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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
No More Ham -- A look at several Black Atheist Leaders
I learned of the Ham story in the Bible outside of a classroom, unlike the other Black Atheists I am writing about. Therefore, I did not take this fairy tale — supposedly about the origin of Black folk — seriously. What really worries me is the number of scholarly, authoritative persons who did. Many of these, even after dropping their religious phantoms, proceeded to entrap themselves in the old mythical concepts. The Ham story is one of these; the term Hamitic (along with the term Semitic) has been bounced from an adjective referring to a family lineage to one referring to a nation to one referring to a linguistic group to one referring to an ethnic group. The bottom line to all this equivocation is the same political expediency Parson Weems had in mind when he fabricated the cherry tree tale for George Washington's biography. Ham and Canaan in the Bible tale were just too convenient, too familiar to avoid comparison with an ethnic group people wished to curse. Once again, history as a weapon dealt a blow to Black people.
Much of the oral and cultural history of Black folk remains neglected; consequently the Atheist undercurrent within it is neglected. Probably the major source of Atheist attitudes for Black folk is the soapbox orator. Neighborhood speechmakers (frequently unlettered persons who often advocated unpopular political reforms) are the most consistent supporters of freedom from religion in the Black communities. Quite often, these speechmakers spoke to local concerns or short-term issues. Consequently, few of their lectures were actually transcribed or received wide circulation beyond the specific community involved. Among the most notable soapbox orators of the twentieth century Black community are Atheists such as Hubert H. Harrison, Asa Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, John G. Jackson, John Henrik Clarke, and Yosef ben-Jochannan. All these orators addressed controversial issues such as segregation, unionism, family planning, and political impotence. In taking an ardent stance on social reforms, the soapbox orators found self-righteous believers willing to make unethical charges against imagined competitors. From time to time, the facade of peace wore off, and religious hostilities would rise to heckling or violence.
When the ruling group in a society is not at ease to express its Atheism, it must be expected that the oppressed group in that society is proportionally less free to express its Atheism. With that in mind, I have applied the terms Atheist and Atheism in a very broad sense. For the benefit of white America, Black folk as a whole have played a minstrel show, whereby they hide the undercurrent of religious skepticism. This undercurrent was expressed in two major fashions: oral and written. Before Black people operated publishing houses or before they could patronize public libraries, the spoken word was the mode of voicing Atheism. Robert G. Ingersoll's extensive public speeches in the nineteenth century set the pace for many Atheists.
Hubert H. Harrison
But if you were not a renowned white lawyer who could demand a huge salary for speechmaking, what did you do? Thanks to Joel A. Rogers, we know what one such Black educator, Hubert H. Harrison, did:
He spoke wherever an audience could be had on subjects embracing general literature, sociology, Negro history, and the leading events of the day. He wrote for such radical and antireligious periodicals as The Call, The Truth Seeker, and The Modern Quarterly, being perhaps the first Negro of ability to enter this field. . . . His views on religion and birth control were often opposed by Catholics and Protestants alike, and at his open-air meetings he and his friends were obliged to defend themselves physically from mobs at times. But he fought back courageously, never hesitating to speak no matter how great the hostility of his opponents.
The above quote about this unsung Black Atheist is taken from the brief biographical sketch in World's Great Men of Color, vol. 2. Born at what is today St. Croix of the Virgin Islands in 1883, Hubert H. Harrison traveled to New York City at age seventeen. There, he worked as a bellhop and an elevator operator. He attended night school also and scored 100 percent on his final examination. Four years of his early life were spent as a post office clerk. Yet, his thirst for education led him to study sociology, science, psychology, literature, and drama independently.
Entering the Socialist party, Harrison developed his skill as a soapbox orator. He held his street lectures in Harlem and Manhattan and even tied up lunchtime traffic on Wall Street with his audience. Harrison lectured for the City College of New York, New York University, and the Institute for Social Study. Likewise, he served as a staff lecturer for the New York City Board of Education and as professor of comparative religion at the Modern School. June 1917 is noted not only as the month in which Harrison launched his Liberty League of Afro-Americans, but also as the month in which he introduced Marcus Garvey to the United States. Harold Cruse's book Crisis of the Negro Intellectual cites an example of Harrison's labor organizing days as given by the October 6, 1926, Amsterdam News:
In Harlem, the AFL Motion Picture Operator's local, after accepting the Negro operators under pressure, put them into separate Harlem locals.
