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Jul 20 2012

Movie Friday: Black Folk Don’t… do atheism

A brand new series came to my attention a little while back called Black Folk Don’t, which confronts and discusses (but doesn’t necessarily debunk) stereotypes about the African American community. I had been meaning to throw one of them on here as a Movie Friday for a couple of weeks, but the latest version was just so squarely on the nose that I had to share it.

Some of my own thoughts below the fold.

First off, that lady who looks like Paul Mooney annoyed the living shit out of me. Just going to deal with that right out front.

Secondly, I was surprised that there was no mention whatsoever of Islam. While the brother with the bow tie might have been part of the Nation of Islam, there was no mention at all of the rich contribution that Muslims brought to the civil rights movement, black conservatism, and the movement away from Christian domination of black Americans that would eventually splinter into the Five Percent Nation and the various other forms of black mysticism. The omission of Vodun (voodoo) and Rastafari are less puzzling, but still conspicuous.

Third, I found it profoundly distressing that Mooney lady at 2:30 completely distorts black history. Here’s what she says:

They know there’s a spiritual being that watches over us, and has helped us from the beginning of time. From slavery… civil rights… we survived so much hardship that we know on our own we couldn’t have done it.

So much wrong here to unpack.

One: slavery was not the beginning of time. The fact that the black story always starts with slavery is a ridiculously Eurocentric white supremacist meme that denies the rich and storied history of pre-colonial Africa. We existed for millennia before the 1400s, and made profound contributions to early civilization, all the way through to the medieval era.

Two: at some point she really should have asked herself what the sweet fuck her merciful Jesus was doing when he allowed the slave owners to get in the boats and capture her ancestors in the first fucking place. To have her tell it, Yahweh was chilling on his cloud napping until someone clued him in that some of his creatures were enslaving some of the other ones, upon hearing which he got off his ass and enacted a series of events so subtle that they cannot be distinguished from black folks just doing that shit themselves.

Three: look how easily she completely trivializes the hard work that thousands of black (and white, and Jewish, and Asian) people did to advance the cause of civil rights. To this day, people are struggling for black equality, and she wants to completely dismiss them and give all the credit to a god that let the shit happen in the first place.

And she does all this with a smile on her face. Seriously, Mooney-lady, eat shit. Nobody’s who’s as wrong as you should be smiling that much.

The fourth thing that stands out to me is that they mention the number of black thinkers who rejected a god concept because of black suffering. I dislike how this plays into the ready-made meme that people become atheists because they’re angry at a god or because they can’t understand why god would allow suffering. If anything, that feeling opens people up to exploring the possibility of a godless reality, but it’s very rarely what convinces them to reject god concepts entirely. Sadly, I don’t know enough about the history of black freethinkers to respond to this point with anything more than vague irritation.

Anyway, other than that, I liked this piece quite a bit. I am glad to see that black atheism is beginning to poke its head above the surface and get noticed. Hopefully this will kick off a few conversations.

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21 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    On your fourth point, I’m very mixed. On one hand, yeah, I had that same reaction. On the other hand, I felt they played it well as if this anger was pretty justified. The evidential form of the Problem of Evil is, after all, pretty powerful, and IMO probably the strongest argument against a triple-omni god — and black people living in the west have a particularly visceral connection to that. It’s sort of the antidote to the problem you mention in your second point.

  2. 2
    One Thousand Needles, lumper-splitter

    Nobody who’s as wrong as you should be smiling that much.

    That’s a gem of prose right there.

  3. 3
    scotlyn

    When I think that these precious souls [fellow slaves he taught to read] are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, “Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?

    Frederick Douglass, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” free on Kindle.

    This certainly sounds like the way in which questioning would begin.

  4. 4
    Kurt1

    I also disagree with you on the fourth point. To me the argument appears to be, that black people would not need to suffer because a good and just god would intervene, therefore there is no god. But I don´t know about the philosophies of black freethinkers either. Something I am now interested to learn more about.

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    My point is that there are COUNTLESS apologetics for the problem of evil, and it leaves a Christian person on the sidelines thinking “well Douglass was an atheist because he was angry at God, not for a legitimate reason”. There are LEGITIMATE reasons to disbelieve (Christian apologetics reek of desperation and special pleading), and while the problem of evil often opens people up to questioning the existence of a god, it is very rarely sufficient on its own to completely reject religion.

    I may try to tackle some black nonbelievers in February for Black History Month.

  6. 6
    tms

    “well Douglass was an atheist because he was angry at God, not for a legitimate reason”

    Not to derail the thread but, I am regularly amazed at the number of religious folk who equate atheism with “God hate”. At a friends New Year’s party this year, I raised a glass to the late Christopher Hitchens, and my host said, “Oh yeah, the guy who hated God.”

    Where does that come from? I was so taken aback (and not wanting to make my host uncomfortable at his party) that I kept my mouth shut. Is this just cognitive dissonance, or just a convenient over simplification by someone who can’t conceive of the non existance of God?

  7. 7
    Reese M

    In my opinion, the problem of evil is what prompts people to question god, and the complete lack of evidence is what leads people to atheism.

  8. 8
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I, for one, would really enjoy that.

    And if you wanted to hit it before February, I would certainly not object.

