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Convention speech: Chris Cameron — A history of Black secularism

Chris Cameron (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Chris Cameron gave this speech (edited for length) on Nov. 20, 2021, at FFRF’s national convention in Boston. (To watch the speech, go to ffrf.us/speeches-2021) He was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Dan Barker: Chris Cameron earned his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina and he’s an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research interests are Africa American religious and intellectual history, slavery and abolition, religious liberalism and American secularism. He’s the founding president of the African American Intellectual History Society and has a group blog called Black Perspectives. He’s author of a fascinating book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism. Please welcome Professor Chris Cameron. 

By Chris Cameron

I’ll give sort of a broad overview of the research I did in some of my main findings from my book Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism.

From March 21–26, 1953, Langston Hughes — poet, author and playwright of Harlem Renaissance fame — testified before Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations regarding the atheist and communist themes in his 1932 poem, “Goodbye Christ.” At one point during the testimony, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois wanted to know whether Hughes thought the book is dead, referring to the bible, and whether or not “Goodbye Christ” could be considered an accurate reflection of African American religious values. Dirksen noted that he was very familiar with African Americans. (He wasn’t.) And that he knew them to be innately very devout and religious people, in his words. 

Dirksen’s statement regarding the supposed innate religiosity of African Americans has become a widespread belief among scholars and in American popular culture. It is an idea that stretches back at least to the 1830s, when Unitarian Minister William Ellery Channing noted in his 1835 book Slavery that “The colored race is said to be peculiarly susceptible of the religious sentiment,” something that he argued led to an overly affectionate nature. 

Freethinkers, later in the 19th century, gave credence to this idea, with William MacDonald, editor of The Truth Seeker, proclaiming in an 1883 article that “There is no class of people in the world more religious than the Negroes. Their fervent African temperament makes them peculiarly susceptible to religious sentiment.” 

These notions are themselves rooted in the idea that African Americans are barbarous, uncivilized, controlled by their emotions rather than logic and reason, and thus incapable of grasping the subtleties of secular thought. As Presbyterian minister Charles Colcock Jones noted in surprise among encountering deism and skepticism in the antebellum slave community, these ideas were usually only found in the cultivated minds, the ripe scholarship and profound intelligence of critics and philosophers. 

My book, Black Freethinkers, builds off the pioneering work of contemporary scholars and Black atheists such as Sikivu Hutchinson and Anthony Pinn, to show that, despite the ubiquity of notions of Blacks as naturally religious, there is a long and storied tradition of secularism within African American culture.

Author and Associate Professor Chris Cameron speaks about his book Black Freethinkers at FFRF’s convention at the Boston Park Plaza on Nov. 20, 2021. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Early Black freethought

African American freethought first arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and it was a homegrown domestic movement. Unlike the European Enlightenment origins of freethought among intellectuals such as Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, Black freethought grew out of the lived realities of enslaved people and the conditions that Blacks endured within it. 

The increased evangelism to slaves that characterized the second Great Awakening of the 19th century also brought to the fore what many saw to be the hypocritical nature of their Christian masters, including the very practice of holding slaves, but also the way that their masters treated them. So, one of the key reasons that African Americans in the 19th century embraced freethought was an inability to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the presence of a benevolent and omnipotent deity. For many, if not all, slaves, the problem of evil was intimately related to their daily lives when they experienced brutal punishments, sexual assault or families being sold away. 

While many enslaved people did find meaning in religion, whether monotheistic ones such as Christianity or African-derived traditions such as Conjure, others rejected religion altogether. And I found quite a lot of evidence for this in some of the same sources that scholars use to explore the Black religious experience, namely slave narratives. When I went to these sources asking different questions than most other scholars, I found that these narratives also speak to the presence of atheism within 19th-century slave communities. 

One enslaved man named Austin Steward, for example, from Prince William County, Va., immediately after he discusses a brutal whipping that his sister endured on Sabbath, asks in his narrative, “Can anyone wonder that I and other slaves often doubted the sincerity of every white man’s religion? Can it be a matter of astonishment as slaves often feel, there is no just god for the poor African.” 

Another enslaved man named Charles Ball likewise reflects in his autobiography on the irreligiosity present within slave communities. He writes, “There is in general very little sense of religious obligation or duty among the slaves on the cotton plantations, and Christianity cannot be, with propriety, called the religion of these people. They have not the slightest religious regard for the Sabbath Day, and their masters make no efforts to impress them with the least respect for this sacred institution.” He goes on to say many slaves just prefer to rest on their one day off, have a few drinks, spend time with their families. Some even cultivated a garden plot. 

But he also speaks to another key factor pushing slaves away from religion, namely, the opposition of their masters. And there were different schools of thought on this. A lot of masters believed that inculcating a particular type of Christianity would make their slaves more docile in compliance. But then there were events like Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, whereby 69 whites were killed by a rebellion led by a slave preacher that led a lot of other masters to think that there are some really dangerous elements in Christianity, and we want to keep those away from enslaved people. 