As the Layfayette Theater struggle in Harlem progressed, Hubert H. Harrison took up the cudgels for the Negro operators, but in a different way. He wanted to assist the operators in getting a fair and better deal with the Harlem theaters but he was against their joining an AFL local because of the union's long-standing anti-Negro bias. When he learned that the operators had been required to pay the two hundred dollar initiating fee, but had been barred from attending regular union meetings downtown, he backed off with the statement: \Unlike Abraham Lincoln, my prime objective was not to save the union but to free the slaves!\
As a writer, Harrison did book reviews for the New York Times and the New York World. He also edited the publications Masses and The Voice (organ of the Liberty League). Finding the Socialist party insincere on Black rights, he renewed his struggle among Harlemites by 1917. Internal division over ownership of The Voice split the Liberty League. Garveyites picked up the pieces, including Harrison who became editor of Negro World. His two major works are The Negro and the Nation (a 1917 collection of Negro World editorials) and When Africa Awakes (1920). Harrison found increasing diversity of thought among Black people during the Harlem Renaissance. Wilson J. Moses's book The Golden Age of Black Nationalism — 1850-1925 quotes this view taken from When Africa Awakes:
Twenty years ago all Negroes known to the white publicists of America could be classed as conservatives on all the great questions on which thinkers differ. In matters of industry, commerce, politics, religion, they could be trusted to take the backward view. Only on the question of the Negro's \rights\ could a small handful be found bold enough to be tagged as \radicals,\ and they were howled down by both white and colored [sic] adherents of the conservative point of view. Today Negroes differ on all those great questions on which white thinkers differ, and there are Negro radicals of every imaginary stripe — agnostics, atheists, I.W.W.'s [sic], Socialists, Single Taxers and even Bolshevists.
Joel A. Rogers placed Harrison's importance in the heritage of Black Atheists in perspective:
One of the men who was very much influenced by Harrison was Marcus Garvey, later the most prominent of Negro agitators. Garvey's emphasis on racialism was due in no small measure to Harrison's lectures on Negro history and his utterances on racial pride, which animated and fortified Garvey's views. Harrison's slogan became \Race First,\ in opposition to his earlier socialistic one of \Class First.\...
Harrison's views profoundly influenced the Messenger Group, headed by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, two leaders who did more than anyone else to focus the attention of the government and of thinking whites on the injustices suffered by Negroes during the war. While the old leaders capitulated and urged the members of the race to submit while the war was on, these two brilliant young men spoke out fearlessly.
The Written Word
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s marked a recultivation of literary acclaim for Black writers. Journalism, in particular, was invigorated in various Black communities. Newspapers such as Negro World, Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and The Messenger were vehicles for the literary talents of these Atheists. Soapbox orators still spoke before the public, but the mass media offered a broader exposure. Oral expression gave way to written expression.
|“We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.” -- Messenger editorial|
Asa Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen offered a special contribution to Black journalism. Randolph was born in March 1889 at Crescent City, Florida. He attended Bethune-Cookman College and City College of New York. Randolph showed an interest in the theater but developed his tastes for political science, history, and economics in New York City. Labor strikes by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1912-13 became a focal point for politically minded students like Randolph, who joined the Socialist school of thought. Owen was born in April 1889 at Warrenton, North Carolina. He graduated from Virginia Union University and by 1913 studied sociology and political science at Columbia University. Jervis Anderson's biography, A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait, gives this observation on the pre-Messenger days for Owen and Randolph:
When not attending their classes at City College and Columbia, the two spent their spare time together — chiefly at Randolph's apartment and at the New York Public Library — studying \the theory and history of socialism and working-class politics\ and \their application to the racial problem in America.\ In the evenings, whenever radicals like Eugene Debs, August Claessens, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Abraham Shiplacoff, or Morris Hillquit were appearing in Socialist and labor forums downtown, Randolph and Owen went to hear them. And whenever Hubert H. Harrison, black [sic] Harlem's own Socialist spellbinder, was speaking at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 135th Street, the young men would be there.
Randolph and Owen themselves served terms as soapbox orators, Owen taking a more sarcastic tone, Randolph taking a more diplomatic one. In 1917, William White, president of the Headwaiters and Sidewaiters Society of Greater New York, hired Owen and Randolph to edit Hotel Messenger, the periodical for Black hotel employees. As editors, Randolph and Owen printed an expose on internal kickbacks for waiters' uniforms. The two were swiftly relieved of their duties, whereupon they set out to organize their own union and magazine. This new magazine, Messenger, allowed the two to articulate some noble, yet unpopular, values from the Black press. During Messenger's first year, the November 1917 issue expressed the following Atheistic values:
Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times, and above the cheap peanut politics of the old reactionary Negro leaders. Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight with us; principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal to. Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.
An avowedly Socialist magazine. Messenger protested American intervention into World War I and hailed the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union. Clearly, bootlicking to government policy was not a priority to the Messenger staff. Referring to Randolph and Owen, Messenger contributor Theophilus Lewis reported that \Attorney General Palmer said that the most dangerous Negroes in the United States were these two guys.\ Palmer clearly intended the remark about Randolph and Owen as an insult. After considering the source, Black folk in certain circles arrived at the opposite conclusion. So, a whole school of Black writers developed around the Messenger. In addition to Randolph and Owen, experience with Messenger furthered the careers of journalists such as George S. Schuyier, Joel A. Rogers, Theophilus Lewis, and Walter Everette Hawkins.
Both Randolph and Owen mellowed with age. With rioting and lynching in the Northern states in 1919, the phrase Red Summer was a good description of current events. The two were imprisoned in the 1920s, allegedly for violating the Espionage Act, but really for their activism and high profile. George Schuyler commented in his autobiography that Owen suffered disillusionment over the white Socialist unions. Owen's brother, a skilled tailor, was refused entry to the white union at the wage corresponding to his expertise. Owen did break with the Socialist party and in the mid-1920s became managing editor of the Chicago Bee. Schuyler noted Owen especially for his iconoclasm, yet Owen remained active in mainstream politics. He campaigned and wrote speeches for candidates including Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. In 1925, Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was later chartered by the AFL. Randolph himself served as vice president of the AFL-CIO. At America's entry into World War II, he led the \March on Washington\ demonstration. This march protested the awarding of government contracts to industries practicing segregation. With an established reputation as a civil rights activist, he was a pivotal figure in the 1963 \March on Washington\ protest for enactment of a civil rights bill.
