Not Knocking on Heaven’s Door*: Black Atheists, Urban America

James Baldwin

Late Saturday afternoon, like clockwork, the street corner preachers on Crenshaw and King Boulevard in South Los Angeles take to the “stage.” Decked out in flowing robes and dreadlocks, they fulminate into their mikes about the universe, God’s will and “unnatural” homosexuals to a motley audience waiting for the next express bus. Members of the Black Israelites, they are part of a long tradition of performative religiosity in urban African American communities.

This particular corner of black America is a hotbed of social commerce. Kids who’ve just gotten out of school mingle jubilantly as pedestrians flow past fast food places, mom and pop retailers, street vendors and Jehovah’s Witness’ hawking Watchtower magazines. The Israelites have become a fixture of this street corner’s otherwise shifting tableaux. Exclusively male and virulently sexist and homophobic, they are tolerated in some African American communities in part because of the lingering visceral appeal of Black nationalism.

While the Israelites’ millennialist “racial uplift” ethos ostensibly fits right into the bustle of this prominent South L.A. street, other belief systems are not as easily assimilated. Since 2006, the L.A.-based street philosopher Jeffrey “P Funk” Mitchell has been documenting his conversations with everyday folk on questions of atheism and faith. Using the handle “Atheist Walking,” Mitchell also conducts free-ranging inquiries into Christianity’s contradictions with a rolling video camera and a satirically raised eyebrow.

Adopting the role of the bemused urban flaneur, ala the commentator- pedestrian immortalized by French poet Charles Baudelaire, he delves into “atheist spirituality,” biblical literalism and the paradoxes of faith. Mitchell is a member of the L.A.-based Black Skeptics, a group that was formed earlier this year to provide an outlet and platform for secular humanist African Americans. The Skeptics are part of a small but growing segment of African Americans who are searching for humanist alternatives to organized religion.

In May, the Washington DC Center for Inquiry’s first annual African Americans for Humanism conference drew over fifty participants. Chat groups and websites like the Black Atheists of America have sprung up to accommodate the longing for community amongst non-theist African Americans who feel marginalized in a sea of black hyper-religiosity. Organizations such as the Institute for Humanist Studies cultivate African American secularist scholarship and advocacy.

With over 85% of African Americans professing religious belief, black religiosity is a formidable influence. Racial segregation, the historical role of the Black Church, and African American social conformity reinforce Christianity’s powerful hold on black communities. Indeed, I was recently told that I’d been deemed an unsuitable culmination speaker for a bourgie philanthropic organization’s young women mentees because of my decidedly unladylike public atheism (Perhaps the Israelite’s Old Testament shout-out to silent prostrate women would be more acceptable). Proper role models for impressionable black youth are, at the very least, skillful church lady pretenders with ornate hats in tow. Secular organizations that seek to build humanist community with a predominantly African American base and social justice world view are challenged by the association of charitable giving, philanthropy, poverty work and education with faith-based communities. For many, successfully emulating the strong social and cultural networks that have sustained church congregations is an elusive goal.

And then, there is the deep and abiding desire for belief in the supernatural, the ineffable faith-passion that propels some through the trauma of racial indignities and personal crisis. Yet, humanism asks why we should cede enlightenment and the potential for restoration to the supernatural. Humanism challenges the implication that the sublimity of the natural world, and our connection to those that we love, admire and respect, is somehow impoverished without a divine creator. In one of his bus stop monologues, Mitchell comments, “I want people to look at each other with the same reverence that they look at God and realize that ‘we’ did this, we made this happen.”

The “we” represents will, agency, and motive force; qualities that many believers would attribute to God as omniscient architect and overseer. Non-believers are compelled to ask whether individual actions (for good or ill) are determined by God, or whether human beings simply act on their own volition in a universe overseen by God. Since time immemorial, non-believers have questioned whether God exercises control over those who commit evil acts or whether hell is the only “medium” for justice. By refusing to invest supernatural forces with divine authority over human affairs, humanism emphasizes human responsibility for the outcome of our pursuits. Morality is defined by just deeds, fairness, equality and respect for difference; not by how blusteringly one claims to adhere to “Godly” principles.

However, in communities that are plagued with double-digit unemployment and a sense of cultural devaluation, notions of self-sufficiency and ultimate human agency may be perceived as demoralizing if not dangerously radical. As a child preacher steeped in the fiery oratory of the Black Church, writer James Baldwin recounted his growing cynicism about spreading “the gospel.” Lamenting the grip of religion on poor blacks, Baldwin said, “When I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to…tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize.” In Baldwin’s view, organized religion’s requirement that believers suspend disbelief and submit to “God’s will” is a liability for working class African Americans. Religious dogma anesthetizes as it bonds, a dangerous combination in an era in which the proliferation of storefront churches in urban black communities is a symptom of economic underdevelopment.

Echoing Baldwin, Chicago-based Education professor and atheist Kamau Rashid argues that “Freethought is an extension and expression of the struggle that African Americans have waged for self-determination. In fact it represents a heightened phase of such a struggle wherein one of the final stages of ‘conceptual incarceration,’ the belief in a God or gods, is discarded for a belief in the human potential, for a belief in ourselves.”

And why, in a heritage steeped in the revolutionary thought of such dirty outlaw skeptics as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, A. Philip Randolph, James Forman and Alice Walker, would this be so viscerally frightening?

*With apologies to Bob Dylan

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.

Comments

  1. shirley says

    i am very happy that I stumbled upon your site. I am 59 and I have never believed, but as most of you know that wasn’t kosher in the black community. So I went thru the motiions. The bible and it warmongering, vengeful god has crippled the black community. I hear so many of my friends counting on getting justice in the afterlife, and not trying to seek it now. Justice delayed is justice denied. As a scientist the virgin birth, raising the dead, and burning bushes just don’t make sense. With the political climate in america, haven’t you noticed all of these republican candidates invoking god’s name. I am still waiting for these prosperity ministers to talk about hiv, homosexuality, femal head of households, absentee fathers, drugs, family violence, and dismal dropout rates. I am so sick of people tithing rather than using that money for their education

  2. de mush doctor says

    The perpetual sad state of affairs that we black people continue to find ourselves in is almost always related to us relinquishing our human, civil and equal rights to the white power structure, by acknowledging the white man as God, or the white race as superior to us as black people,because we were brainwashed to believe the myth that we are of the Devil’s spawn,and white people are “God’s chosen people. We are doomed to fail with such disgusting archaic beliefs.This is how Africa got stolen from under us…Sad but true.

  3. says

    Thank you for all the insightful comments. The more vocal, visible critically conscious secularist people of color we have who are willing to be on the frontlines for this issue the better. Don, I look forward to reading more of your work (!) and yes I agree that the loss of Norm Allen at AAH is a blow. Many of us came to this field reading and appreciating his scholarship.

  4. says

    Keep up the fight, Ms Hutchinson! Great article and as you point out non-believers are in some pretty good company: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, A. Philip Randolph, James Forman and Alice Walker. The suspension of reason in order to believe is a threat to humanity — witness those who do not want to believe in global warming, the weakness of warfare as a cure for comparative depredation between nations, etc. Or, my group is okay and yours is bad by definition.

  5. Trey says

    Great article. This problem has always plagued me since I was a teen. It seems that in the Black community, we are so blind to the truth at times. If you want to control us, all you really need to do is set a reasonable agenda and attach “God’s will” to it. 85% of us would be sold, without even the notion of looking into one’s self and asking a logical question such as “why?”. That’s my biggest issue. This problem is not simply reserved to the Black community, however I do be believe we tend take it further (collectively) than any other group in America. (Excluding the radicals that you find in all religions/ethic groups)

    If you ask a young Black female what they would want in their mate…9 times out of 10 the first answer will be “I want a God-fearing man”…then if you ask the question “why?”, the response becomes cloudy.

  6. Say WHAT? says

    Please continue to speak out against the sleeping pill that is Black religion in America. I can’t think of any other people who have been hoodwinked by the Eurocentric version of Christianity more.

  7. says

    Sikivu:

    Sadly, it was their loss because they couldn’t see past a label into the person. Keep it up. I always enjoy reading you. By the way,Debbie Goddard hs taken Norm Allen’s position. I am sure you are quite aware of this, but I thought it important to note Norm’s work in a, quite frankly, difficult cause. His heart was always in the right place and he felt the need to get a job done, just as you and many others apparrently do. I wish I could have been in DC, but I had surgery. I am recovering now and more dedicated to at least informing our brethren that there is not only a better way, but a quicker way also. I will try to write a minority education success plan that leaves behind all the “usual suspects” that drag down our learning and, thus, cut our ability to compete across a broad spectrum. Have I started–No! But, I will be calling on you for ideas and expertise.

    Donald R Barbera

  8. Felix says

    Every time the topic comes up, I recall the black woman interviewed on the street regarding her Prop8 agitating. Paraphrased, she said, “as a discriminated minority we’ve struggled so long for our rights, and now we can finally have a say and cast our vote” – removing the same rights of another minority. Some people got their minds so crippled by irrationalist ideology that they have become impotent to learn the lessons of history.

  9. Conrad Spoke says

    For a very long time I have been infuriated by the deafening silence of black leaders who call themselves “reverend” (i.e. Jackson and Sharpton) on the subject of black, Christian homophobia. It also pains me that black politicians are consistently cagier than the whitest, most Republican, Jesus-loving congressional cretins regarding gay rights. If anyone out there knows of an African-American congressperson who has openly denounced black homophobia, please post a reply. I’d like to think there a bit of hope for the future.

  10. Willis Dean Buchanan says

    Well done!
    Sikivu Hutchinson has taught me something about the African-American community that is important and timely. I admire her writing style and ability to communicate effectively. This issue needs more coverage.

  11. matthew7874 says

    Brilliant! Well done. I had not heard that Baldwin quote and will be tucking it away in a safe place.

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