Thursday, August 25, 2011
By Norm R. Allen Jr.
No, this is not a flashback to the days of strict racial segregation in South Africa. Rather, it is a call for an end to what is known as gender apartheid, sexual apartheid, or, as I like to call it, gender Jim Crow.
Strict separation of the sexes is often forced upon women by patriarchal men, more often than not in the name of “protecting” the “weaker sex.” This problem is most obvious among reactionary Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Under Orthodox Judaism, especially among the Hasidic sect, women are assigned inferior positions to men. In Israel, there are about 60 buses that segregate the sexes. In Jerusalem, the number 56 bus travels through a conservative Jewish neighborhood on the east side. Men are permitted to sit up front, but women are required to board through the center door and sit at the back of the bus.
Throughout the United States, Muslims are segregated by sex. In Minnesota, men and women routinely pray in separate areas in various mosques. In her 1997 book, Little X: Growing up in the Nation of Islam, Sonsyrea Tate wrote about her dissatisfaction with the gender Jim Crow of the NOI. The sexism was so strong, it caused her brother to remark, “This ain’t Islam. This is Hislam.”
In Toronto, Ontario, there is a full-blown controversy involving Muslim students at public schools. Muslims are permitted to gather for prayer. However, girls who are menstruating may not participate in the prayer sessions. Rather, they are forced to sit in the back and merely observe.
In Christianity, Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians practice gender Jim Crow. In the churches, men sit on the right side, near the Christ statue, while women sit on the left side, near the Mary statue.
On January 5, 2003, Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) debated Hassanain Rajabali, a Muslim, at the Islamic Institute of New York, in Woodside, New York. The topic was “Does God Not Exist?” The men and women in the audience were segregated by sex.
This raises the question: What is the proper response to gender Jim Crow? During apartheid in South Africa, Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, Jesse Jackson, and other African American anti-apartheid activists pushed for strong action against the apartheid regime. However, conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell advocated “constructive engagement” with the White rulers.
Sun City, South Africa, then, as now, was a major destination for wealthy tourists. Many major music acts played there for the large sums of money they could make. However, other musicians accused them of selling out and harming anti-apartheid efforts. This prompted musicians Little Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and others to release the record “Sun City” calling for musicians to boycott the resort.
Similarly, anti-gender Jim Crow activists should oppose the practice whenever and wherever girls and women are being harmed by it. However, is it always wrong for the sexes to separate?
In nations such as Japan, Egypt, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, and Dubai, some passenger trains have separate cars for women. This has come as a result of complaints from women of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Japan has had such cars since the early part of the 20th century. However, in Japan, segregated cars, public education, and stiffer jail sentences have not helped. On the contrary, the sexual harassment and sexual assaults have actually increased there in recent years.
What about separate schools? Some educators believe that separating the sexes makes for better education for both sexes. There are many examples of all male or all female educational institutions with great success and high graduation rates. Similarly, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have played major roles in educating African Americans. However, many scholars insist that the jury is still out on whether separating the sexes in education is mostly beneficial.
Malcolm X made the distinction between separation and segregation. Separation is a choice that could be beneficial to those seeking it. However, segregation is forced upon people in an effort to elevate one group above another. For purposes of this discussion, women might seek to form separate groups to elevate themselves, oppose patriarchy, etc. However, when men seek to impose gender Jim Crow by forcing females to dress a certain way, sit at the back of the bus, pray in the basement, use inferior facilities, all good people must rise up against such unjust behavior. It does women no good when anyone tries to rationalize gender Jim Crow in the name of God or anything else.
Norm Allen is the author of African American Humanism and the Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
One of my great regrets as a full-time secular humanist activist is that I never started my proposed pamphlet of quotations from African American women non-theists. Compared to when I first became involved with organized humanism, there are quite a few African American women that have come out of the closet and are eager and willing to make their voices heard.
Why not begin with Sikivu Hutchinson of the Black Skeptics? Hutchinson is the author of the excellent book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. She has taken an impressive leadership role with the Black Skeptics. Her strong focus upon feminism, LGBT rights, and other progressive causes makes her refreshing among Black women non-theists.
Hutchinson and other Black women non-theists are able and willing to critique biblically based patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny in ways their religious counterparts never would. (NEWS FLASH: The biblical writers were primarily patriarchs living in a rigidly patriarchal society. How could biblical teachings regarding women not be sexist to the core?) Hutchinson has demonstrated that paradoxically, the same Bible that gives so many Black women solace is the same book that is responsible for so much of the suffering from which they seek solace. That is to say, the Bible causes the sickness and then suggests a cure.
Debbie Goddard has taken an active leadership role in organized humanism for quite some time. Even during high school she founded a philosophy group that appealed to atheists. While at Temple University she started a freethought group, and she eventually became a major leader in campus outreach throughout the U.S.