J. A. Rogers
One of the most prolific Atheists from the Messenger group was Joel Augustus Rogers. Biographers give different years for Rogers' date of birth, either 1880 or 1883, in Negril, Jamaica. He came to the U.S. in 1906. He worked as a train porter and studied art in Chicago. Coming to New York he wrote for the Amsterdam News and in the 1920s became contributing editor on the Messenger staff. He attended the coronation of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in 1930 as correspondent for Amsterdam News. He had a long career writing for the Pittsburgh Courier, including an assignment as correspondent during the Ethiopian-Italian war in 1935 — the war in which Pope Pius XI placidly blessed Italian planes on mission to bomb Ethiopia. He contributed to magazines including Crisis, American Mercury, Survey Graphic, and Journal of Negro History. Among his book-length works are: From \Superman\ to Man; Your History; Sex and Race; World's Great Men of Color; and Nature Knows No Color Line.
|“The slogan of the Negro devotee is: Take the world but give me Jesus, and the white man strikes an eager bargain with him.”|
A typical expression of Rogers' Atheistic sentiments comes from his first book From \Superman\ to Man. This short book follows a prolonged conversation on skin color prejudice between a white senator from the South and his widely traveled, well-read Black porter. Rogers himself worked as a Chicago porter and was largely self-educated. Toward the end of the book, Dixon, the porter, is asked if Christianity has not been a solace to mistreated Black people. Dixon echoes the feelings of his creator:
To enslave a man, then dope him to make him content! Do you call THAT a solace? . . . The honest fact is that the greatest hindrance to the progress of the Negro is that same dope that was shot into him during slavery. . . . The slogan of the Negro devotee is: Take the world but give me Jesus, and the white man strikes an eager bargain with him. . . . Another fact — there are far too many Negro preachers. Religion is the most fruitful medium for exploiting this already exploited group. As I said, the majority of the sharpers, who among the whites would go into other fields, go, in this case, to the ministry.
The 1975 volume of The Black Scholar reprinted an important biographical paper by W. Burghardt Turner entitled \J. A. Rogers: Portrait of an Afro-American Historian.\ Turner examines the two major trends in Rogers' works: the first, biographical research into historical figures of African ancestry, and the second, genealogical research into ethnic intermixture. While writing for the Messenger, George Schuyler encouraged Rogers to start a feature with biographical sketches of Black notables. Rogers later collected these to form a book and followed that with a series of illustrated biographies for the Pittsburgh Courier, which also were collected as the book Your History. Rogers made many visits to museums, galleries, libraries, and cathedrals throughout Europe and Africa to verify his studies. He made good use of his art training and reproduced rare and obscure prints, paintings, sculpture, and other artifacts in his books. He was also multilingual; he knew Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German.
During an era of segregation, Rogers fearlessly produced documented works on the dreaded practice of miscegenation. In fact, his master work in three volumes Sex and Race investigated exogamy \in the Old World, the New World and the future world.\ Sex and Race continuously returns the reader to the rhetorical question, \Who is a Negro?\ His book Nature Knows No Color Line elaborated upon the ultimate blasphemy for white supremacists: \Research into the Negro ancestry in the white race.\ As may be guessed, the mainstream scholarly community neglected Rogers' works as well as their social and historical ramifications. Lacking formal college degrees and publishing his own books (out of necessity, that is), he found established historians (Black and white) disavowing his evidence out of hand. If strict historians could not find fault with his journalistic flavor, then they could challenge his right to investigate dubious genealogies. Actually, on occasion, Rogers did use a sensational, Ripley's-believe-it-or-not approach to this material. His books frequently contained folklore, superstitions, and rumors; this material he identified as such and often used it as commentary on human behavior. Ultimately, mainstream educators did not admit the existing void regarding African peoples and their history. It was not politically expedient to do so.
Rogers scorned both the scientists and the theists for using the Bible as a political football. In Sex and Race, vol. 3, he denounces this gamesmanship:
The fight both for and against slavery in the United States was waged first along scriptural lines. . . . There was also the theory of the descent from Ham which attained great vogue and still does in certain quarters. . . . With the superseding of religion by science the battle of inequality shifted from a scriptural wording to a scientific one. Now it was no longer what \God had said\ but what color, hair, and skull showed. . . . In other words, the pro-slavery faction and the antislavery one had entered the stage in new costumes. Underneath were the same bodies.
