“I refuse to grow older and become boring”: an Interview with Explorer Barbara Hillary

Explorer Barbara Hillary became the first African American woman to reach the North Pole––at the age of 75. At 79 she reached the South Pole. Now 82, Hillary will speak at the American Atheists’ 2014 convention; she took the time to speak to SW about religion in the black community, adventure, and how she has remained young at heart.


SW: How did you became an atheist?


BH: It was a progression. Most blacks are programmed in the womb <laughs> with the black mother taking nutrients for the baby in the form of the Bible. My parents came from the South––my father died when I was 2––and I was forced to go to Sunday school at our African Methodist Episcopalian church. I was a good young black kid, put on my patent leather shoes on Sunday and went to Sunday School. I once asked my mother, “Why are there no black angels?” She just shook her head.


I joined the Episcopal Church and as I grew older I started thinking more and questioning more. I had to give myself a series of mental enemas. Mental conditioning is one of the most powerful tools that exists in the world. Conditioning of children, especially. By the time they reach a certain point in life their minds are like granite on certain issues.  


I guess you’d call me an atheist. I’ve reached a very satisfying point in my mental development. I’ve reached a point of tremendous and refreshing personal freedom. I’m not concerned about labels for myself right now. I’m concerned about being able to continue to question and within that framework, continue to grow, because I consider growth and reaching for maturity a never-ending process.


The black experience has made Christianity a greater shackle than the slaves knew in the slaveship. Christianity is the perpetual shackle that rapes the black mind. But from slavery forward the systematic, psychological programming of the black mind was very clever, very smart, and it has been very destructive––and destructive is an understatement. Numerically there were more blacks in most southern states than whites, so one of the first things that had to be done was to capture and control the mind. To my knowledge not one black person came here a Christian. They had to, now, give blacks a new concept: that your God is white, your master’s white, and you really don’t count, and if you don’t like it here, just wait for heaven. It was forced Christianity, which meant they beat the shit out of you until you went to church. The Christian church was the first segregated institution in America. The white slave owner sat upstairs in the church and the slaves sat downstairs.


The first authority figure in a child’s life is the mother. She reinforces the submission, drags the child to the Christian slave church, and from that point on it is firmly entrenched.


I ask my friends why they believe in God, and they say, “I believe because I believe.” I ask,  “Who taught you?” They say, “My mother.” I ask, “Well who taught her?” They cannot accept that originally it was the slavemaster. They just wipe that part out. So now you have a whole race of people bogged down in religion. Now, you have to have a lieutenant. The white slavemaster couldn't control all those slaves effectively, so we got the black clergyman–the lieutenant of racism.


Generation after generation it continued, and by now, for women in my age bracket it is inconceivable that there’s no white Jesus Christ. On Sunday mornings you have millions of dollars going into the pockets of this exclusive group of black clergy who live like kings. And you are so programmed that you cannot think beyond, “Massa is gonna provide.” Everything must come from this white benevolent person–even Santa Claus!


SW: What made you want to take on this expedition to the North Pole? Why now?


BH: When I retired I was looking around for something different to do, something unusual. Usually what comes up is a cruise. I couldn’t deal with that. There’s nothing more boring than the average married people. The only thing worse than that is grandparents. The thought of being stuck on a ship with these people–and I couldn’t swim–wasn’t bearable. Instead, I thought of photographing polar bears and I went up to Manitoba and I met a different type of freethinking person––people who have interests in life besides the last bad relationship. I just fell in love with it, the adventure, the touch of danger; I liked seeing an animal that could break through a 3-foot solid block of ice with one swipe. I learned dog mushing and snowmobiling and as a natural progression I learned there was no black woman who had reached the North Pole and I decided to do it. It wasn’t that easy. The hell begins when you first make up your mind you’re really going to do it. It hits you, a thousand things come out of the woodwork, and you say to yourself, do I really want to do this?


SW: What advice would you give to senior citizens who want to get the most out of their lives?


BH: I refuse to grow older and become boring to myself and others. Preparation for healthy aging starts when you’re young: if you squander your life with poor choices, living for other people; if you do not realize the most important word in the human vocabulary, No… learn to say no. I don’t care if it’s to a relative, a loved one, a child, if you can’t say it and feel comfortable you’re going to take problems into your older years and suffer from bad-ass choices.


When I do public speaking I tell my audiences, and I’ve spoken to 2500 people at one time, this is what I do. Perhaps you’d like to try it. I don’t tell anyone what I do. This is what worked for me. Because one of the main reasons marriages don’t work is that people go into marriages thinking they’re going to change somebody. There’s not a mother fucker in this world you can change unless they want to change.


SW: Where would you like to see the secular movement focus, in terms of outreach and activism?


BH: If you start at schools, universities, those girls and boys who become parents are now freethinking, humanists, atheists, questioning, encouraging to children to start turning their mental wheels, that may crush the cycle of granite-like thought process. I readily seek a university where leaders and real thinkers come together. Not the professors who go from meeting to meeting and are so insulated. We need schools and secondary schools and colleges where we have our own thinkers. I’ve seen people traumatized by Christianity. Not everyone has the strength to say “This is stupid and not logical,” because they’re comfortable with acceptance. To most black women my age I’m a demon, or crazy. We have to get people involved at a younger age, and they can help and remove the barriers toward becoming better world.