BLACKOUT, an Interview with Mandisa Thomas

Mandisa L. Thomas is the president and founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. and organizer of Blackout, the first secular rally celebrating diversity, which takes place in Queens, New York next weekend. Here, Thomas explains why Blackout is so important, why she wants black atheists to come out, and how she came to develop her freethinker identity.

SW: Can you speak to the need for this particular event, right now?

MT: Ayanna Watson and I came up with Blackout after the Reason Rally brought out so many nonbelievers and freethinkers. With the number of black atheists openly identifying themselves online and coming out, and the growing presence of atheists of color, there haven’t really been dedicated events focused toward minorities. We thought it would be a good idea to celebrate that and let people know they aren’t alone, that there are others in the community they can network with.

SW: You spoke with Hemant Mehta about how “belief in God has become such a fixation in the Black community.” Where do you see that coming from, and how do you overcome that?

MT: If you study the history of the United States, as well as slavery, when captives were brought over from Africa during trans-atlantic trade, captives were stripped of whatever cultural identity they had and were made to accept slavery. It became such an occupying force in our community, and once slavery ended the institution of the church was the one that helped build schools, establish social programs, and became such an integral part of the community, where folks could meet without as much danger of being killed as other places.

Unfortunately, it has become an identifying force with blacks––with especially emotional ties. There is this need by most blacks to rely on faith or the idea of God in order to get through any injustice. It’s also overlooked that there have been freethinkers in the black community! So many have challenged Christianity in particular. The importance of this event is to celebrate freethought in the black community; it’s assumed that because you’re black you’re Christian and in that in so many people leaving religion and letting go of the god concept we felt it was important because the black community is changing. Even if they’re not leaving god they’re leaving the church, and as a result they feel like they may have nowhere to turn. There’s a social aspect; their friends belong to churches, and a lot of people stay for that aspect. We also want to show the black community that that dynamic is changing and in order for us to start making improvements in our community there needs to be a recognition of one that the black church today is not as effective in progression as it once was, and also there are those of us in our community who are not implementing faith-based initiatives not only in our personal lives but how we want to implement our communities.

Our president, Kim Rippere, has said that the secular movement is at a crucial juncture where young atheists and freethinkers are embracing social justice and action, rather than just a lack of belief in a god. What do you think?

MT: I wholeheartedly agree. It isn’t just about debating the god concept because once you let that go, you have to figure out what’s next. There are issues in our respective communities that we have to help resolve. The black secular voice is important because we’re representing a demographic in our community growing day by day. As we continue to make ourselves known it’s important for people to know that there are atheists of all different kinds. There are academics, those very well-off, book-learned types, and you have some that aren’t. In Black Nonbelievers, Inc. we’re pretty much your everyday atheist; we work 9 to 5, we have families. We don’t get the time to read as much as we want to, but we want to live our everyday lives not feeling harassed by believers. So many have relied on our church for emotional support, it has become a problem in our community. You have people who are looking for their next meal or wondering how they’re going to pay their bills; there are issues they might not necessarily be able to address. It’s important for us to offer our point of view on how we go about combating this. Sometimes it may take us working with the religious community and finding that common ground on how we do that.

SW: You mentioned that we don’t often hear about historical black freethinkers. Do you think their contributions have been intentionally downplayed in our society and in schools?

MT: There are many black figures and black notables that have tended to be overlooked. A. Philip Randolf, for example, was an atheist and people tend to forget about that. It’s not just the school system––it’s the black community doing it as well. Martin Luther King, Jr. was definitely a great individual, and he deserves that acknowledgement, but Bayard Rustin, his advisor, was also a gay man. Not too many people know about him.

SW: What’s the one thing you hope Blackout attendees will take away from the conference?
MT: I remember attending my first American Atheists convention in 2011. It was so inspiring; there was such a feeling of excitement to see so many of us in person. The main thing I hope we accomplish is for others to get that same excitement and see so many black atheists in one area. I’ve gotten the sentiment “I’ve never met a black atheist” from so many people. Also, moving forward, how do we make more connections, work toward more solutions, get the message across, work with believers to help them understand our point of view. I’m hoping it is not just educational but inspirational in demonstrating that no one is alone and it is a good feeling to be around so many of us at once. Hopefully it will galvanize and excite people. It’s great to have the online venue but it’s better if we get together offline and see people they may not have heard of. [Keynote Speaker] Jeremiah Camara, for example, may not be well known in the freethought community; it’s a good chance for attendees to see speakers they may not have heard of.

SW: Can you tell us the story of how you became an atheist?
MT: I wasn’t raised in a religious household. My parents made conscious decisions not to raise my brothers and I Christian. I was never made to believe in any gods. As a child I sang in different churches and was a voice instructor. I was raised Black Nationalist, which is how I came to know about historically black humanists. The first time I was asked if I was atheist was when I was 14. I said I didn’t believe in a heaven or hell. Afterwards I thought about it. I thought, it’s not that I necessarily don’t believe in a creator, and I thought maybe I was “spiritual but not religious”  because I knew how Christianity was forced on blacks. It just never really played a huge part in my life. I remember not thinking highly of most black Christians. Most were hypocritical, nasty individuals who claimed to believe but were not good people. I started to revisit my thoughts about religion in 2005 when I became familiar with Jeremiah Camara and his book Holy Lockdown, and then when I saw Bill Maher’s Religulous. I’ve always enjoyed satire and anything that made fun of religion; it always seemed to be so on point. When I watched a documentary on Jim Jones it brought home to me how detrimental religious belief can be. As I started to express myself more I had people contact me who felt like they were the only ones who felt that way, and after founding the group on Facebook I became more excited––I felt like there are others who can identify. It seemed weird to identify as such, but I had to be honest with myself: at the end of the day I don’t believe in any gods at all.

SW: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
MT: If people want to donate and support our efforts any contributions would be appreciated. We are selling blackout shirts and other merchandise. And, come for fellowship. It’s not a religious word––Blair Scott said that to me once. Come to hear great speakers, see great performers. If you’ve never been around this many atheists of color before, you won’t want to miss this!