Goddard is an “out” lesbian that has been engaged in LGBT activism. She now heads African Americans for Humanism (AAH), the organization I founded in 1989. She and I shared offices near one another for many years, and we were usually the last ones to leave the building. It seems unlikely that anyone in the humanist movement has a stronger work ethic than Goddard.
Ayanna Watson heads the Black Atheists of America. She has conducted and broadcast interviews with Black atheists from all over the U.S. She has made her thoughts known on You Tube. She hosted a conference in New York. She has generated much controversy as a result of her biblical critiques.
Elayne Jones was one of the first African American tympani players with a major U.S. symphony. She rejected religion as a young adult and sought a sense of community with the Ethical Society. She has strong roots in Barbados, and she and I made attempts to start a humanist group there. Jones started a humanist group in a retirement community in Walnut Creek, California, where she has lived for several years.
Crystal Coleman was actively involved with the Black American Freethought Association (BAFTA) headquartered in Albany, New York. Coleman worked closely with McKinley Jones, the group’s founder. Coleman and Jones did research to uncover the history of Black American humanists in the Civil Rights movement.
Jamila Bey of Washington, D.C. has become a major humanist spokesperson in recent years. Bey has written about the need for African American women to come out of the closet and openly acknowledge their unbelief. She has spoken at conferences in Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Boston (at Harvard), and other cities. She has been featured on major radio programs, including National Public Radio with me.
Mercedes Diane Griffin is the former managing director of the Institute for Humanist Studies. She writes a blog titled “Unscripted.” She is attempting to attract more African Americans, women, LGBT people, and young people to organized humanism. Her outreach includes combating HIV/AIDS among African Americans, in particular. For Griffin, an emphasis upon social justice will do far more to attract African Americans to humanism than mere atheism or scientific issues. As a full-time African American humanist activist, like Goddard, she is in rare company.
Carolyn M. Dejoie is a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a former Catholic, who, out of a sense of frustration and a need for community, joined the Unitarian Universalist Society. Later, she founded the Secular Humanist Society of Madison, Wisconsin and networked with like-minded people throughout the U.S. She might have been the first African American woman to have established such a group.
Last, but not least, is the atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali, a Somali author and activist, now lives in the U.S. She has written such books as Infidel, in which she castigates Muslims and glorifies Western civilization. Not surprisingly, she was warmly embraced by the Bush administration and the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute. Still, her critiques of Islam have often been on the money.
I hope to one day start and finish my proposed pamphlet for African American women non-theists. Meanwhile, let’s honor these women and hope that, soon, Women’s Studies scholars will do likewise.
Friday, August 5, 2011
By D. Frederick Sparks
While white atheist characters have been far from a mainstay in popular television and film, the list of fictitious white atheists in television and film include Eleanor Anne Arroway in the movie Contact, Michael Stivic on the celebrated sitcom All in the Family, Gregory House on the medical drama House, Mr. Big on Sex and The City, Brenda Chenowith on Six Feet Under, Tyler Durden in the film Fight Club, and a least a dozen others. Portrayals of black atheists have been even fewer and further between.
Carl Dixon, played by venerable actor Moses Gunn, appeared in Season 4 of the popular 70s urban sitcom Good Times, which focused on the Evans family and their struggles in the projects of Chicago. Carl employed Michael Evans, the youngest son of Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), at his repair shop. Florida is shocked when Michael reveals to her that, like Dixon, he does not believe in God. When Florida tells Michael that there is a loving, merciful God, Michael replies “If He’s so merciful why we are still living in the ghetto?” After confronting Dixon and convincing him that an impressionable Michael is probably parroting Dixon’s nonbelief, Dixon tells Michael that he need not be an atheist in order for the two to be friends. In true sitcom fashion, the intelligent Michael’s skepticism automatically evaporates.
Dixon, a war veteran and responsible business owner, eventually falls in love with and marries Florida Evans. Rolle left the show after the end of Season 4 over dissatisfaction with the buffoonish portrayal of Jimmie Walker’s character J.J., and the characters of Florida and Carl were referred to as having moved to Arizona. When Rolle returned for the show’s final 6th season, part of her demands were that the Dixon character be written off because Rolle felt it was inconsistent that a woman with such strong Christian convictions as Florida would ever marry an atheist man. Dixon was never referred to again.
Ice Cube’s character DoughBoy in John Singleton’s hit 1991 film Boyz in The Hood presents a very different face of black nonbelief. Doughboy’s troubles with the law start as a child and result in his repeated incarceration. He also struggles to gain his mother’s love and affection, who favors his brother Ricky (in part because of her feelings about her sons’ different fathers). While hanging out on Crenshaw with friends, Doughboy asserts his nonbelief based on the Argument from Evil: “There ain't no God. If there was a God, why He be letting motherfuckers get smoked every night?- Babies and little kids, tell me that.” Contrasted with the character of Carl Dixon, it may be easy to dismiss DoughBoy’s atheism as dysfunctional ghetto nihilism. Yet Singleton in his Academy Award nominated screenplay felt that it was important for Doughboy’s views on God to be expressed.
