Volume 20 (1), Spring - Summer 2012
The Colors of Humanism
A special issue of Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism
Introduction: The Colors of Humanism
There has been increased visibility and expressed frustration on the part of humanists who do not fit the dominant racial and ethnic paradigm. While present in humanism for many years, people of "color" (as inadequate as this term may be) have only recently gained recognition in ways that have enhanced calls for diversity, a greater awareness of difference within the context of the humanist movement.
This shift in thinking, however, begs the question: what is the nature and meaning of humanism within the various communities comprising the humanist network we call a movement? That is to say, in more general terms, what is the "look" of humanism's diversity and how might the markers of difference become more pressing and compelling elements of our collective vision and our core values?
The Hidden Enlightenment: Humanism Among US Latinos
US Latinos may be defined as people living in the United States who trace their roots to the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America.1 Thus Latinos are actually a conglomeration of groups, who most often prefer to self-identify by their own ancestral country (e.g., Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban) rather than as Latino. However, the pan-ethnic terms "Latino" and "Hispanic" are increasingly used in situations where a diverse group of Latino subgroups are contrasted to non-Latino groups.
According to the 2010 US census, US Latinos now number over 50 million persons and comprise 16 percent of the total American population.2 In terms of population, the largest subgroup consists of Mexican Americans (approximately 31 million), followed by Puerto Ricans (4.4 million) and Cubans (1.6 million).3 Latinos can be of any race, but they are predominantly a mixture of European and indigenous peoples of the Americas. The slave trade is responsible for the large proportions of Afro-Latinos in the Caribbean and other parts of the Americas.
The Forked Road Ahead: The "Look" of Black Humanist Community in Action
The Los Angeles Times news item was buried at the bottom of the page in the bloodlessly tiny print reserved for marginalia.1 A seven year-old black girl named Aiyanna Jones had been murdered on May 16, 2010, in her sleep by the Detroit Police after a military-style raid on her home. In the wake of the shooting, neighbors and loved ones placed stuffed animals in front of the house in memoriam. Rows of stuffed animals stared out from Associated Press photographs of the crime scene in dark-eyed innocence. In black communities across the nation Aiyanna's death elicited a firestorm of outrage from activists critical of police misconduct and excessive force. Recalling New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and scores of other cities where black lives have been cut down by trigger-happy police officers, many condemned the murder as yet another instance of law enforcement's criminal devaluation of black lives and "inner city" communities.
Living: African-Americans and Humanism
Almost thirty years ago, as hip hop culture was transforming the discourse and aesthetics of urban life, as the political landscape of the United States was taking a turn away from more liberal policies couched in the hope and angst of the civil rights movement, and as the economic fortune of the nation wrestled with a posture of radical individualism, Cornel West captured the existential and ontological framing of life plaguing African Americans. "The paradox of Afro-American history," West notes, "is that Afro-Americans fully enter the modern world precisely when the postmodern period commences."1 While intellectual energy and social vision promoted in many quarters a sense of the self as fractured, and knowledge as suspect, African Americans were pushing for (and believing themselves to have secured) a proper sense of the self as whole. And they articulated this progress through a sense of their liberation as having epistemological validity and "weight."
Such is the paradox of African American collective life in the United States. In a word, it involves tension between living a lie (i.e., structural efforts to dehumanize African Americans and have African Americans embrace that deception) and living life (i.e., constructive pushing for a robust sense of self within the context of community). African Americans–if Cornel West is correct, and I think he is–have also had good reason to question if not reject the limited sense of humanity and culturally fixed sense of "truth" marking much of modernity and its meaning frameworks.
The "Color" of Humanism: Personal Reflections on a Global Reailty
In 1989 I attended a conference of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH, now the Council for Secular Humanism) held at American University in Washington, D.C. I had been a subscriber of the organization's then-quarterly magazine, Free Inquiry 1 and had been attracted to secular humanism, freethought, atheism, and rationalism because of their emphasis upon the importance of genuine intellectual freedom. I believed that traditional theism presented many barriers to black people's never-ending quest for freedom, justice, and equality. I further believed that we could sharpen the critical thinking skills necessary for our liberation if we could first harness the intellectual courage necessary to reject our deeply cherished though problematic ideas about God.
Humanism in Sub-Saharan Africa: Reflections from a Humanist Organizer and Activist
Africa is a "deeply" religious society. Belief in God, the devil, spirits, and ancestors is strong and overwhelming. Faith in spiritual and supernatural beings drives and dominates the lives of the people and their popular explanations of phenomena encountered during the course of daily life. Hence traditional practices informed by religious dogmas and superstitions feature prominently in communities. And religious authorities wield enormous power and influence on education, legislation, morality, policies, decisions, and the entire life of the people. Historically there has been limited space for an alternative outlook and limited attention to reason, critical thinking, and common sense in public discourse. However, as I argue in this article, humanism in the African context is growing and gaining visibility. What I offer are the reflections of a humanist organizer and activist meant to offer brief commentary on humanism on the African continent.
An Uncompromising Humanism in Iran and Beyond
Recent protests in Iran (and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa) have clearly shown the extent of humanism there. Whilst resistance to dictatorship and Islamism has always been in existence, the 2009 Twitter revolution in Iran gave people everywhere an insight into a social movement that is deeply humanist, modern, and secular. What it has also shown is the irrelevance and antithetical character of Islamism with people's demands and desires. This is what many of us have been saying for a very long time. Recent events, broadcast via citizen journalism, however, have given the world an opportunity to see it for itself. There are several factors contributing to this rise.
My Humanist Detour from China to the United States
I would describe myself as an accidental humanist, if not atheist. That was very much how I felt when I found myself on June 4, 2010, standing at the podium of the sixty-ninth annual conference of the American Humanist Association. I was receiving the Humanist Pioneer Award. But what did I do to deserve the honor?
The golden letters on the beautifully crafted award said: "To Wendy Liu for her pioneering work that advances Humanist values and critical thought through cross-cultural perspectives on American Society." The "pioneering work" presumably meant my writings on US-China related topics, especially the collection of essays on my understanding of America from a Chinese and non-religious angle.
As an aspiring writer, I was happy to be recognized for anything, not to say that particular angle. But that angle, with which I stumbled my way to the San Jose conference, was not an accident. It had come a long way with me on a journey starting in Xian, China, my hometown.
Talking about Xian, the terracotta warriors of Qin Shihuang, the first Emperor of China, would probably come to one's mind. Visitors have marveled at the work of ancient artisans, especially the rendering of individual facial features of the clay soldiers in eternity. In contrast to that humanistic touch was the cruelty of Emperor Qin, who ordered that upon his death the entrance to the underground mausoleum be sealed on completion, entombing the laborers inside to keep it secret. This is a brief but telling picture of humanism vs. tyranny in China–the once-upon-a-time China.