My first memory of attending a political protest was with my father, after a woman named Eulia Love was murdered by two Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers in 1979 in South Central Los Angeles. Love was gunned down after allegedly threatening the officers with a butcher knife. The killing elicited a firestorm in the African American community, which was still reeling from the 1965 Watts Rebellion. What stood out for me as a child was the fact that this was a black woman victim, a mother, killed in cold blood at her own house. Home was supposed to be a safe space and a private sanctuary. It was what every proper, moral girl aspired to keep. In the white popular imagination, home was the maternal blur of Ozzie and Harriet reruns, the dayglow of the über-blond Brady Bunch, the toasty smell of Donna Reed’s oven. Home was supposed to be immune to outside forces; a preserve guarded by those that were sworn to protect and serve, like the strapping officers from L.A.’s finest who pumped several rounds into Love’s body as she lay on the ground.
Love was killed on the watch of infamous LAPD Chief Darryl Gates, the Bull Connor of the Wild West. Gates used battering rams to ransack poor neighborhoods and once stated that blacks didn’t respond to chokeholds like “normal people.” Normal people meant white people, the gold standard for human biology, culture, and civilization. Guilty until proven innocent, black people weren’t normal because they didn’t have homes, families, or children worth protecting.
The idea of home as safe space and private sanctuary has always been paradoxical for black women. As poster children for bad motherhood and vilified as Jezebels from slavery to the 1965 Moynihan report to the 2009 film Precious, black women could never serve up America’s apple pie unless they borrowed Aunt Jemima’s head scarf. Historically, black women have never been considered fully human or fully female. This regime of sexual terrorism was established under slavery, nourished in the lap of a “Christian” nation, and codified by its secular Constitution. In this brave new world of “liberty and justice for all,” only black women’s bodies could produce new slaves: “Children got by an Englishman upon a negro woman shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother, and if any Christian shall commit fornication with a negro man or woman he shall pay double the fines of the former act.“*
Racial slavery in the United States was institutionalized on the backs and in the wombs of black women. Black women were brought to this country to work and continue (despite the myth of the shiftless welfare queen) to have the highest workforce representation amongst all groups of women. When the GOP propagandizes about the repeal of workfare requirements or demonizes Obama as the “food stamp” president, black women’s bodies are its symbolic shorthand. When racist demagogues howl about anchor babies, breeder illegal aliens, and “English Only” mandates, all communities of color are criminalized. When Voter ID laws disenfranchise an already diminished black and Latino electorate, separate and unequal will continue to give the lie to American exceptionalism. This is the reality that radical humanist feminism must pivot on—for the misogynist evangelical backlash against civil rights and women’s rights poses the gravest threat to women of color.
In his book African American Humanist Principles, Anthony Pinn writes:
European humanism and white American humanism develop under the assumption of human worth and integrity. That is to say, these two modalities of humanism emerge in light of an assumed value and worth. They develop as the “surface” of Renaissance and Enlightenment confidence. Yet, for those of African descent it is a different story. They are the underbelly of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in that the advances that shape these two periods occur in part because of the slave trade, and the overdetermination and dehumanization of Africans. Mindful of this, one can safely say African American humanism is a reaction against modernity and its ramifications. The “freedom” upon which modernity rests…was not meant for Africans; rather African bodies provided the raw material for this freedom.
The terms Christian and white become synonymous with the advent of slavery. Post-Reconstruction, the categories “Christian,” “civilized,” and “rational” were increasingly yoked together in the evolutionary discourse of American capitalism, imperialism, scientific discovery, and military conquest of “savage” peoples in heathen lands. In the twentieth century, these savage peoples were African Americans living in “ghettoes” created by decades of discriminatory federal housing, lending, transportation, and development policies. Police “brutality” victims like Eulia Love, Eleanor Bumpurs, Margaret Mitchell, seven-year-old Aiyanna Jones, and Alessia Thomas were all deemed to be expendable. Following the militant example of anti-lynching activist-writer Ida B. Wells, resisting police-state suppression and protecting black people’s lives have always been critical to black feminism. During the late nineteenth century, Wells was the first journalist to challenge the racist and sexist implications of lynching in a global campaign. In her editorials she consistently blasted the hypocrisy of white savagery against black men accused of raping white women and exposed the long history of black female sexual exploitation by white men. But Wells was marginalized by the white-dominated women’s movement. Her efforts to link sexual terrorism against black women with racist public policy and white supremacist mores that deemed black women un-rapable—and white women pure innocent virgins in need of protection from black “beast rapists”—were rejected by white feminists who either subscribed to these views or believed that simply gaining the vote would be the magic bullet for all social inequities.
The legacy of this race/sex/class dialectic drove a wedge between black feminism and the women’s movement from the suffrage era to the present. Prominent black feminist historians such as Rosalyn Terborg Penn, Patricia Hill Collins, Paula Giddings, and bell hooks have chronicled the racism, paternalism, xenophobia, and mistrust that fatally undermined alliances between women of color and white women. These divisions pivoted on fundamental differences between black and white women’s relationship to notions of femininity, work, morality, and American national identity.