Ignored by established scholars, Rogers, nevertheless, was acclaimed within certain circles. The Society of Anthropology in Paris elected him to membership in 1930. In the following year, he spoke before the International Congress of Anthropology. Although himself an artistic, cosmopolitan person, Rogers was highly critical of the pretended advances of Western civilization. He never lived to see the recognition due his research. After the Black culture revival in the 1960s, new publishers began to reprint his works. One of these, World's Great Men of Color, vols. I and 2, was updated and edited by John Henrik Clarke, a professor of history, in 1972. Before his demise, Rogers received the following tribute from William E. B. Du Bois in The World and Africa:
I have learned much from James [sic] A. Rogers. Rogers is an untrained American Negro writer who has done his work under great difficulty without funds and at much personal sacrifice. But no man living has revealed so many important facts about the Negro race as has Rogers. His mistakes are many and his background narrow, but he is a true historical student.
Schuyler, The Journalist
Journalist George S. Schuyler, another Messenger graduate, is a unique personality among these Black Atheists. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1895, he spent his youth in Syracuse, New York. He enlisted with the U.S. Army in 1912 and worked his way to the rank of lieutenant. After World War I, he moved to New York City where he alternated between being an odd-job laborer and a Bowery hobo. By the spring of 1923, A. Philip Randolph hired Schuyler for the Messenger staff, where he attained the position of managing editor. The Pittsburgh Courier
employed him, culminating in an associate editorship.
Becoming a contributor to many popular magazines, Schuyler found his journalistic skills opening new opportunities. He wrote articles and reviews for periodicals of broadly diverse interests during his career. Some of these include Opportunity, Crisis, Modern Quarterly, Birth Control Review, Nation, American Mercury, and American Opinion. Schuyler traveled the lecture circuit due to his American Mercury articles, visiting England, Columbia, Belgium, and Germany. On assignment for the Pittsburgh Courier, he took the Jim Crow tour of the southern states. Publisher George Putnam assigned him to investigate conditions in Liberia at the end of 1930, and his novel Slaves Today is the result.
|“On the horizon loom a growing number of iconoclasts and Atheists, young black [sic] men and women who can read, think, and ask questions, and who impertinently demand to know why Negroes should revere a God who permits them to be lynched, jim-crowed and disfranchised.”|
Schuyler included white Atheist publishers Emanuel Haldeman-Julius and Henry L. Mencken among his important business contacts. In 1928, Haldeman-Julius published his article, \Racial Intermarriage in the United States\ in American Parade and later reprinted it as a Little Blue Book of the same title. For the American Rationalist Annual of 1935 edited by Haldeman-Julius, he rewrote an earlier article under the title of \The Black Man's Burden — Religion.\ Having made a breakthrough to a mainstream literary audience, he summarized his relationship with American Mercury in his autobiography Black and Conservative: \Altogether my association with the American Mercury under its various owners and editors extended from 1927 to 1961, during which time I had a score of my articles printed.\
Evaluating the undercurrent of religious skepticism in the Black community, Schuyler wrote \Black America Begins to Doubt\ printed in the April 1932 issue of American Mercury. He found stagnant churches with declining memberships and prestige and increasing financial troubles. In his opinion the Black press was brave enough to expose the extortion, misappropriation, and adultery within Black churches. To corroborate this, the article quoted Black historian. Dr. Carter G. Woodson:
Practically all of the incompetents and undesirables who have been barred from other walks of life have rushed into the ministry for the exploitation of the people. . . . Almost anybody of the lowest type may go into the Negro ministry. The Methodists claim that they have strict regulations to prevent this, but their net draws proportionately as many skates as you find among the Baptists.
The writer himself concluded with this observation:
On the horizon loom a growing number of iconoclasts and Atheists, young black [sic] men and women who can read, think, and ask questions, and who impertinently demand to know why Negroes should revere a God who permits them to be lynched, jim-crowed and disfranchised. . . . There are hundreds of this sort in every community. Coupled with those who have left the church completely and the vast number who are on the rolls but never attend, they make a formidable and increasing majority.
Forever cynical, Schuyler took a dim view of the progressive cultural pride movements among Black folk. To his queer understanding, Black folk were committed to proving themselves white people \underneath.\ His first novel. Black No More, is a clear example of this, based on the quote by Dr. Kelly Miller, \The Negro must either get out, get white, or get along.\ Black No More is the story of Harlemite Max Disher who is given the ultimate chance to assimilate by paying for a new scientific treatment which will transform him into a Caucasian. True to form, Harlemites with cash in hand swarm the office building advertising Black No More treatments. Shunning his old gang, Disher heads South and there joins the Knights of Nordica. Confident that his new friends know nothing of his past, Disher adopts the bigotry of the white supremacists and feeds the new prejudice against whitened Black folk. Schuyler takes some swipes at the merchants, politicians, and clergy in the Black community who lose their following and financial support as Harlemites continue to assimilate. Rich in biting satire, Black No More reveals the Schuyler sense of humor.
In total contradiction to the malicious lie, \All Atheists are Communists,\ Schulyer was a dedicated anticommunist role model. Black and Conservative, his autobiography, records his long crusade against Communist and Socialist teachings Activities such as membership in the Committee of One Million Against the Admission of Red China to the United Nations and writings like the 1947 pamphlet The Communist Conspiracy against the Negroes illustrate his obsession quite clearly. He was book review editor for the staunchly conservative Manchester (N. H.) Union Leader newspaper. Likewise, he contributed to the Cold War years of American Mercury and to American Opinion, the redbaiting John Birch Society digest. As a Black man, he must have often been the odd man out among such prejudiced audiences.
John G. Jackson
Friend and contemporary of Joel A. Rogers, John G. Jackson also earned his acclaim as an African historian. Professor Jackson was born in Aiken, South Carolina, in 1907. By the age of fifteen, Jackson moved to New York City, where he completed high school and later continued his education at City College of New York. For many years a Harlemite, he studied African history under Dr. Willis N. Huggins and Arthur A. Schomburg. In the last two decades, Professor Jackson taught and lectured at Newark College Black Studies Department of Rutgers University, University of New York, the Center for Inner City Studies of Northeastern Illinois University, plus many related conferences and community forums. His standard lecture topic is \Restoring the Lost Pages of African History.\ His lecturing style is a folksy and unpretentious one, and Jackson fits the mold of the old African storyteller very well.
|The family minister once asked John G. Jackson when he was small, “Who made you?” After some thought he replied from his own realization, “I don’t know.”|
Professor Jackson has authored a series of works, most of which address African culture and history. Collaborating with Willis Huggins, he coauthored A Guide to the Study of African History (1934) and An Introduction to African Civilizations (1937). His pamphlets, largely self-published, include Christianity before Christ, Ethiopia and the Origin of Civilization, and Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth. Resulting from the call for reference materials to Black-African Studies courses, a mainstream publisher printed Jackson's book-length works Introduction to African Civilizations and Man, God, and Civilization.
One example of Jackson's comparative mythology approach to religion is found in Maulana Karenga's book. Introduction to Block Studies:
Egypt's contribution to western [sic] religions is a persistent and widely argued contention. . . . John Jackson (1972) cites several legacies of Egypt to Christianity. First, he argues that the concept of Virgin and Child in Christianity is clearly based on the Virgin Isis and Child Horus of Egypt. . . . Secondly, Jackson contends that Horus, the Egyptian savior and light of the world is the model for Jesus who has similar qualities. . . . Also, Jackson notes how an ancient Egyptian passion play enacts the arrest, trial, death, burial and resurrection of Osiris, often used interchangeably with Horus, as Savior, providing more evidence of Christianity's borrowing of models from Egypt. Finally, Jackson points out that even the celebration of Christmas on December 25th has its roots in Egypt.
John Jackson has a long history of Atheist activism to his credit. From 1932 to 1972, he was a member of and contributor to the Rationalist Press Association of London. Over fifty years ago, he published two rationalistic reviews on Christian mythology. From 1930 to 1955, he lectured at the Ingersoll Forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. He contributed articles to The Truth Seeker. The modern reprint of Gerald Massey's Lectures contains a forward by Jackson. As a guest speaker before the 1984 Convention of American Atheists, he gave a presentation on the \Black Atheists of the Harlem Renaissance.\ This speech was transcribed for the August 1984 issue of the American Atheist. His latest book, Christianity before Christ, was released in 1985 by the American Atheist Press.
Perhaps the best written insight into Jackson's personal expression of Atheism is found in Man, God, and Civilization, chapter 8. This chapter (entitled \Twilight of the Gods\) concerns the various maneuvers used by the Christian church to regroup following the advances of scientific knowledge. Here, Jackson ridicules the corrupt \God/Devil\ alliance and the underlying \Good Cop/Bad Cop\ mentality Christians teach. Wit and irony characterize Jackson's writings as evidenced by his adopting the phrase, \Christianity before Christ.\ Especially when relating his own views, Jackson writes in a lighthearted vein. For example, his dedication to Introduction to African Civilizations mocks Afrophobes such as Huxley, Toynbee, Hitler, and Schockley: \The book is dedicated to everybody with an African ancestry — the whole human race!\
Writing for The Truth Seeker had a highly ironic aspect for John G. Jackson. The Truth Seeker editors during that period supported a bigoted and antiegalitarian policy. Jackson's Atheistic views did grace the pages of the magazine, yet the same magazine carried malicious slurs against his very ethnic group. Woolsey Teller's book, Essays Of An Atheist, illustrates this attitude precisely. Chapter 12, \Grading the Races,\ concerns Teller's reactions to Jackson's booklet, Ethiopia and the Origin of Civilization. Jackson wrote his booklet to verify the contributions of African peoples to civilization. Rather than confront this matter, Teller responded by changing the subject to cranial capacity and brain weight among various humans. To the dismay of closed-minded pseudoscientists, cranial capacity and brain weight are not the determining factors to inventiveness, intelligence, or civilization. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould named such superstitions \The Mismeasure of Man.\ However, this dogma did serve as ammunition in The Truth Seeker's campaign to dehumanize Black people. Let Black folk be on guard against similar illusions of educated liberalism!
