Black Humanism

by Rev. Colin Bossen, February 7, 2010

"An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry," Susan Sontag wrote not long ago of the New York Times. Her words remain poignant. Recent events in Haiti have been heart breaking. At such times there reaches a point where I have to turn off the radio, avoid the front page of the newspaper and disconnect from the world of the media. The interviews with earthquake survivors, the piles of shattered bodies, the cries of orphans and weeping moans of parents shatter any claim to stoicism I might have.

"'Existence is suffering,' it ends when you're dead," said Allen Ginsberg, paraphrasing the four noble truths of Buddhism. Suffering is constitutive of human life. From the instant we suffer the shock of birth to the moment we succumb to the pain of death suffering is with us. Some times it lurks in the back noise of our consciousness. Other times it is inescapable.

We humans are naturally curious creatures. Confronted with the reality of suffering we want to know why we suffer. What, we wonder, is the reason for disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina or the Tsunami that struck Indonesia? Many of us blame God thinking that such calamities are, in the words of one minister in Haiti, "the will of God."

In some narratives the will God is influenced by human actions. God punishes humans for disobedience to the divine will. In this worldview, in the words of our pastor, "God allows this to happen...because we human beings are too wicked." In other narratives the divine will is inscrutable. God causes disasters to happen but God's motives are unclear.

Either way, it is easy to blame God. It allows an escape from human reality and responsibility. Suffering exists because that is the way God created the world. It is not something that we humans have much control over. If it is to be alleviated then we must turn to God to alleviate it.

Humanism offers a counter explanation. Instead of arguing that suffering is the product of some divine plan, humanism posits that suffering has two sources: human folly and malice and the randomness of nature. Under this scheme, it is not God who has the power to end suffering but humanity. True, humanity might not be able to eliminate all suffering but humanity can at least limit much suffering.

So much of the pain that exists is of a human origin. Writing about the recent tragedy in Haiti New York Times columnist David Brooks said, "This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story." In the same article Brooks notes that an earthquake of similar magnitude to that in Haiti struck the Bay Area in 1989. In that instance only sixty-three people were killed. The final death toll in Haiti has not yet been calculated but when it is it will almost certainly exceed 200,000.

The difference between Haiti and the San Francisco Bay can be accounted in the vast disparity of wealth between the two locals. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. The Bay Area is one of the richest metropolitan areas in the world's richest country. Haiti has "poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services." In the case of the Bay Area the words poorly constructed can be substituted for marvelously engineered and highly regulated, bad for solid and terrible for excellent. Viewing either from the other must be like viewing another planet.

When the discrepancies are taken into account the reason for the current suffering in Haiti becomes clear. It is not "the will of God" as the pastor said. It the result of the very human decision not to share the world's resources and work to eliminate global poverty. This may be, in the pastor's words, because "human beings are too wicked" but if so it is not because that wickedness is punished by God. Blaming God for the situation lets human beings off the hook. It does not hold those responsible accountable for their actions and their failure to act. The tragedy is not brought on as a result of God's disapproval of human wickedness. It stems from the structural violence--the violence of poverty, racism and economic colonialism--that comprises much of human wickedness.

Whether one places responsibility for suffering with God or with humanity is a theological issue. It belongs to the field of theology known as theodicy. Theodicy seeks to explain why suffering exists in the world. The African American and Unitarian Universalist theologian Bill Jones argues "that each person has a functional theodicy...that...relates to his prevailing beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality and man...each individual makes a fundamental judgment about the character of specific sufferings, whether each is good (positive), bad (negative), or neutral; whether he must endure the suffering he encounters or should annihilate it; whether suffering can be eliminated or whether it is an inevitable part of the human condition. Each person also acts on the basis of some conclusion about the source or cause of suffering..."

Exactly what your theodicy is has a lot to do with the overall shape of your theology. If you assign responsibility for suffering to God then you are almost certainly a theist. If you see suffering as redemptive in a cosmic sense then chances are you are some type of Christian. Most humanists reject both these views and place responsibility for suffering squarely in the human realm.

Some humanists even go so far as to argue that those who assign responsibility for suffering to God or declare that suffering is either redemptive or restorative are themselves involved in propagating further unnecessary suffering. This is exactly the argument put forth in Bill Jones's text "Is God a White Racist?" Jones's text is foundational for the development of black humanist theology. It posits that suffering is not redemptive and that describing it as such makes the oppressed complicit in their own oppression.

In Jones's view any form of Christianity that denies human responsibility for suffering or conceives of the pain of the oppressed as salvific is not Christianity at all. It is "Whiteanity--a religion of oppression, a species of the slave master's Frankenstein transmutation of biblical religion..." The antidote to Whiteanity is not a more liberal form of Christianity or a Christianity that places priority on the needs of the oppressed. These theologies still do not place enough responsibility for ending suffering in human hands. Instead, the antidote to Whiteanity is to pay special attention to the reasons for suffering and, if possible, try to combat it. It is, in a word, to embrace the humanist position that something can be done about human suffering because so much of it is a human creation. Since, for people of color, a large portion of the suffering they experience is a result of society's racist structures a special kind of humanism is called for, one that takes into account the particular types of suffering the oppressed and marginalized experience. For Jones and some other African Americans this type of humanism manifests itself as black humanism.

Black humanism is not just the humanism of people who happen to be of African descent. It is a distinct theological tradition that emerged from the African American experience. Anthony Pinn argues that it has five basic principles, some of which it shares with humanism at large and some of which are unique. These principles are: "(1) understanding...humanity as fully...responsible for the human condition and the correction of humanity's plight; (2) suspicion toward or rejection of supernatural explanation and claims...(3) an appreciation for African American cultural production and a perception of traditional forms of black religiosity as having cultural importance as opposed to any type of 'cosmic' authority; (4) a commitment to individual and societal transformation; (5) a controlled optimism that recognizes both human potential and human destructive activities."

As members of a religious community that once spawned a congregation named the Black Humanist Fellowship of Liberation, the phrase black humanism should at least be familiar to many of us. Indeed, it would be surprising if the concept of black humanism did not have at least some currency among Unitarian Universalists. While not all Unitarian Universalists are humanists, the number of humanists in our congregations outnumber those of any other theological orientation. And over the years Unitarian Universalism has had significant traffic with many who self-identify as black humanists.

Here again our congregational history deserves at least a slight mention. For it was this congregation, in its prior incarnation at 82nd Street and Euclid, that introduced Lewis McGee to Unitarianism. McGee was one of the first African Americans to be ordained a Unitarian minister. After graduating from seminary he went on to found the Free Religious Fellowship, an intentionally interracial Unitarian religious community on Chicago's South Side. Later McGee became the first African American to serve as the senior minister of a predominately white Unitarian Universalist congregation. He summarized his humanist theology in these words: "We believe in the human capacity to solve individual and social problems and to make progress. We believe in a continuing search for truth and hence that life is an adventurous quest...We believe in the creative imagination as a power in promoting the good life."

For humanists, particularly for black humanists, it is the creative imagination that provides hope to alleviate suffering. The "map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes rather than in the desolation that surrounds us," writes Robin Kelly.

In the case of black humanists it is the imaginations of, in Kelly's words, "aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression" to which we should turn for seeking solutions to suffering. Since suffering in these communities is most pronounced, the logic goes, the solutions they have found and the visions that they have created are some of the most informative.

Visions for radical egalitarianism, the redistribution of wealth and the end of the poverty that caused the disaster in Haiti are present in marginalized communities. In pirate communities, amid slave revolts, in the heat of labor and civil rights struggles and in the colonies of runaway slaves known as maroons there has sometimes appeared a more democratic society than the one in which we currently live. In such communities and at such moments previously existing social structures can be erased. The people who comprise such movements, having been at the bottom of the social structure, are not always eager to recreate the dominant society.

To offer one small example, pirate crews in the 17th and 18th century were often made up of escaped slaves and runaway servants. The pirate life offered such individuals considerably more freedom than they could have experienced anywhere else. Rather than be bound to the wills of their former masters they were free express themselves and develop a greater range of personality. Some pirate crews went so far as to codify this freedom by drawing up covenants between the members. The terms of the covenant might stipulate that everyone got an equal share of whatever booty was seized and that the crew's captain be elected by a majority vote.

The evidence that pirate crews were refuge for some is laid bare by stories like that of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Mary Read and Anne Bonny sailed with Captain John Rackham. They dressed as men and openly loved each other. Their lifestyle of open homosexuality and transvestitism would not have been tolerated on land.

Similarly, the maroon colonies served as havens for escaped slaves. They became places where the divisions of race found in the slave holding society were erased. Those of African descent mingled with the Native American population and distinctions between mulatto and recent African arrival disappeared. In these communities forms of African culture and religion, unrestrained by the brutality of slaveholders, re-emerged. Some maroon colonies lasted for decades, made alliances with local Native American tribes and sued for peace with their white neighbors.

Such visions and communities are bound to make some of us uncomfortable. They stray too far beyond our daily experience and force us to question our assumptions about morality and the structure of society. On some level that is precisely the rhetorical point. If, because of the racist structures it contains, the dominant society is broken our understanding of it and our conception of what is possible can be challenged by looking at those movements that question its values and those communities that fall beyond its margins. It is precisely for these reasons that black humanism looks to communities like the maroons for inspiration.

Over the years black humanism has itself provided me with a source for inspiration. And this morning while I speak of it as an outsider I also speak as someone who has a deep appreciation for the various forms of black humanism I have encountered. Such encounters occurred fairly early in my life when I was exposed to the electronic music scene in Detroit. A lover of techno and house music I frequented all night dance parties where social barriers between race and class often broke down. Music and dance created a space where social norms where ignored and sexual and gender conventions flaunted. Before they were commercialized such parties seemed to present some sort of threat to the standing social order. Why else would they have been frequently broken up by police officers, faces hidden by ski masks, touting machine guns?

Many of the artists and cultural creatives involved in developing this music scene would not identify as black humanists. Nonetheless, the black humanist principles that Pinn describes were and are clearly present in their work. As, Mad Mike Banks, one of the early purveyors of techno music has said: "All I can hope is that music...can without words or explanations knock down all the barriers (racial, economic, religious, etc) that the programmers have cleverly set before us in order to keep us from understanding that categories and definitions separate and with separation comes exploitation and profit!...We are all tribal people but some of us have strayed away from the talk of the drum and they talk with words and languages that mean nothing! The drum is always better!"

Alice Walker represents a form of black humanism that might be more familiar than either underground dance parties or maroon colonies. She writes, in words that echo our reading from James Baldwin, "I seem to have spent all of my life rebelling against the church or other people's interpretations of what religion is--the truth is probably that I don't believe there is a God... Certainly I don't believe there is a God beyond nature. The world is God. Man is God. So is a leaf or a snake..." Such sentiments are shared by many Unitarian Universalists.

So too is Walker's emphasis on the possibility of human goodness as an antidote to the suffering we inflict upon each other. As she writes, "There is / Indeed / A Buddha / In / Every one / Of us / Loving humans / With all / Our clear & / Unmistakable / Reluctance / To evolve / Makes this hard / For most humans / To see." Elsewhere Walker places trust in the goodness of the earth to provide healing writing, in book entitled "Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth, "Savoring each & / Every / One--date, fig, persimmon, passion fruit-- / I am everywhere / At home."

The end to suffering, or the elimination of the suffering we humans inflict upon each other, may not be possible. But the dream of it, a dream found in liminal spaces and our human fellows, can spur us to action. It can cause us to accept responsibility, as we can, for the wrongs of the world and seek, somehow, to right them. When the paralysis of inaction or despair threatens us our imagination can provide the paths forward. This is the lesson I take from black humanism. It spirit is captured in the lyrics from one of Mad Mike's techno tracks:

There will come a time in your life when you will ask yourself a series of questions.
Am I happy with who I am?
Am I happy with the people around me?
Am I happy with what I'm doing?
Am I happy with the way my life is going?
Do I have a life or am I just living?
Do not let these questions strain or trouble you just point yourself in the direction of your dreams find your strength in the sound and make your transition...

There will be people who say you can't - you will.
There will be people who say you don't mix this with that and you will say "watch me".
There will be people who will say play it safe, thats to risky - you will take that chance and have no fear.
You won't let these questions restrain or trouble you.
You will point yourself in the direction of your dreams.
You will find the strength in the sound and make your transition...

May we remember this and, in doing so, find the strength we need to transform the world as we must.

Amen.