Thus, as one blogger at the website Racialious wrote about racist media portrayals of Michelle Obama, “The so-called feminine ideal is a tyranny to all women, but it is white women who stand as its embodiment. In the public consciousness, black women are almost never the most beautiful ones or the good wives or mothers.” Speaking on the issue of silence and sexual assault in Aishah Shahidah Simmons’s film No! Confronting Sexual Assault in Our Community, Elaine Brown, former chair of the Black Panther Party, acidly proclaimed “White women have always been Miss Ann. We (Black women) have never been Miss Ann.” Being Miss Ann means being the face of civilized heterosexual feminine innocence. It means being forgiven and rewarded for “immoral” “sluttish” behavior like Bristol Palin (knocked up out of wedlock and raking in the ducats with two reality shows), being the missing white girl that gets the headlines, or being anointed feminist spokesperson, a la Hillary Clinton, for “women’s” issues despite racist pandering to white worki
ng-class voters during the 2008 presidential campaign.
On the secular tip, being Miss Ann means that feminism begins and ends with religious tyranny, birth control, abortion, and, sometimes, equal pay for equal work rather than reproductive, social, and economic justice, a framework for liberation, not reform. This won’t cut it if humanist feminism is to have any political or cultural relevance for young women of color. The highschool students in my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) feminist mentoring program challenge and redefine what culturally relevant humanism looks like on a daily basis through their resistance against racist sexist expectations. Students like ronmely Andrade were never among the Talented Tenth expected to go on to college. ronmely was headed to the military after graduation, swayed by the Marines’ relentless on-campus recruitment campaign. A gifted speaker and presenter, she later expressed misgivings about going to boot camp and training for a career as a mechanic. Pressured by the recruiter to attend boot camp, I helped guide her through the process of withdrawing. She is now in her first year at community college. While predominantly black and Latino schools in South and East L.A. are besieged by military recruiters, the more affluent white schools get the college recruiters, college prep classes, and highly qualified teachers. For example, in the Los Angeles unified School District, militaryrun Junior reserve Officer Training Corps or JrOTC programs (which are not college preparatory) are overwhelmingly located in black and Latino schools. Thus, in an era of educational apartheid, the Americana fever pitch of the Army, navy, Air Force, and Marines is minimal on affluent campuses. It is a given that most students at these schools will be going on to college, not dying on the front lines.
Ronmely is an agnostic from a Catholic background and works long hours at Jack in the Box to help support her family. She is a natural-born leader who exudes a steely poise and control in front of students that are often hostile to hearing about sexual violence from assertive young women of color. I have been an admirer of her fierceness ever since she started the program. When I was her age no one ever came to our classrooms to talk to us about sexual violence or sexual harassment. Even though many of us were being sexually harassed or assaulted daily by peers, predator teachers, and relatives, there was no engagement with the role this played in our sense of self-image and life expectations. There was no feminist youth movement to address misogyny and internalized sexism in communities of color. Criminalized as “ho” super-sluts, women of color weren’t true victims of sexual violence. It was accepted that we should remain silent about our victimization, lest we be smeared as uppity castrating bitches detracting from the “real” issue of the brutalization of men of color.
Criticizing these double standards in a WLP blog about reproductive justice, twelfth-grader Brenda Briones wrote,
I have heard many Latino fathers brag about their promiscuous sons. I have never heard a Latino parent brag about a promiscuous daughter. In accordance with their Catholic or Christian beliefs, “good daughters” are expected to stay virgins until marriage. This double standard makes boys think that young women are sexual objects that can be used to prove to the world that they are “true players.” When we as a community, uphold these views, we tell young women that their value is rooted in their sexuality and not their talents or intellect.
A talented writer with a high grade point average, Brenda is attending a community college instead of a more expensive four-year university like University of California, Los Angeles because she is undocumented and does not qualify for federal financial aid. However, since the California Dream Act allows undocumented youth to apply for in-state tuition, she is one of the luckier ones. With the guidance of WLP Program Coordinator Diane Arellano, an atheist and undocumented youth advocate, Brenda is a budding activist for college-bound undocumented youth.
Yet many youth of color, citizen and undocumented, have not been encouraged to pursue college. They and their communities are expendable, grist for a prison pipeline that has become the largest in the so-called first world. These conditions didn’t exist during the Darryl Gates era, or even Ida B. Wells’s time of Jim Crow apartheid. But a feminism that cleaves to Wells’s legacy means that the struggle against mass incarceration is not separate from the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy or have access to a living-wage/benefited job or live free from sexual violence. It is not separate from the radical task of humanizing Eulia Love and freeing Jezebel from the plantation, once and for all.
* “Virginia Slave Laws: The nativity Conditions of Slavery,” in The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619, ed. William W. Hening (new York and Philadelphia: 1819–1823) II, p. 170.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Infidel Books, 2011). This is an excerpt from her forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (Infidel Books, 2012).