John Henrik Clarke
African historian, John Henrik Clarke, is another educator who has challenged Black people to question their religious indoctrination. Dr. Clarke was born at Union Springs, Alabama, in 1915. As a grade school child in Columbus, Georgia, Clarke recalled inventing notes from local white people to allow him access to library books in his quest for knowledge. This quest led him to New York City in 1933, and there he attended high school. Study on an independent basis plus exposure to notable historians such as Arthur A. Schomburg, Willis N. Huggins, and Joel A. Rogers served him well. Clarke also developed his creative writing skills and produced poetry and short stories. In 1941, he began his stint in the armed forces. Following this, he returned to Harlem and attended New York University. His teaching career includes Malverne People's College, Hunter College, and Cornell University. In 1972, he presented a paper before the American Historical Association. His long record of community work involved directing the Heritage Program of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, the Headstart Training Program of New York University, the First African Heritage Exposition, plus addresses before many conferences and forums.
|As a grade school child in Columbus, Georgia, Clarke recalled inventing notes from local white people to allow his access to library books in his quest for knowledge.|
Dr. Clarke's literary credits are extensive. He wrote articles for the following periodicals: Crisis, Opportunity, Harlem Quarterly, Freedom, Freedomways, Pittsburgh Courier, Black Books Bulletin, First World, The Black Scholar, Transition, Afrocentric World Review, and Journal of African Civilizations. He held membership in the Harlem Writers Guild and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his books are Rebellion in Rhyme, American Negro Short Stories, Harlem U.S.A., Harlem: A Community in Transition, Malcolm X — The Man and His Times, and Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa. He wrote introductions to John Jackson's Introduction to African Civilizations, the reprint of Robert Williams's Negroes with Guns, and a reprint of Joel A. Rogers's World's Great Men of Color, vols. I and 2, which he edited as well.
An example of Clarke's political awareness is found in the Winter 1977 issue of Black Books Bulletin. His article \Israel and South Africa: The Unholy Alliance Against African People\ gives a perceptive quote from the book Israel and South Africa: The Progression of a Relationship by Richard Stevens and Abdelwahab Elmessiri:
The most tragic aspect of the alliance between Israel and South Africa is that it is a perfectly logical alliance. By the rationale and intent of Western racism and colonialism the alliance makes sense.
Both Israel and white South Africa are artificial settler states, created by the political backwash of Europe. . . . This is the basis of the schizophrenia that prevails in Israel and in South Africa. These European settlers are involved in a perpetual contradiction. They are stubbornly trying to establish a nationality in nations that never belonged to them. They are doing this at the expense of the indigenous population in the countries where they have settled.
Although Dr. Clarke considers himself \religious,\ he has opposed religious authorities in his creative writings also. The September 1940 issue of Opportunity magazine carried his short story \The Boy Who Painted Christ Black.\ Little Aaron Crawford paints a gift for his teacher in the segregated Georgia public school — a picture of a Black Jesus. At the story's climax, the white school supervisor demands an explanation from the Black principal as to why Aaron's picture is on display. Aaron comes forward to defend his creation. Fully realizing his job is at stake, Principal Du Vaul defends Aaron's ethnic pride and freedom of expression. Clarke's short story \Revolt of the Angels\ from Harlem — A Community in Transition pokes fun at the Father Divine cult in Harlem. Three Harlem movers shooting the breeze begin to debate the rehabilitation of a life-long drunkard. To prove his point, one mover relates the story of drunkard Luther Jackson. Jackson wanders Harlem streets during the Depression of the 1930s. In a drunken stupor, Jackson comes to a charity restaurant sponsored by the Father Divine cult, where he sits at the choicest table demanding liquor. The Black matron there gives him the stock church greeting and refuses to serve him at the table reserved for her god. Jackson insists upon remaining at his table until he receives liquor. The two become belligerent. The climax has the matron and more \angels\ assaulting Jackson with cookware, preceded by constant invocations of \Peace!\ As expected, following this experience, Jackson becomes a church deacon and never drinks liquor again.
I have not heard Dr. Clarke voice his personal sentiments on Atheism. He advocates African nationalism for African peoples as his major cause. Known for his Socialist politics, he acknowledges communal African religion over Western religions. From his irreverence, politics, and historical outlook, I infer Dr. Clarke's materialism and have included him among Black Atheists on that basis.
Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan, another skeptic on religion, is also a scholar of Black-African history. Biographical details of his birth and early years are not available; however, he was born in Ethiopia and reared in the Hebrew faith of the Falasha culture. He has studied at Cambridge University and the University of Barcelona. He has traveled South America and the Caribbean Islands and is multilingual. Originally a graduate in civil engineering, he developed skills in history, philosophy, law, and earned his doctorate degree in cultural anthropology. In 1945, he moved to the U.S. Many years a Harlemite, he has taught as adjunct professor of African History/Black Studies in Marymount College, Cornell University, and Malcolm-King College. Also, he worked in the Pan-African Studies Department of Temple University. His lecture specialty is the history and philosophy of ancient Nile Valley civilizations.