Reality television has also featured a few black atheists. Atheist activist, blogger and podcaster Reginald Finley, aka The Infidel Guy, appeared on a 2005 episode of ABC’s Wife Swap, in which his (also) atheist wife Amber traded places with the wife of a pastor. The 23rd season of MTV’s The Real World (DC) featured Ty Ruff, a self described atheist who called religion a crutch and felt that most God believers were narrow minded.
Though there are more portrayals of black nonbelievers and skeptics in literature and other art forms, popular film and television (for better or worse) perhaps has a greater potential to shape public consciousness. The increased acceptance of gays and lesbians is no doubt in large part due to personal interactions in everyday life. But portrayals in popular culture which help “normalize” gays and lesbians for viewers who may not have had any exposure also contribute. More frequent portrayals of black atheists, particularly in balanced ways, can serve as part of an iterative process, in which these representations both influence and reflect changes in attitudes towards black non-believers. Black nonbelievers should work to get their representations out there and support others who do. And more black female atheists characters would be nice too. Have I missed any?D. Frederick Sparks is an attorney living in Los Angeles.
Monday, August 1, 2011
By Sean Smith
As if it were yesterday I remember every time I would visit my father I was faced with the daunting task of answering his questions. These questions didn’t pertain to my recent academic progress but rather my perceived sexual orientation; “you ain’t gay is you boy?” Knowing the emotional turmoil I would cause if I honestly answered his questions, I abided by the heterosexual rule of always answering no. In an effort to fuel the believability of my answer, I would go as far as showing him photos of women I had in my phone. I was and still am his only son. The hetero-normative society we live in says it is my job to carry on the family name, to spread my seed, to procreate, to get married to a woman and provide for a family. That same society is responsible for countless LGBTQ Teen deaths, who so desperately try to ‘fit in’.
As I grew older I found myself in similar situations that I faced during my childhood--the constant plaguing questions about my sexual orientation, the ridicule for playing tennis instead of football, reading instead of rapping, and engaging in extracurricular school activities instead of chasing after the plethora of single women gracing the halls of my high school.
Adult men are faced with a unique challenge when it comes to protecting the sacredness of their heterosexuality; it becomes intertwined with protecting their ‘masculinity’. We start battling with other men mentally, physically, and, believe it or not, emotionally. Who has the more attractive girl, whose biceps and dick is the biggest (contradiction?), which one of us is making the most money, and drives the fancier car. Our obligations to heterosexuality are loaded with living up to the expectations of similar systems of oppression; patriarchy, capitalism, and being adept on the latest homophobic slur. As men there are levels of heterosexuality that you must prove yourself worthy of reaching, not only to other men, but to women as well. The expectations are more stringent, and the consequences of being labeled the ‘punk bitch’ are even more detrimental to the wellbeing of one’s manhood.
Do we truly enjoy living with every microscopic detail of our lives being sampled and weighed accordingly on the scale of heterosexuality? Are there not enough oppressive expectations we ritually battle, as we progress through life? It is our duty as humans to not only challenge that which many of us have been indoctrinated to believe, but to take an uncharted individually invented journey into the free world of sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation. It is time we stop allowing toys, placement and type of jewelry, colors, social activities, and our desire to follow the oppressive rules of procreation and hetero-normativity control our lives. It is time women end this search for the mirage of a ‘real man’, and for women to stop being criticized for not being ‘lady like’. It is time for men to cease the perpetuation of the unwinnable masculine battle. Our masculinity is not determined by anyone else but us. There are no authentic guides, books, or maps to manhood. It captures us at the least expected moments, and is supposed to leave us vulnerable to the unexpected. We should be elated when certain expressions and behaviors are characterized as feminine; then and only then will we escape the egregious label of the savage beast.
While learning to accept my sexual orientation, there were moments where I distanced myself safely away from anything remotely feminine. In distance I felt that I was safe from the stigmatization and ridicule that effeminate men were plastered with; from their more masculine counterparts. In reality I was scared, lonely, and lost; to my surprise it was the very type of person I distanced myself from, who helped me come to terms with who I am. The vibrant and carefree nature of this person was who I wanted to be, not the imprisoned ‘masculine’ and perceived heterosexual person I was. We learn from each other and respect each other when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable around each other. Will we as a society open the window to let in that same vibrant and carefree air, or will we continue to suffocate ourselves and our children, with the stale air of obligatory and burdensome gender expectations of heterosexuality? Progression doesn’t come at the hands of passing a few laws, and learning to accept those which are unlike you. Progression comes when we cohesively begin to challenge the rules and expectations of society to which we have been obligated to follow.
Sean Smith is pursuing a B.A in Sociology and Spanish at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA