The Record Box - What It's Like To Be A Black Atheist
In my house, there is a box full of about 40 old vinyl records, and I dusted them off a couple of weeks ago.
They belonged to my father, who died 12 years ago, when I was 13. The first one that I cleaned off was called “Brotherhood” and it’s a collection of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, including (of course) his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. I was amazed even to get the old record equipment to work, and though I know the speech backwards and forwards from listening to it a hundred times, I let it play.
“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Also in the record box were jams by gospel greats like Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Caesar, or the soulful stylings of The Williams Brothers. I can remember the lyrics that played long ago through my house, the very speakers I just jimmy-rigged to see if they’d work…
I’m just a nobody
Trying to tell everybody
Who can save anybody
When I was younger, I went to a parochial Seventh-Day Adventist school called Rochester Junior Academy. I can remember going to an event where our choir sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson, christened “the black national anthem.”
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
I remember watching the movie Rosewood with my father. We watched a town ravaged to pieces over a lie that a white woman told that she was raped and beaten by a nigger. The men ran, hopefully reuniting with their families later. The women and children hid in swamps. Several black men were lynched (no one knows how many) and no one ever returned to the town. And in the background, Shirley Caesar sings.
Look down Lord, look down
This time I’m coming home
It’s late now, sweet Jesus, take me now
This time I’m coming home
After the film, I went outside to stomp in puddles left behind after a recent rain…
If you’re black, it’s there. It’s always there. In the plays, in the speeches, in all the history, in every person you admire, in every story, every song of strength or escape, everything. God. And if you’re a black atheist, how do you make sense of that?
I sometimes think that my white brothers and sister of the cloth of disbelief have privileges that I do not share when they intimate that they “just don’t understand how someone can ‘buy into’ religion” or they dismiss the idea of the comfort religion provides out of hand. Most of the time, that’s not something you can say as easily if you’re black.
How else do you understand your life when you can’t provide for your child, or even keep them if you want to? What do you do when your husband is beaten, or when you find yourself the victim of sexual violence? How do you live thinking that there’s nothing better than that kind of destruction?
Everyone knows that churches were loci of political as well as religious action for many black Americans, during the civil rights era, and at other times in history, too. They were a home to many blacks who felt disenfranchised in every corner of their country. To this day, religiosity is higher in blacks than it is in whites, but not always.
And here I am.
Social Change and Religion
Believe it or not, as much as we love to hate it, religion is a huge conduit for social change. No, really. For as much as the non-religious talk about how religion is used to justify evil (and it undoubtedly is), it is also used to justify tremendous good.
Martin Luther King Jr. was able to effectively call out the discrimination against black people precisely because he shared the same faith that many white Americans did. He was able to point out that they believed the same things, and that that should lead Americans to fraternity, brotherhood, and solidarity with the plight of black America.
Arguments like these are powerful because they call to proper ideals improperly practiced, and they basically ensure that no matter how shitty someone is, you can always remind them that they’re being shitty based on rules they’ve already said they agree to.
“We are all the same under God, so what about slavery?”
“We are all the same under God, so what about police brutality?”
“We are all the same under God, what about discriminatory bathroom laws?”
Atheists are not under the same God. So when someone acts without humanity, how do we then appeal to their humanity?
And it’s this humanity, this zeal, this passion that is emblematic of the black experience. Being a black atheist means that you have to go different routes (often more circuitous and less convincing ones) to convince others why they should behave well or be kind and loving. In many cases, even standing up for black causes, you won’t garner the same support from people who feel they can’t support the totality of what you stand for, even if they do like the aspects that appeal to them.
So you can stand for social justice for your people, but in an inherently different way. It’s just what you do now.
Ultimately, I don’t think that a God exists, and I can’t help that. If you were to ask me if I want a God to exist, I would tell you that I don’t understand the question.
It’s an uncomfortable realization that being a black atheist is indicative of many things, and one of them, at least for me, is that I haven’t had to share in the iconic and almost hereditary struggle of my people, and that can make you feel out of place. It’s not a bad thing, per se. Actually, it’s exactly how they (my ancestors) intended it to be.
But it means that I’ve reached a point where I’m certainly not on “the path” anymore. It means always second guessing that deep cultural history in which you feel pride, because you don’t or can’t really consider yourself a part of it anymore. It means being shut out of a most important story, and mostly by your own doing.
But you are what you are. Honesty is as compelling a virtue as any. And it seems just as honest to keep the box of records close by.
To any other black atheists out there or atheists in general, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, @Ame0baRepublic on Twitter, @dirtydeedammit on Instagram, facebook.com/nowthatwerehere, or check out my blog at Mikkile0n.wordpress.com