Pro-slavery religion

Another key development that fostered the growth of African American atheism during the 19th century was the rise and increasing prevalence of pro-slavery religion. This became much more prominent after 1830, when the abolitionist movement sort of ramped up with the creation of groups like the American Anti-Slavery Society and the start of publications like William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator magazine. 

Prior to that, there were certainly individuals who argued and took action against slavery, but the movement became much more widespread and much more organized after the 1830s, so defenders of slavery felt that they sort of needed to do the same. And they kind of ramped up their efforts and came up with a lot of religious defenses of slavery: The curse of Ham; the fact that Jesus never preached against it; but, probably, the main one was that slavery was a tool to Christianize uncivilized and savage Africans. While their bodies might be enslaved here on Earth, their souls will be free in heaven.

Most enslaved people felt they were destined to die in bondage unless they were delivered by some deity, and slave Henry Bibb noted in his autobiography that when that doesn’t happen, they cannot believe or trust in such a religion. So, most of the evidence that we have for freethought comes from these slave narratives. 

A lot of the people are sort of anonymous. You get writers like Bibb or Charles Ball reflecting on atheism within their communities, but we don’t necessarily know who these people are. There are some exceptions. Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown are probably the two main ones that we know of, but our freethought in the 19th century among African Americans wouldn’t necessarily be an organized movement. You have bits and pieces and pockets of atheism here and there. That would start to change during the 20th century, especially with the rise of the Harlem Renaissance or the new Negro Renaissance, a literary, artistic and cultural movement that spanned the years from roughly 1919 to about 1935. The Harlem Renaissance itself was a product of the Great Migration to the North, which saw approximately one and a half million Black Southerners migrating to northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. 

Chris Cameron speaks with an FFRF member following his book signing during the convention. Order Black Freethinkers from ffrf.org/shop. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

New approach to racism

So, after World War I, one development that we saw was anti-communist hysteria that ran rampant throughout the country, and any association of anti-racist efforts and activism that was quickly associated with communism. So, there is an increasing prevalence of race riots in 1919 and 1920, and it led a lot of Black leaders to try to take different or creative approaches to solving the problem of racism. And one was the rise of cultural politics. If we’re going to be the victims of race riots by openly protesting against racism, maybe another tack to take, Black leaders said, is to show our equality, to show our fitness for citizenship through our artistic and literary productions. This is one sort of impetus behind the Harlem Renaissance. And it became such an important moment because it had the effect of bringing together a lot of religious skeptics and freethinkers who might have been isolated in their small Midwestern or Southern communities. 

But now, all of a sudden, they’re in a place like Harlem, or they’re in a place like Chicago with like-minded, educated, cosmopolitan people. 

The Harlem Renaissance was rife with writings by atheists. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, the man widely heralded as a father of the Harlem Renaissance, and James Walden Johnson, novels, plays, poems allowed freethinkers to express their critiques of religion in kind of creative ways where they could almost disassociate themselves from it. They could say, “Oh, that’s just a poem.” Or, “I’m just being creative” or “That’s just a novel. It isn’t necessarily my ideas.” 

One of the most important sources to explore freethought during this Renaissance period was Nella Larsen’s 1928 novel Quicksand. The central character in this novel was a woman named Helga Crane. It begins with her stating her dissatisfaction with the school in Naxos, an anagram of Saxon, and the main thing that causes her discomfort with the school is religion and the respectability of the middle-class African Americans around her. She doesn’t like that. She’s forced to go to church, to wear certain types of clothes, to act a certain way. She quickly leaves there. She goes to Chicago. She thinks she might be able to build community there with other African Americans and goes to a large Black church. She’s pretty much spurned and ignored by everybody there. Throughout the novel, every time she’s encountering religious people, they’re always pretty negative. And even at the very end, the same is true. She makes a very rash decision toward the end of the novel to marry a revival preacher from Alabama named Rev. Mr. Pleasant Green. She moves from Harlem down to this rural community in Alabama. She’s the preacher’s wife. In three years, she has four children, including a set of twins. And after the fourth, she’s pretty much laid up on her deathbed, realizing how her life is just absolutely terrible. It’s not what she wanted for herself, and it all boils down to her decision to accept this heteronormative, patriarchal life, which itself was based on Christianity. At the very end, she writes, “With the obscuring curtain of religion rent, she was able to look about her and see with shocked eyes this thing she had done to herself. She couldn’t, she thought ironically, even blame God for it, now that she knew he didn’t exist.” 

This is one example of how literature becomes a really important source for Black freethinkers, especially, to be able to express their ideas without it necessarily being associated with them personally.  

Embracing communism

During the 1910s, in the 1920s, we see an increasing number of African Americans embracing socialism and communism, and this worked hand in hand with the rise of African American secularism during this period because socialists and communists were very antithetical to religion. The Comintern, the Communist International in 1926, put out a very explicit directive that we expect communists to be atheists. If you went to a communist meeting anywhere in the United States, and probably most places in the world, and they knew you went to church or they knew you were religious or something, you would be ostracized and shunned. You’d be expected to put your religion away. And socialism and communism became increasingly appealing to African Americans because, at least theoretically, they subsumed issues of race under issues of class. 

