Category Archives: religion

‘Murican Idol: Here’s What Didn’t Get Phil Robertson Suspended from Duck Dynasty

By Arturo R. García

Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty.” Image via Facebook.

By now you’ve no doubt heard that reality “star” Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty “fame” was suspended from the show — or, in snake-oil TV-speak, placed on “indefinite hiatus” — after glibly engaging in some concern-trolling homophobia in a GQ interview while painting his show and his family’s public embrace of its Christian faith as some sort of antidote for whatever it believes ails America.

But what hasn’t been reported nearly as widely is the amount of outright racially prejudiced statements Robertson also lets fly in the piece, which points to a bigger problem for A&E. The network has been all too happy to trade on Robertson and his family’s “good ol’ boy” brand. Now it has to deal with the consequences.
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Why Did So Many Black Women Die? The Jonestown Massacre at 35

All rights reserved by Peoples Temple / Jonestown Gallery

All rights reserved by Peoples Temple / Jonestown Gallery

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; originally published at Religion Dispatches

Thirty-five years ago, on November 19, 1978, 73 year-old Hyacinth Thrash awoke to a nightmare in the jungles of Guyana.  Nine hundred and eighteen people from her Peoples Temple church lay dead before her eyes, poisoned by a lethal cocktail of cyanide and fruit punch.  The images from this gothic scene of carnage have become indelible. Bodies stretch into the distance in rows, face down on the ground.  They are overwhelmingly black bodies, clad in simple workaday clothing. Rendered “anonymous”, they represent complex extended families of children, elderly women, young women, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and nieces.  They came to Jonestown, Guyana from communities all across the U.S., drawn by the utopic promise of life in a communal settlement envisioned by a charismatic white messiah as a socialist refuge from American racial apartheid. One of the most haunting scenes from the massacre’s aftermath is that of an adult with their arm around a child, protective in the throes of death.  Thrash was the sole survivor on the premises.

Although the gruesome final snapshot of Jonestown is burned into the American popular imagination, the prelude to the massacre is not as well known.  Founded by the Reverend Jim Jones in the 1950s, Peoples Temple was a multiracial Pentecostal congregation with roots in Indiana. Over the course of two decades the church would establish operations in Ukiah, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the late 1970s Jones relocated the bulk of the congregation to Guyana, ostensibly to avoid government persecution for its radical views. The Jonestown massacre has been dubbed one of the largest murder-suicides in world history.  About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino and Native American.  The majority of its black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white.  As per the cultural cliché, black women like Thrash were “the backbone” of People’s Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church.

It is troubling that of the scores of book length personal accounts, critical analyses and sociological appraisals on Peoples Temple and Jonestown only a few are by black women (the best of these have been compiled at the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” site). Thrash and Leslie Wagner–Wilson are currently the only two black women survivors to publish books on their experiences.  Wagner-Wilson managed to escape Jonestown before the massacre with several of her family members.  As early African American members of the church when it was based in Indiana, Thrash and her sister tithed 20% of their income to Peoples Temple.  Thousands of dollars in property sales, Social Security, disability, and welfare benefits from Temple members were funneled into the church’s empire.  Despite being elderly and infirm, Thrash and her sister followed Jones from Indiana to Ukiah, San Francisco and Guyana.  Eventually Thrash became disgruntled with the divide between Jones’ rhetoric of racial equality and the white-people-first reality of church leadership but stayed put nonetheless.

Unpacking why so many black women died in Jonestown requires taking a critical look back at the racial underbelly of the Jonestown age.  It demands confronting hard truths about the dangerously gendered seductions of organized religion; especially given the global appeal 24/7 prayer movements and charismatic Pentecostalism have for women of color.

According to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post poll, black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation.  Only 2% said that being religious was not important to them at all (compared to 15% of white men), while 74% said that it was extremely important. Numerous surveys have touted the decline of American religiosity within the past decade. Yet, in an era of black economic depression, the need to be devout or churched up has not diminished for most African American women, despite the patriarchal, heterosexist orientation of the Black Church.

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Quoted: On Colonial America’s Relationship With Islam

Third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. Image via history.com.

