February Meeting Review: Black Freethinkers: The History of African American Secularism

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By August Berkshire

Headshot of August.

Christopher Cameron, Ph.D., is Professor of History and the Interim Chair of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is also the co-editor of Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter: Essays on a Moment and a Movement. He was the founding president of the African American Intellectual History Society.

When Dr. Cameron began this work, he did not know any other African American atheists. His investigations led to hundreds of books and documents, culminating in this definitive work on the topic.

As an in-depth overview of the topic, Black Freethinkers at a minimum does three things:

First, it talks about some notable people you may have already heard of, in this case, people
like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin. It tells you about aspects of their lives that you were probably unaware of, in this case, their religious freethinking, agnosticism, or atheism.

Second, it introduces you to some notable people and works you haven’t heard of before. For me, it was the Black, freethought, feminist novel Quicksand by Nella Larsen, published in 1928. It is an overlooked classic still in print.

Third, it introduces you to some aspects of history that you didn’t know before. For me it was the association of African Americans with freethought and the socialist and communist movements.

Black Freethought is divided into five historical periods:

• Slavery and Reconstruction
• The New Negro Renaissance (which includes the Harlem Renaissance)
• Socialism and Communism
• Civil Rights and Black Power
• A brief Afterward that takes us to the present

[The rest of this article is taken verbatim, or nearly so, from the presentation by Dr. Christopher Cameron, who was kind enough to share his PowerPoint presentation with me. —A.B.]

Freethought among slaves usually did not take the form of deism but rather atheism. It was brought about by the hypocritical religion of masters and the inability to conceive of a just and benevolent god amidst the horrors of slavery. Evidence for this comes from slave narratives, travel accounts, interviews with former slaves, and music.

The Harlem Renaissance began in 1919 and represented a watershed moment in the history
of Black freethought. It was brought about by an increase in urban life and greater access to educational institutions, both of which undermined religious belief. For participants in the Renaissance — art, literature, theater, and music became substitutes for religion and a means to argue for the inherent equality of Blacks. Prominent freethinkers of this era included Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Since its inception among German and French intellectuals in the 1800s, socialism and communism have been tied to atheism (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, etc.). African Americans were drawn to the revolutionary character of communism and its anti-imperialist politics. They likewise appreciated the support communists gave to struggles for racial justice and civil rights, including the defense of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. Like artists of the Harlem Renaissance, commitment to communism was a replacement for religious belief for many adherents. Prominent Black Communist freethinkers included: Louise Thompson Patterson, Hubert Harrison, Harry Heywood, W.E.B. Du Bois, Elizabeth Hendrickson, Cyril Briggs, and Richard Wright.

The Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) is often portrayed as a religious one because of the prominence of figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. However, the reality is that most churches of the era were conservative and less than 10% participated in civil rights demonstrations. Many prominent civil rights activists were hostile to religion and based their political activism on a secularist viewpoint. This is probably best seen in the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party. Two early and primary articulators of Black Power were Stokely Carmichael and James Forman, both atheists and both opponents of nonviolence (i.e. pacifism as a response to attacks). The Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, organized programs including health clinics, free breakfasts for children, armed self-defense, job training, and legal defense. Many members rejected the ethics of Christianity and mainstream civil rights leaders.

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) spanned roughly from 1965 to 1976. It aimed to promote Black cultural nationalism, appreciation of African culture, and anti-respectability politics. Key writers and artists of the BAM, including Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, were atheists.

Conclusion: Despite views of Blacks as naturally religious, freethought has been a vital and significant component of Black culture and politics since the 19th century. This history is not an obscure one, as sources on Black freethinkers are readily available in print and online (slave narratives on docsouth.unc.edu, poetry, novels, autobiographies). It is vital to understand and teach this history to show Black skeptics today that they are part of a long tradition of prominent Black freethinkers.

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