Many African American intellectuals and Black secularists also embraced communism, including Claude McKay, Louise Thompson Patterson, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, publishers of the Messenger magazine, and Hubert Harrison, who was widely held during his time as one of the most towering Black intellectuals of the day. Harrison played an important role in Harlem politics and saw himself as an apostle of freethought to African American communities. 

And with Hubert Harrison and with early 20th-century Black freethought, this is where you start to see the traditions of Black and white freethought beginning to converge a little bit. This is where you see African Americans starting to come to their religious skepticism through an engagement with readings by Thomas Paine or Robert Ingersoll.

Indeed, Hubert Harrison saw himself as a figure very much akin to Paine, somebody who could take really kind of complicated ideas, boil them down for his broad audience in New York City and try to convert African Americans to secularism. He thought that Black people had suffered more than any other group in this country under Christianity, and that they should be the very first ones to embrace freethought. 

From there, my book turns to a discussion of secularism and the Black Power movement during the 1960s and 1970s. And just as in earlier periods, Black freethinkers are central players in civil rights, and we can see this, especially with the Black Power movement. Black Power emerged out of the civil rights activity of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966. SNCC had had been created in 1960 and was initially led by Christian activists such as James Lawson and John Lewis, who were committed to the philosophy of nonviolence. This philosophy and approach soon began to change, however, especially after James Forman took over the group. 

Forman grew up in rural Mississippi, and he started moving away from religion as a young man. In a scene repeated in many autobiographies and memoirs of Black freethinkers, Forman writes in his book The Making of Black Revolutionaries, that, at the age of 12, he was attending a revival service. Some of his friends shouted out that they had gotten religion, and the older people shouted this, too. He says, “I did not have the courage to tell my grandmother that I thought this was all nonsense. I simply observe what had been happening around me and knew that I, too, could fabricate some tears in this emotionally charged atmosphere. So, I covered my face with my handkerchief and cried, ‘Lord, have mercy.’ It worked. I was taken off the mourners bench and the people talked of how many children got saved that day by the grace of the Lord.”

Langston Hughes has a very similar story about growing up in Joplin, Mo., and attending a revival service there. Richard Wright has one. James Baldwin. This is sort of a recurring theme among Black freethinkers — the pressure from their community to convert to Christianity. But, also, the moments where they fake this conversion actually becomes the moment where they become atheists or they become agnostics. 

Black Power movement

Forman would formally embrace atheism after studying philosophy at Wilson Junior College in Chicago, and he would bring his secular perspective to his civil rights activity. He became the executive secretary of SNCC in 1963 and grounded his activism in secular humanism as he believed that Christianity was a prime reason that Blacks were in a subordinate position in the United States. 

In 1966, Forman, along with Stokely Carmichael, led the transition of SNCC from a religious to a secular organization and inaugurated the Black Power movement, the major goals of which were promoting Black economic advancement, a pride in Black culture, independent Black political action and armed self-reliance, or a rejection of nonviolence. 

The main institutional expression of Black Power as an ideology was the Black Panther Party for self-defense. This was formed in Oakland, Calif., in 1966 in response to issues of police brutality and police murdering unarmed African Americans. And it began as an explicitly secular organization — not that it promoted secularism, but that it was based off of secular humanism and a desire for human beings to do for themselves without the assistance of a deity. Some of its main goals were ending health disparities within African American communities. They created clinics and ran ambulance services and created schools for African Americans. And probably the most famous of their endeavors was the free breakfast program for children that was run throughout the nation. 

And Huey Newton, one of the founders of the party, is very explicit in his autobiography that these were sort of humanist endeavors. Newton, along with Stokely Carmichael, David Hilliard and Eldridge Cleaver, some of the key leaders of the Black Panther Party, were all very outspoken in their atheism. And the newspaper of the party, the Black Panther, also contained poems and other writers by Blacks secular thinkers. Like earlier freethinkers, they saw the church as conservative, and they advanced a humanist politics that rejected the authority of what they termed “Uncle Tom boot-licking preachers.”

While we often see the civil rights movement as a religious movement dependent on ministers and churches, an examination of Black Power in the Black Panther Party, especially in urban regions such as Oakland or New York City, shows that secularism was often just as, if not more, prominent than religion among these activists. 

And indeed, even if we look at the traditional civil rights movement in the South, it was actually the case that only a small minority of Black churches engaged in open political activity. In a pioneering work, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, historian Barbara Savage notes that the fact that we’ve come to see the civil rights movement as a religious one is a miracle in and of itself. 

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. And it’s a history that’s not of obscure people. As you know, some of the people I discuss in my book include Frederick Douglass, Hubert Harrison, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Huey Newton and Alice Walker, some of the leading intellectuals, some of the leading political figures in African American culture.

It’s vital to understand and teach this history to show Black skeptics today that they are part of a long and prominent tradition of Black freethinkers. Thank you.