Karenga's book Introduction to Black Studies summarizes the points frequently emphasized in Dr. ben-Jochannan's presentations:
Ben-Jochannan (1970-1978) has argued at length, as the title of his book demonstrates, the African Origins of the Major Western Religions. . . . Ben-Jochannan (1978:xxxix) agrees with Jackson that Horus is the model for Jesus. . . . Secondly, ben-Jochannan (1970:164-65) calls attention to the \Plagiarism on Solomon's part\ for borrowing so heavily from the Teachings of Amenemope (Amenophis) who lived 300 years (1405-1370 B.C.E.) before the reign of Solomon (976-936 B.C.E.). The clearest examples are found in Proverbs 22:17-29. ... Finally, ben-Jochannan argues that the Ten Commandments (700 B.C.E.) of Judeo-Christian religions are derived from the 147 [sic] Negative Confessions (4100 B.C.E.) found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Budge, 1969:572ff).
|“The churches can’t help the people when the chips are down because their interest is with the power structure.”|
On the streets of Harlem, Dr. ben-Jochannan established himself as a truly dynamic soapbox orator. Being active in the Black community remains a high priority for him. He lectured before many community and university audiences, both formally and informally. A Catholic magazine, Ramparts, printed the report of Lez Edmond on the 1964 rioting in Harlem. Edmond, having attended a neighborhood rally, reported on ben-Jochannan's presentation:
I was brought up as a religious person. As a matter of fact my family wanted me to be a rabbi but after growing up and seeing the situation in all religions, I realized that the churches always support the state wherever they are. The churches can't help the people when the chips are down because their interest is with the power structure. . . .
I say the black [sic] man has called upon Jesus Christ for so many years here in America, and now he starts calling on Mohammed and there are many who are calling on Moses, and at no time within this period has the black [sic] man's situation changed, nor has the black [sic] man any freedom. It is obvious that someone didn't hear his call or isn't interested in that call — either Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed.
Even Jesus when he got hung upon the cross, he said in his own Book — he says. Father, why has Thou forsaken me? He was calling for help. Now if he couldn't help himself how is he going to help you?. . . Our position is not to ask dead people to come back and help us; our position is to find ways and means to help ourselves.
Often, in his lectures, he will discuss his Falasha background and his break from Judaism. Israel has for many years refused to acknowledge the Falasha culture as legitimately Jewish. Much has been written on the official sanction given to bigoted treatment of Falasha Jews in Israel. This prejudice is based largely on the premise that only a European Jew could claim the manifest destiny to Palestine related in the Bible. Dr. ben-Jochannan not only repudiates this false claim in his presentations, he also emphasizes that Jews do not have a common ethnic background, much less a common skin complexion. Another distinctive element to his lectures and books is a healthy respect for human sexuality. This topic always seems to generate the greatest audience response in his lectures. In an interview for the Winter 1977 Black Books Bulletin, ben-Jochannan responds to the question of excessive sexual commentary in his speeches:
The absence of sex in Western thought shows that bankruptcy of the West. . . . At the same time, in every society, the religious teachings of that society start with a sex story because sex is the basis of man's life. Without sex there is no human life. . . . My mother and father, were it not for sex, could not have produced me. Thus I am the biological creature of sex and the Gods that made me are my mother and father. . . . As far as I'm concerned, the chamber of God is the woman's body. I relate everything back to her because through her, my race is.
His literary contributions to Black culture are published by a division of Alkebu-lan Foundation, Inc., which he organized. Among his better known works are: Black Man of the Nile (1970), African Origins of the Major \Western Religions\ (1970), A Chronology of the Bible: Challenge to the Standard Version (1973), Our \Black Seminarians\ and \Black Clergy\ Without A \Black Theology\ (1978), and They All Look Alike! All of Them? (1980). Other writings include an essay in Albert Cleage's book Black Christian Nationalism and repeated contributions to Black Books Bulletin. Also, he was interviewed for the public television presentation \I Remember Harlem.\
Much like John H. Clarke, ben-Jochannan's personal views regarding Atheism are obscure. Jackson, Clarke, and ben-Jochannan are all Atheists on the pragmatic level while they promote a \naturalistic\ way of life through traditional African religion. All three are aware that Black churches refuse to take responsibility for their economic and political abuses, yet only Jackson has the self-confidence to identify himself as an Atheist. Two of the most significant influences upon ben-Jochannan's views are the nationalism of Marcus Garvey and the historical revisions of George G. M. James found in his book Stolen Legacy. Garveyite philosophy advocated cultural relativism in religion; therefore, Garveyites produced an African Orthodox Church with a Black Madonna and Child. The highly controversial book Stolen Legacy compiled evidence for the African origins of philosophical doctrines long credited to Greek thinkers. James, himself a Freemason, emphasized that the mystical doctrines underlying the Pre-Socratic thinkers, the Athenian academies, and the Freemasonic fraternity, had antecedents in the Egyptian mystery religion, thus, Dr. ben-Jochannan's preoccupation with research into philosophy. While lecturing at the Ninth Annual Conference of the Afrikan [sic] American Institute in 1983, he answered a question on reconciling Western religion with Pan-African sentiments. His candid response was:
Now I am ultrareligious, I'm a member of the religion of freethought — to think freely. So if you carry a label — because I know that some of us must carry a social label, religion is the social label for a lot of people who go to church and don't believe in anything being said there — in that sense, yes. . . . What is wrong with religion is when you make yourself a slave to it. . . . So, if you are poor, you'd be a fool to give 10 percent to the church in any name, and then have a hole in your shoe with snow coming through.