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    Starting a PhD in two months. I don’t know how much extra time I’m going to have to start my own survey course in black freethought :P

  10. 10
    Drolfe

    Cuttlefish posted on this too, so repeating what I said over there, since it’s relevant to what’s being said above…

    Drolfe says:
    July 18, 2012 at 9:14 am
    I used to be a huge fan of Melissa Harris-Perry. In the last few years though her definition of blackness has thrown the areligious under the bus. All her slams of atheists have built up to the point where I don’t read her any more. Essentialism like that is bullshit and I can’t stand bullshitters. She has the education to know better. Other leaders and media figures are just your usual delusional godbots (yay Steve Harvey is getting his own show!)

    The church is a double edged sword for black folks, I agree. AIDS epidemic, down-low culture, being forced in the closet about lgbt AND atheism etc; all to keep this necessary bulwark against white supremacy and systemically racist institutions and structures.

    My hope is that as we improve the welfare state in the US, and improve our democracy and institutions to weed out the racists and racism that the necessity for church life in black communities will just go away, so that black folk in the south can be out without losing their community and the community systems they fall back on when the dysfunctional (underfunded) or racist state services won’t help.

  11. 11
    Dianne

    Black Folk Don’t… do atheism

    Given this blog and others, can we use that myth busted gif again?

  12. 12
    Drolfe

    This has been rationalized into Black Christian social gospel though, that all the suffering and whatnot shows Black Christians to be if not the chosen people but a chosen people.

    I avoid that whole scene so I don’t know a whole lot. Harris-Perry talks about it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKPa1yq-zgU

    I wish she would stop hating me, because I like her a lot.

  13. 13
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Is there a Black Non-Believer Football* league?

    *Le football américain

  14. 14
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Ohhh yeahhhh.

  15. 15
    Midnight Rambler

    Mostly the latter I think. But you do occasionally run into people who actually are “angry at God” and self-identify as atheists. It’s that group that has the cognitive dissonance, being angry at something they say they don’t believe in, like they can’t quite push away belief. I suspect that many believers’ only personal interaction with a vocal atheist may be with someone like that, which leads them to believe that’s everyone’s attitude (on top of being unable to conceive of someone not being able to not believe).

  16. 16
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    One thing that I’ve never quite understood is how people who belong to a group* whose recent ancestors were, for all intents and purposes, converted by the sword, glom onto the religion of their conquerors and oppressors.

    *whether descendents of African slavery in the US, aboriginal peoples of the Americas, or the colonised peoples of Africa and Asia

  17. 17
    Crommunist

    It’s not really that difficult to understand. When you have Christian dogma drilled into you, when you are not allowed to get educated in anything except doctrine, when the only source of community support is through churches (because churches are the only communities you’re allowed to form), religion becomes part of your daily life. And when there’s seemingly no justification for your shitty life other than “you’ll get justice after you die”, that becomes a very persuasive belief. Much more comforting than “life sucks and the only people with the power to fix it are the ones with their foot on your neck”.

  18. 18
    punchdrunk

    American Indians were forced to assimilate. Native religious and cultural practices were outlawed. Children weren’t allowed to speak the language, and were forced to attend Christian churches.

    Wrapping up the loose ends of a genocide.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_schools#Native_American_education_and_boarding_schools

  19. 19
    johnhodges

    I must point out the existence of African Americans for Humanism,
    http://aahumanism.net/

    I saw a presentation at some convention or other, a man from AAH was giving a talk with slides about the history of black freethinkers, there were quite a few, who were leaders in the struggle going back many decades.

  20. 20
    Jennifer, Uppity Bitch and General Malcontent

    I’ll also point out that enslaved peoples transformed Christianity into something different than what it had been before; they took the powerful stories from the Bible and appropriated them for themselves and they found personal power in identifying with the sufferings of people in the Bible. There is also something to be said for William Apess’ idea that Native Americans reappropriated Christianity, since they were the true sons of Adam in that they resembled him more closely than other people. It doesn’t make any of it true, and it doesn’t make any of it productive or useful now (or any more productive or useful than humanism has been at any given point in time), but I am disinclined to judge people for what they told themselves in order to rationalize the horror to which white people exposed them. I’m not angry at POC for being religious; I’m angry when they use it to oppress others, and sad when it perpetuates ignorance in minority communities, is all. (Better economic policies and education, including de facto desegregation instead of de jure desegregation, would be a fucking start in that area, though, regardless of religion, and would weaken the grasp that the church has on poor and nonwhite communities.)

    That being said, the church always has existed and always will exist largely through exploitation of oppressed peoples, whose strength comes from identification with the stories more than with any divine power. I still find some personal satisfaction in some of the stories and symbols of my Christian childhood and pagan early adulthood, but I do not need the supernatural elements or the repulsive morality in order to find some meaning in my background. I believe that minorities are every bit as capable as I am of abandoning untruths while carrying stories that they consider to be essential elements of themselves. I mean, I love “The Mists of Avalon”; shit, I named my daughter after the main character, but I don’t need for those people to be real to find meaning in it.

    Anyway.

  21. 21
    Leon

    Seriously, Mooney-lady, eat shit. Nobody’s who’s as wrong as you should be smiling that much.

    Thanks for that. That needed saying.

    We existed for millennia before the 1400s, and made profound contributions to early civilization, all the way through to the medieval era.

    Big time! Precolonial African history is fascinating (and vast and varied, as it’s a big continent). Awkar, Takrur, Mali, Kanem-Bornu, ancient Zimbabwe, and tons of other old kingdoms rose and fell over the millennia. It’s a shame the myth persists that precolonial Africa has no history because nothing was written down.

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