At a time when most Americans were uninformed, misinformed, or simply afraid of Islam, Thomas Jefferson imagined Muslims as future citizens of his new nation. His engagement with the faith began with the purchase of a Qur’an eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s Qur’an survives still in the Library of Congress, serving as a symbol of his and early America’s complex relationship with Islam and its adherents. That relationship remains of signal importance to this day.That he owned a Qur’an reveals Jefferson’s interest in the Islamic religion, but it does not explain his support for the rights of Muslims. Jefferson first read about Muslim “civil rights” in the work of one of his intellectual heroes: the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke. Locke had advocated the toleration of Muslims—and Jews—following in the footsteps of a few others in Europe who had considered the matter for more than a century before him. Jefferson’s ideas about Muslim rights must be understood within this older context, a complex set of transatlantic ideas that would continue to evolve most markedly from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

Amid the interdenominational Christian violence in Europe, some Christians, beginning in the sixteenth century, chose Muslims as the test case for the demarcation of the theoretical boundaries of their toleration for all believers. Because of these European precedents, Muslims also became a part of American debates about religion and the limits of citizenship.
- From “Our Founding Fathers included Islam,” adapted from a book by Denise Spellberg

Quoted: Six Tips for Discussing Muslim Women during Ramadan

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Good post today over at Muslimah Media Watch:

Ramadan Mubarak everyone!

For many years now, Muslimah Media Watch has worked hard to problematize, counter, question and critique depictions of Muslim women in a variety of media outlets, as a way to provide new perspectives to looking at the “Muslim woman problem” (starting by questioning this statement).

Since Ramadan 2013 has arrived, I would like to first wish you all a wonderful and blessed month. During this month, I am hoping my fellow MMW writers will have a break from horrid portrayals of Muslim women both in many mainstream media sources and in some Muslim communities. With Muslims immersed in the spiritual and cultural practices of Ramadan and everything else that is happening in the world (from sexual attacks on female protestors in Egypt to halal nail polish and Iranian officials refusing to recognize Elham Ashgari’s swimming record), I think it is important to reconsider the ways in which we speak about Muslim women.

So, I have come up with some suggestions, along the lines of Ramadan resolutions – that I would like other people to follow.

Tip #3: Acknowledge race, culture and privilege.

It may come as a surprise, but Muslim women are not a monolithic group that can be easily lumped into one category. The mainstream media is well-known for extrapolating their assumptions on Muslim women based on countries with “bad” reputations like Iran or Saudi Arabia. Yet, we do the same within Muslim communities. We preach equality but point at other Muslim groups when there is something we do not like (female circumcision anyone?)I belong to a predominantly Arab Muslim community where black abayas and hijabs are expected, the Arabic language is praised and pushed on everyone else, and Arab standards of beauty apply. There is little acknowledgement of South Asian and African communities, and racism prevails.  [light]-skinned Arab women rank first in beauty lists, followed by white converts.

We talk about racial equality in the mosque, but the reality is completely different, as explored by Amina in a recent post. So, this Ramadan we should be looking at our own biases and privileges.

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Image Credit: diloz on Flickr

The Evolution Of Hula: Traditional, Contemporary, And Hotel

By Guest Contributor Sarah Neal, cross-posted from Sociological Images

Earlier on SocImages, Lisa Wade drew attention to the tourism industry’s commodification of Polynesian women and their dancing. She mentioned, briefly, how the hula was made more tourist-friendly (what most tourists see when they attend one of the many hotel-based luaus throughout the islands is not traditional hula).  In this post, I want to offer more details on the history and the differences between the tourist and the traditional hula.

First, Wade states that, while female dancers take center stage for tourists, the traditional hula was “mostly” a men’s dance.  While it has not been determined for certain if women were ever proscribed from performing the hula during the time of the Ali’i (chiefs), it seems unlikely that women would have been prevented from performing the hula when the deity associated with the hula is Pele, a goddess. Furthermore, there is evidence that women were performing the dance at the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i.

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Queering The Faith: Why The Church Is—And Always Has Been—Our Home, Too

By Guest Contributor Helen McDonald; originally published at Elixher

When I was a child, it seemed as though everyone was hellbent on telling me where, as a Black person and as a woman, I did not belong. I did not belong on athletic teams because I am of the “fairer” sex. I did not belong in the school district’s “gifted and talented” programs because Black kids aren’t “smart enough” to be distinguished scholars. Like my other Black sisters, I have had to fight for inclusion in various gendered and racialized spaces. However, there was always one space no one could deny me access: the Church.