Dr. Bobby E. Wright, Black psychologist, affirmed freedom from religion among Black folk. While detailed biographical information was not available, I have assembled a brief sketch of Dr. Wright's achievements and projects. Black Books Bulletin reports his birthplace, Hobson City, Alabama, as about 1934. The Chicago Tribune of April 8, 1982, reports his early career as instructor and psychologist for the Chicago Public Schools. At the University of Chicago, he earned a doctorate degree in clinical psychology. He was a consultant for the Alcohol/Drug Abuse Mental Health Administration of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). A former president of the National Black Psychologists Association, he also held membership in the Association for Black Psychologists and the National Alliance for Black School Educators. Not the least of his achievements, he was director of Garfield Park Comprehensive Community Mental Health Center in Chicago.
|“Guess what you talk about when you go to church? Everything but what to do, you talk about some God that nobody ever did find.”|
Known for his organizational projects, Dr. Wright took his community involvement very seriously. He participated in the leadership of the area chapters of the National Black Independent Political Party and the National Black United Front. Recognized for his activism, he was a special guest on the Committee of Science and Technology at the Sixth Pan-African Congress held at Tanzania in 1974. As a social scientist, he sought an all-encompassing social theory for Black people and formulated the concept of mentacide. To paraphrase, he defined mentacide as \the planned and systematic destruction of a group's mentality aimed at the destruction of the group.\ Thus, Black folk alienated from their culture and history eventually lose their sense of purpose and direction, the symptoms of mentacide. Well aware of the implications of technical advances such as behavior modification and genetic engineering, he presented science as a tool serving greater ends (such as controlling the outcasts of white society), neither objective nor neutral. Being an uncompromising critic of Western society, he wrote the following on the relation of religion to prejudice from \The Psychopathic Racial Personality\ in the Fall 1974 issue of Black Books Bulletin:
Because of their lack of ethical or moral development, there is no conflict between the white's religion and racial oppression. The white race had historically oppressed, exploited, and killed black [sic] people, all in the name of their god Jesus Christ and with the sanction of their churches. For example, it is generally overlooked that the Ku Klux Klan is primarily a religious organization. Also, blacks [sic] should never forget the Pope [Pius XI] blessing the Italian planes and pilots on their way to bombing Ethiopian men, women, and children who only had spears to defend themselves.
On the personal level, Bobby Wright was not afraid to defend his Atheism in public. Speaking at the Seventh Annual Afrikan American Institute in 1981, he reiterated his outlook. Fielding a question on organization among the Black community, he snapped back:
This shows you the nature of the beast, this shows you about Mentacide. This subject should be talked about in the churches. Guess what you talk about when you go to church? Everything but what to do, you talk about some God that nobody ever did find. Let me tell you something about God. . . . If there is a God I can say this: 1) He or She is mad at us, 2) He or She is not on our side, 3) He or She is indifferent, or 4) He or She is White.
Pressed by further questioning to defend his position, he elaborated on Einstein's remarks about achieving immortality by reaching the speed of light and thus stopping time:
He [Einstein] said, \The problem with this thought [immortality] is that people cannot conceptualize time stopping.\ In this same way, certain people cannot conceptualize a world without God, and a lot of other things I can talk about they cannot even conceptualize. You still can't go beyond your imagination. It just violates everything you believe and have been trained to believe. . . . But most certainly I will tell you this, nothing that operates in this world today can I attribute to God, can I attribute to a Supreme Being. Nothing.
Today, the Atheist undercurrent to Black society struggles along. Many of these twentieth century figures are now deceased, and many others have not sought the relative fame of these men. It must be noted that these Black Atheists are recognized and respected for their education and skills rather than for their Atheistic outlook. All of them are haunted by the position of Black people in America, rather than by superstitious concepts. To the Black communities, they provide themselves as examples. These Black Atheists collectively tell their own to say, \No More Ham!\
Afrikan American Institute, Seventh Annual Conference. Audio recording, \Q & A\ segment, April 23,1981.
Afrikan American Institute, Ninth Annual Conference. Audio recording, \Q & A\ segment. April 15,1983.
Anderson, Jervis. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1973.
\BBB Interviews Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan.\ Black Boots Bulletin 5, 4 (Winter 1977).
Clarke, John Henrik. \Israel and South Africa: The Unholy Alliance Against African People.\ Black Books Bulletin
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1970.
DuBois, W. E. B. The World and Africa. New York: Viking Press, 1947.
Edmond, Lez. \Harlem Diary.\ Ramparts 3, 2 (October 1964).
Karenga, Maulana. Introduction to Black Studies. Inglewood, CA: Kawaida Pubs, 1982.
Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978.
Rogers, J. A. From \Superman to Man.\ [Rev. ed.; repr. of 1941 ed., based on orig. 1917 ed. by Joel A. Rogers] St. Petersburg, FL: H. M. Rogers, 1968.
Rogers, J. A. Sex and Race. New York: J.A. Rogers Publishers, 1944.
Rogers, J. A. World's Great Men of Color. New York: Collier Books, 1975.
Schuyler, George S. \Black American Begins to Doubt.\ American Mercury 25, 100 (April 1932).
Schuyler, George S. Black and Conservative. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1966.
Wright, Bobby. \The Psychopathic Racial Personality.\ Black Books Bulletin 2, 2 (Fall 1974).
5, 4 (Winter 1977).
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