Interview by Sheila Dianne Jackson
I am always excited to open dialogues that are regarded as taboo. With the insidious imprint of a fire and brimstone, Southern Baptist upbringing, I admit I had a flash of paranoia, and a fear of a lightening bolt strike for even opening this enlightening, rare and revolutionary dialogue.
I had the pleasure of working wth Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. on her short film, based on her book of the same name, White Nights, Black Paradise. Sikivu is a feminist writer and activist. She is the author of the first book on atheism to be published by an African-American woman, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Her other titles include, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels; and Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles (Travel Writing Across the Disciplines). Her latest book,White Nights, Black Paradise, is a historical fiction novel that explodes the limited depictions of the Jim Jones Peoples Temple as a cult, and offers an expanded narrative of the impetus for black women to be involved in the movement.
Sheila: So how did you come to be atheist or ‘choose’ not to believe?
Sikivu: I grew up in a non-secular humanistic, non-believing household. So there was no indoctrination of any religious or theological kind. It was a very open and free-thinking household. My family was also very politically engaged.
Sheila: So they gave you the space to explore and make your own choices. How did you come to use atheism as a form of activism?
Sikivu: That became more prominent in 2008 during the passing of proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. There was a lot of advocacy in the African-American/fundamentalist/evangelical community, around making that happen and articulating a lot of homophobic transphobic, heterophobic and heteronormative dogma.
So in response, I began writing more critically about there being other African-American perspectives on sexuality, diversity and intersectionality – and really challenging what I perceived to be the dogma and the heterosexist, cultural ideology that a lot of the African-American mainstream churches were trying to impose on the community, without realizing that there’s an incredible amount of multi-cultural diversity, sexual diversity and identity diversity within black communities. It’s always been that way. But of course, there’s been a lot of repression, invisibility and dehumanizations within the traditional black church.
So that was a motivating factor. And I’ve always had a very progressive and radical standpoint on feminism. I am vocal about being an unabashed, open, feminist, atheist.
Sheila: Did you have to create a space for yourself or were there groups that already existed you could connect with?
Sikivu: There were a number of groups. But as far as authentically African-American organizations, there were only a couple of those. There were a lot of groups focused around people having a safe space to come out, where you could challenge the Black church. But as far as the political voice for atheist of color, it was very nominal. So we definitely had to create those spaces, and they’re still emerging.
You know I cannot name a prominent African-American person in any sphere that is an unabashed atheist. There are free thinkers and maybe agnostics, but not an atheist.
Even in a place like California it’s revolutionary.
Sheila: I have a lot of strong feelings about Christianity and how it has been used as a tool to justify intolerance, and to oppress women and people of color. It’s definitely had an impact on our progress as a people – both positive and negative.
Recently there have been a number articles about Black women questioning their faith, or embracing ‘spirituality’ vs. identifying with a particular religion. Do you believe this is a trend, that Black women are questioning their beliefs now more than ever?
Sikivu: There has been an increase in the number of people who identify as ‘nones’ – meaning not necessarily secular, maybe spiritual, but not a member of the church or invested in any organized religion in a systematic way. So more African-Americans are feeding into that category, but not necessarily making that titanic leap to saying that God does not exist. So as far as the data is concerned on our demographic, we are still among the most when it comes to going to church every Sunday, being religiously aligned, reading the Bible, tithing, seeing faith as a restorative source for comfort and solace….Our numbers are off the chart, as far as those identifications are concerned.
Sheila: And of course religion bleeds into our politics, which is where it gets tricky.
Sikivu: And of course there are reasons for that, with regard to the social history of the church, Black life, and the environmental importance of churches in African-American disenfranchised, urban communities. We look at South LA, for example, and some of the main platforms for civic engagement, people coming together, safe space for kids…. Churches provide that. White communities are not in the same bind because their communities tend to be much more wealthy and they have greater access to resources and other social capital. So there’s a double-edged sword for African-Americans, particularly those who are questioning or rejecting religion, but can’t quite sever the ties because they’re such a monumental part of our communities.
Sheila: That takes me back to your research and writing about Black women and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. Can you tell us more about what you learned in your research for your book, about why Black women followed Jim Jones?
Sikivu: I watched a documentary about the Peoples Temple phenomenon. And like many people I didn’t know much about him beyond the drinking of the Kool-Aid and dead bodies. When I saw this documentary, it was a revelation because it highlighted the other critical points of engagement of African-American women. They were engaged as leaders in the church, helping to define the movement. They lifted up this white male, charismatic savior as a Black nationalist – which was very bizarre.
Black women were connected to this desire for homeland, for a redemptive space away from the ravages and deprivation of racist and sexual oppression. The temple was a haven for a lot of folks because they provided those basic needs. No other church in that era, in the community, provided those kinds of vital services to folks, that redressed issues of inequality.
They provided folks with housing, healthcare, rehab for people who were addicted to drugs, educational opportunities…They sponsored college programs and continuation schools. They even had prisoner reentry services and established a credit union. It was sort of this octopus. Jim Jones had fingers in a lot of different pies.
Sheila: I recall Jim Jones being regarded like Elvis – very magnetic. The women loved him.
Sikivu: He drew his oratorical style from Black church traditions, Black oratory – signifying. He used all of that in his sermons and in his appeal to working class African-Americans.
Sheila: Although it was, in fact a cult that came to a tragic end, he impacted a lot of people’s lives in meaningful ways – which explains his power. I was a child when these events occurred. But the gist of the news reports, and the imprint Jim Jones left in the re-telling of ‘his story’ was of this insane, mass suicide – with little or no mention of all the rest. His presence and impact was complex, disturbing, and speaks volumes of the times, and the plight of Black women.
Sikivu: The big part of the normalization of Peoples Temple in San Francisco was it was a buffer against all the oppressive forces that were trying to dispossess and disenfranchise African-Americans. Black folks were literally being evicted from their homes in the thousands, in the early 1970s. This so-called era of urban renewal was really “the Negro removal,” in which black folks were being evicted from Fillmore. And if you go to Fillmore now, there are no Black folks there. So the temple would actually buy buildings and house it’s people.
So these Black people were naturally attracted to the bigger concept of going to Guyana and leaving the font of white supremacy and two races. It was appealing because we’ve always been outsiders in our own home, here in the United States. So I am not seeing those elements brought into the forefront in the literature, and certainly not those issues from an African-American woman’s perspective.
Sheila: Do you think Black women are questioning and facing some of the problematic issues with fundamentalist, organized religion and hyper-religiosity?
Sikivu: Religion becomes a proxy for being moral, being just, being ethical and respectable for Black women. A lot of what I have written about the intersection of atheism and Black femininity is oriented around that. The reason why so many African-American women religiously identify with the church fiercely and dogmatically is because we have to overcompensate for this whole legacy of being constructed as the hyper-sexual Jezebel, Mamie, the antithesis of the idealized white feminine paradigm of what it means to be civilized and attractive. We are more faith based than any other population in the United States.
To read more on the work of Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D visit sikivuhutchinson.com