The Black Church is a revolutionary realm. It is where we, as a community, took a religion violently imposed on us by means of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism, and turned it into a beautiful, spiritual experience. In fact, many modern Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist and other Protestant church rituals are still informed by our Afro-Diasporic roots. “Rituals in African American Christian churches include call-and-response interactions between the congregation and preacher, calls for parishioners to approach the altar to embrace Christ, the laying on of hands and personal communion with the Holy Spirit,” explains Jocelyn Prince in “The Role of Ritual in the African American Church and Theatre.” Our praise honors our heritage by preserving many of the traditions inherent to our Afro-Diasporic communities.

Moreover, the Black Church, while obviously imperfect and still patriarchal, has rejected—in practice—the idea that womyn must remain silent and learn quietly. Black womyn essentially have built Black churches for centuries. Even when forced to occupy background positions, we control the Church. The pastor moves the congregation to its feet, but no one defies the Church Mothers. We are the cornerstones of many congregations, the ones who cook for church dinners, who raise the future leaders of the church, who are quite often the most passionate about our faith. As Black womyn, we have often found ourselves relying on the spiritual to cope with the violence of reality. Bruises paint our knees black and blue from nights kneeling in supplication. Our hands are the first to hold our siblings in Christ when they need prayer. Our voices linger in the sanctuary, whispering songs of victory, even after the pews have long been empty.

And yet, it seems as though the Church is the last place for queer people, and many members of the LGBTQ community opt to distance themselves from God or from homophobic congregations. I have spoken to a number of queer Black womyn who agree that, in spite of the religiously grounded homophobia, it is not so easy to cut off ties from our sacred spaces. Frequently, our unique relationship becomes a divisive factor in the big, white-dominated queer community that insists that if the Church isn’t playing nice, we simply should not go. But, how can we leave one of the few spaces where we historically have been granted authority and agency?

I don’t think that the problem is the Black Church, but rather the way the Black Church has adopted white supremacist principles. Describing the historical relationship between the Black Church and gay people, writer and feminist bell hooks defends, “It is no accident that the most ‘out’ of [Jim Crow era] gay people were often singers and musicians who first made their debut in the [Black] Church. Just as the Church can and often does provide a platform encouraging the denigration and [ostracism] of homosexuals, a liberatory House of God can alternatively be the place where all are made welcome—all are recognized as worthy.” The Black Church is not inherently homophobic, but rather, an extension of our communities wherein we are allowed to be equals even when mainstream society maintains that we are inferiors. hooks further elucidates, “In some small segregated Black communities, the Church was a safe house, providing both shelter and sanctuary for anyone looked upon as different or deviant, and that included gay believers.”

If anything, we queer Black womyn cannot give up on the Black Church. The Black Church has lost sight of its roots, but if we leave our home, who will remain to remind our siblings in faith that we belong? We need to know our history and to teach those who worship alongside us about the love that has been embedded in our spirituality. The cornerstone bears the weight of the structure and, if we are truly the cornerstones of the Black Church, we retain the power to influence whom our spiritual families accept. Through us, the Church can return back to its roots of communal love and reception.

When I first began my process of coming out to myself–and to other people–I knew that one of the hardest parts of my journey would be the inevitable God-hates-gays sermon. I spent many tearful nights asking God why He let me be this way if He loved me. But the Sunday evening when a white visiting preacher screamed, “Someone here is living in sin—homosexuality, adultery, promiscuity—and this person will die tonight,” I felt a sense of peace that reassured me that I was not condemned. You see, in the midst of my spiritual-sexual identity warfare, I happened to stumble across a promise that spoke to my femininity, my Blackness, and my queerness. “God is in the mist of her, she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns” (Psalms 46:5). God is in the midst of us, and with patience, perseverance, faith and love, I believe we beautiful, queer Black womyn can be in the midst of the Church once again.

Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at BloodyShrubbery.com.

