Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Convention speech: Mandisa Thomas — Building a bridge . . . because it is needed

Vol. 37 No. 02 March 2020
Mandisa Thomas (Photo by Ingrid Laas)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

To watch Mandisa Thomas’ convention speech, go to
ffrf.us/thomas


This is an edited version of the speech given by Mandisa Thomas at FFRF’s national convention on Oct. 19 in Madison, Wis. She was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor:

Mandisa Thomas is a native of New York City who now lives in Atlanta. She is the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers Inc. Black Nonbelievers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that she founded as a volunteer in 2011, dedicated to connecting black nonbelievers and allies who are living free from religion to provide secular fellowship, reduce stigma, support nonbelievers in coming out, and which celebrates racial diversity in our movement. Black Nonbelievers’ motto is “Walking by sight, not by faith.” You may have caught Mandisa on “CBS Sunday Morning,” CNN.com, Jet magazine or on the cover of The Humanist magazine with four other fierce black women freethinkers.

When a group of us representing various secular organizations lobbied together in Congress last February, members of Congress were most interested in hearing from Mandisa about a highly overlooked constituency — black nonbelievers. Two weeks ago, Mandisa, with help from some other activists, put on the historic Women of Color Beyond Belief conference in Chicago, of which FFRF is proud to have been a sponsor, Dan and I were there with some other staff. 

Like so many innovators and activists, Mandisa Thomas saw an important need going unfilled and she didn’t wait for someone else to fill it and do the work. She stepped up to the plate to meet that need and create Black Nonbelievers, which performs a vital service, not just for black nonbelievers, but for the freethinking community. It’s my pleasure to introduce the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 2019 Freethought Heroine, Mandisa Thomas.

By Mandisa Thomas

Thank you to all of you for being here today. For those who came before me, those who work with me and those who will eventually come after me, it is nice to bask in this moment. Thank you once again for this.

It’s a very interesting thing for me to be considered a heroine because I am simply an organizer with a background and expertise in hospitality and event management, with a heavy secular influence. I’m a proud — very, very proud — black woman who definitely saw a need that wasn’t being fulfilled in this movement. Just like “nothing fails like prayer,” nothing fails like just sitting back and waiting for something to be done. The stronghold of religion in the black community is something that we are very much contending with, so I’m not going to prolong that point, because hopefully everyone in here gets it.

In starting Black Nonbelievers, we have been about overturning the stronghold of religion within the black community, as well as the dependence on the savior mentality, this idea that God is going to come and save our community from the atrocities that have been committed, all the while overlooking the fact that if this god existed, he was responsible for it in the first place.

We knew that there were more of us out here. We knew there were more black folks who were sitting in churches. They didn’t believe anymore, but they thought that they were the only ones. That is actually very common. We just knew we needed to fill those gaps within the high religiosity in the black community, as well as the lack of representation within the secular community. A bridge needed to be built.

Black Nonbelievers as an organization is now eight years strong and counting. And our mission is to build the community and increase the visibility and support for black folks who either identify fully as atheist or who are questioning religion in favor of leaving, while also encouraging an evidence-based approach to life. It is important to show that, yes, there are more than a few black atheists out there. 

We had to build up this community and network in order for us to really get it. We hosted a number of events. We are almost day-in and day-out engaging with other black atheists, as well as all kinds of atheists. We are coming up on our 10th anniversary in 2021.

Our work has also led to not only more black folks, black atheists, black secularist humanists, etc., coming out to various events, but has also led us to contributing to research, as well as to literary projects. Projects such as the American Humanist Association’s cover of its magazine, which was the first time there have been multiple black women simultaneously featured on any secular magazine’s cover.

I know this is a room, a group here, that values literary works. I don’t know if you are familiar with any of these books: Jeremiah Camara’s Contradiction, the New Anthology of Black Freethinkers by Dr. Chris Cameron, the Ebony Exodus Project by Candace Gorham, which is an anthology on black women leaving religion, or Anthony Pinn’s Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer.

And there is a full amount of works that are coming from the black atheist demographic, and it was up to us to help facilitate it. Why? Because it was needed.

Will everyone make it as much as we would like? Ideally, we would hope that everyone who comes out as an atheist would be rational and objective, even while they are trying to overcome their religious beliefs. However, I have had to tell quite a few people in my years of activism this: “Bye, bitch.” And the reason is because some people aren’t ready, and that’s OK. That’s a part of managing our spaces and also managing the people, which is very important.

We have to consider that, even in our secular spaces, even when we are engaging people who are leaving these ideals behind, they do come in with a lot of baggage and we try to help as much as possible. I am not a licensed counselor, so I can’t put but so much on my plate, nor will I. I’m still a volunteer in this movement. I come from a demographic that is already overworked and undercredited, which is black women. Even in this community, where there is more attention paid to people of color as far as membership, is there is a genuine interest when it comes to leadership? 

When it comes to financial support, that is still very lacking. For myself as a black atheist, mother, wife, someone who was pansexual and sex-positive and unapologetic, I am not seen as a heroine but as a threat. And, sadly, that comes from within our own movement. You know what, even through the pitfalls and other things that we deal with, it has been important to keep going. Why? Because it’s needed.

[Shows photo of building on screen] Who here is familiar with this building? It is the new Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

I had a phone call from one of the directors at this museum regarding a project last year about black Millennials leaving religion. We are now in the preliminary stages of collecting archives of the Black Nonbelievers’ work. This is significant because there is a possibility that we will end up in this museum in the very near future. We are making history and it must be understood that black secular history and the activism that we are doing now is important, not just to the black community, but to American history and in the world. We are doing some serious work. The growth of a movement, especially one rooted in critical thinking and freethought, will depend on the acknowledgment and support for institutionally marginalized demographics, which means taking seriously the diversity and inclusion efforts and how you treat people of color when they enter these spaces. There is no getting around that.

I also want to announce that Women of Color Beyond Belief conference is coming back to Chicago next year. You may find more information at WOCBeyondBelief.com. What was so important about that event? It was very monumental because it showed that we’re accomplishing what other organizations are still trying to figure out, which is how to bring out more people of color. We welcome you to attend our events so that you can actually see how many people of color are involved in this movement, especially black women. I also want to thank FFRF for its support.

But the most important lesson that we can take here is to put your money where your mouth is. So to the person I spoke with earlier this morning, you don’t get a pat on the back for joining the NAACP, you don’t get a pat on the back for saying, “Hey, I have this black person as a friend” or “I know this person.” But you do get our sincere thanks and you do show that you are serious when you consistently support our efforts just as much as you support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. As much progress as FFRF is making — which we acknowledge and appreciate for being one of our most valued supporters — it also takes the people involved in these organizations to see the importance, even if it doesn’t directly apply to you. In some way it really does. I promise you that.

Again, it’s going to take all of us if we truly care about the marginalized people in this movement. If you say you need our voices, you say you need our leadership, it’s going to take deconstructing and re-evaluating these notions that you have about black and brown folks and other people of color, and especially women, in order for us to really move forward. Because it is needed.

Thank you.