If you have been dating black people in America for a while then you know how the black community feels about atheists and gay people. They pretty much are considered to be equally damned regardless of their reasons. Religion, especially Christianity is a giant pillar of identity for the black community. Much more so then the black community’s white counter parts and there is real good reason for the discrepancy. Historically the black community has had policies geared toward stripping it of any cultural identity. When slaves were brought over from Africa their language, oral traditions, spiritual practices and any sense of self was brutally beaten out of them. To such a degree that it casts a shadow over the Holocaust during the 1940s in Nazi Germany. When the slaves were taken off the boat into the Americas they were given the culture that their white masters wanted them to have; a slave culture.
We are all well aware of the slave culture, the cartoonish figures and coonery that accompany it. The mammies, the Uncle Toms, the illiterate slave chillin’ who are caught between coping with the idea that they might be taken from their family and facing the fact that they too will be forced into hard labor. What is rarely highlighted is the idea where black people developed their own culture outside of their white dominated one. This primarily came from the church. The only day of the week where you got to meet with other slaves from the plantations in other counties and hear the news of the “outside” world. The church was the slaves escape from being a slave, it was THEIRS to own and destroy, to create and solve problems, it was a time where there was an unrestrained sense of community where you could express yourself in ways that were unimaginable in front of their white masters. Of course all of this culture and community was placed behind Christianity. As long as you were praising Jesus and preaching how the Bible endorses slavery, your white overseers left you alone.
The Church was the black slaves refuge from their miserable lives as slaves. It was an escape from a horrible life into a world where you could express your true self and as we all know some expressed themselves a little more radically then others. The church was used to hide meetings to discuss runaways and hideouts. If you ever listen to any Negro Spirituals you might notice that a lot of the songs talking about Jesus as the savior, the rock, sometimes by the water, sometimes by the big tree. I was taught in my Afro studies class that these were codes and signals to others. Depending on where Jesus was when you heard the song meant that is where you had to go if you planned on escaping. The rock by the water, the big oak tree, whether or not this is factual doesn’t matter because the point is to show the origins of black American culture. Brutal subjugation and the ever-enduring fighting human spirit forged black American culture.
The irony of course is that black culture adopted the religion that was used to enslave their ancestors, which in turn the black community has used the religion that was forced down their throats to alienate others. Primarily the gay and atheist communities, so when it comes to discussing what it means to be black many feel that being a Christian has to come with that identity. This of course only alienates many black people from the black community. There are many black atheists; I was a board member of Howard University’s Secular Student Alliance. I have seen the sensitivity that the black community has when it comes to “their” religion. If you believed the faculty at Howard you would think that being a Christian was the pinnacle of being a good black person.
So what is there to do? I think first it is important to appreciate that these beliefs are considered extra special because of the cultural history that the church has within the black community. Its cultural significance is unique in the sense that the Church was the only outlet for black slaves. We know there are many middle class black people who attend church because they see it more as a business opportunity rather than a spiritual reprieve. I also am of the opinion that many black people go to church and portray their spirituality as a way to “fit” in to be “normal” as a way to succumb to perceived white standards. Even if that is way off from any grain of truth we are willing to accept, the point is still glaring us in the face. That if you are black and claim to be atheist, you are considered to be a trouble making heathen who doesn’t respect anything.
SOLUTION: I dream of a day where the black community can freely discuss the cultural roots of their religious traditions. To explore the ancient beliefs that their African ancestors practiced before slavery, to be proud of their ancestors’ roots not only in America but also in Africa. The idea that being black is the same as being a Christian has to change. Africa is three times the size of the United States and has 100 times more diverse cultures than the United States. The black community has identity issues; the forced Christian identity is not a one size fits all. There are hundreds of different ways a black American can identify them selves and still relate to the burdens of living without white privilege. The black community uses Christianity to alienate other black people; the progeny of slaves are now using the same religion that was brutally forced upon their community to attack and belittle other black people.
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