Table for Two: Kumaré, Or How A Guru Is Born Out Of Orientalism

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Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid with featured guest, Sikivu Hutchinson, author of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars”

Tami: Kumaré follows a filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who transforms himself into a fake guru to explore the concepts of blind religious faith and devotion to spiritual figures. It is interesting that Vikram and his assistants–all American-born and -raised–adopted accents in the subterfuge, playing off the magical brown person/foreigner trope.

Andrea: Would he be believable if he didn’t take on the accent?

Sikivu: Channeling the authentic brown magical mystery tour exotic (and I’m thinking specifically here of the sixties cult of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi legitimized in the West by mega-celebs like the Beatles) wouldn’t be complete without the right “Orientalist” lilt.

Tami: There are plenty of American religious/spiritual figures who inspire a devotion similar to that demonstrated by Kumaré’s followers. But I also think his race and faux accent provided a short cut of sorts.

Andrea: And I think that shortcut allowed the subterfuge to be more successful. Deepak Chopra wouldn’t be where he is if he didn’t have his accent.

Tami: …or if he were named Bob Henderson. It’s the otherness that adds credibility.

Andrea: Great minds, sis! That’s why I see some white people adopt “exotic” names when they become gurus or get deep into yoga.

Sikivu: Yes, and the drooling idolatry of Kumaré’s mostly-white female acolytes underscores this—I know a number of lib/progressive white women who have adopted trendy “yogic”  names to buttress their devoutness and confer them with the Eastern mystic equivalent of “street” cred.

Tami: This ties into the biased belief that brown people (and I say that meaning all brown peoples–black folks, Native Americans, etc.) are inherently plugged into something

Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi

Jersey-born filmmaker Vikram Gandhi outside of his Kumare costume

beyond the physical world…some magic. And that “magic” can be positioned positively or negatively, but it is part of the mantle of “other.” By adopting guru “drag,” the filmmaker successfully plugs into that idea. A brown guy with short hair and a clean-shaven face in jeans and a button down, may be too Americanized (read: normal) to work his magical mojo.

We went to see this awful movie, The Last Exorcism II, and at some point (of course) the protag goes to visit a black roots woman in New Orleans. I commented to my husband about the character’s vaguely African headwrap and her exaggerated accent. But the viewer would likely not have accepted that part if she had a Queen Bey lace-front and sounded like a black Brooklynite or had my Midwestern twang. We like our magical brown people unassimilated.

Sikivu:  And the noble savage sexuality of Kumaré goes hand-in-hand with the way the film trots out and parodies the West’s eternal fascination with the Magical Negro/Indian/Asian (take your pick) other.  The blond woman gushing in her living room about how Kumaré has “touched her life” looks practically orgasmic.  So much of this guru shtick is tied up with the charade of liberating the repressed uptight “rationalist” white folk from their shackles a la Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” paradigm pimping “black soul” as antidote to all that ails the modern white man.  A brilliant send-up on this theme is “The Couple in a Cage,” by Guillermo Gomez Pena and Coco Fusco—they mounted a performance piece where they pretended to be indigenous primitives displayed in their “native habitat” for the delectation of mostly white museum-goers seeking authentic savage artifacts.  While there was no overtly religious element to it, the Western impulse to gain validation through the body/essence and “shamanic” wisdom of the other is similar.

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An Open Letter to Tyler Perry

By Guest Contributor Chris MacDonald-Dennis

Image via www.atoast2wealth.com.

Image via www.atoast2wealth.com.

Mr. Perry,

I had promised myself months ago that I would not comment on your movies anymore because it was only serving to raise my blood pressure.  Like the Serenity Prayer says, I was going to accept the things I cannot change.  It worked for a while, too.  But then you released Temptation, and I had to say something.

For years, I have believed that Black folks deserve better than you. I realize that this can be seen as patronizing.  You see, I am not Black.  Some may say that I do not have a right to comment on you and Black communities. I would actually agree with them. I may have my opinions about your “artistry” and the impact of your movies on Black communities but that is an intra-community discussion for Black folks to have. This will certainly not stop me from holding my opinions and sometimes sharing them; however, I do believe that it is Black folks who need to begin that particular conversation.

However, this time you decided to talk about my community: those of us living with HIV/AIDS.

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