have issued a clarion call to take back the nation from the Negro savage/illegal alien in the White House, “slaves obey your masters” probably still means them.
In the 2002 documentary Race—The Power of an Illusion, Harvard science historian Evelynn Hammonds discusses how much of nineteenth-century scientific inquiry on racial difference revolved around black bodies:
If we just take African Americans as an example, there’s not a single body part that hasn’t been subjected to this kind of analysis. You’ll find articles in the medical literature about the Negro ear, and the Negro nose, and the Negro leg, and the Negro heart, and the Negro eye, and the Negro foot—and it’s every single body part. And they’re constantly looking for some organ that might be so fundamentally different in size and character that you can say this is something specific to the Negro versus whites and other groups. Scientists are part of their social context. Their ideas about what race is are not simply scientific ones, are not simply driven by the data that they are working with. That it’s also informed by the societies in which they live.
Hammonds underscores the political “invention” of the black body through the lens of scientific objectivity. The legacies of slavery and scientific research dovetailed with the popular display of black bodies as the ultimate sites of racial otherness. These legacies shape the experience of walking, driving, and breathing “while black.” They inform the terror of being a carefree teenager out for a casual stroll in the kind of private gated community where seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February by a white Hispanic neighborhood watch captain in Orlando, Florida. The case made national headlines due to the “curious” fact that three weeks after the murder, the shooter, George Zimmerman (who claimed he was acting in self-defense) was not immediately charged. According to Trayvon’s family, he was found with candy and iced tea on his body. Under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, people who believe they are being threatened can use deadly force to defend themselves without retreating first. Trayvon’s killing is an all too familiar outrage in a nation where black men from Los Angeles to New York have historically been victimized by racist police who shoot first and ask questions later.
Black bodies have always been political texts violently bound by secular laws. Thus the ahistorical, paternalistic approach to “secular” public-service messaging seen in the Harrisburg billboard case is one of the main reasons “new atheism” is still racially segregated and lily-white. Clearly the atheists behind it don’t give a damn about the reality of urban communities of color in the United States vis-à-vis the institutional role of organized religion in a white supremacist capitalist context. In my book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I ground my critique of American religiosity in the social history of residential segregation and the cultural context of actual black communities. Northern and Midwestern cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee rank among the top ten most segregated cities in the United States. All those churches that white folk have the luxury of not seeing because they’re in the segregated black neighborhoods they bypass on the expressway aren’t there because blacks are ignorant, backward neo-slaves; they’re there in part because urban retail, commercial, and green space development is moribund in the so-called ghetto. Take a ten-minute drive from “South Central” Los Angeles (a racist misnomer used to ghettoize any predominantly black neighborhood in Los Angeles regardless of geographic location) to predominantly white West Los Angeles. The storefront churches, liquor stores, check-cashing places, and bail-bond offices vanish while parks, schools, grocery stores, businesses, office parks, and retail centers proliferate.
So is American Atheists on the front lines of providing prisoner reentry resources—the real regime of twenty-first century “enslavement” for millions of African Americans—to families and communities that are permanently locked out of the so-called American dream due to the legal disenfranchisement of former convicted felons in employment, housing, and voting? Did they even deign to consult with local interfaith and secular, humanist, or atheist people of color about the cultural and psychological impact of the legacy of slavery in a nation where black bodies are still the primary targets of violent police suppression, racist criminal sentencing and capital punishment? Of course not. As I wrote in my 2009 article “The White Stuff”:
It’s cartoonishly pro forma when white folk, ignorant of these historical traditions, swaggeringly insist that atheist discourse is implicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist because one, we white people say so, and, two, hierarchy is something only those knuckle-dragging supernaturalists do. It’s paint-by-the-numbers entitlement time when the so-called new atheist “movement” is resistant to the charge that racial and gender politics just might inform who achieves visibility and which issues are privileged in the broader context of skeptical discourse. It’s not PC to point out that traditions of scientific racism, secularism, and Judeo Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West’s enlightened history.
In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass contended that “revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand together.” Douglass prefaced his critique by contrasting the corrupt Christianity of a slaveholding nation and the so-called benevolent “Christianity of Christ” practiced by African slaves in the liberation struggle. Yet he was also critical of the hypocrisy of a nation that rationalized slavery based on secular Enlightenment ideologies of individual liberty and democratic citizenship for white men. Slaves and the descendants of slaves gathered, organized, mobilized, and resisted white supremacy in church communities because they were and continue to be some of the only socioeconomic, political, and cultural spaces widely available to black people. Post-racialists say that’s past history, pimping the delusion that “we” can all lock arms in Kumbaya and move on, slamming by on the expressway out of the “inner city.”
It’s a travesty that Douglass, one of the greatest philosophers of the criminalization of the black body, would have chewed up and spit out—but of course Douglass wasn’t on that billboard.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Infidel Books, 2011) and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (Infidel Books). She is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles. A previous version of this article appeared on Freethought Blogs.