Why do I need to say this again and again? It drives my agnostic spiritualist ass batty. The hardest thing about being a black writer, often on a good day, is looking for groups/blogs/meetups for other black authors. I have joined plenty of white majority workshops, but I want to also hear from people of cultural backgrounds like myself. Why? Because maybe they’ll fall in love with fantasy or know someone who wishes they had books in speculative genres that look like themselves. Also because I just want to. But time and again black writing is associated with black Christendom. Plenty of Christians will read my stuff regardless, but there’s this unspoken expectation that if you’re a black writer who doesn’t write about “urban” things then you’re a Christian and your books will have Christian themes. Black women are the single most religious group in the USA, according to Jamila Bey. of host of The Sex Politics and Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila Even if the book has nothing to do with religion people expect that your story will still have those themes, much like a Nicholas Sparks novel.
Black agnostics and atheists have always been an unspoken hot topic, unspoken because as I was once told, “Atheism is for white folk and Asians”. Yet more and more African Americans and blacks all over the world as getting turned off by church. Black atheists have always existed and always been part of Black social movements, but their beliefs like others homosexuality or non-black spouses were downplayed for the comfort of their comrades. Yet through art it survives…
I remember being in high school and finding myself jaw dropped as I watched Raisin in the Sun, which featured an African American woman, Beneatha, who rejected Christianity as another idea that she simply couldn’t believe in. This moment changes the dynamic between her and her mother forever. Lorraine Hansbury captured the struggle between up and coming black women rejecting the traditions of her mother and the reactions to it in one pivotal slap. The matriarch doesn’t care about belief. She cares about pretending, about beating god into her “uppity” daughter who, shocked and teary eyed, relents. It isn’t just about control, but a mother who loves her daughter…and loses that daughters respect in an attempt to save her soul. That moment encapsulates so much of the black non-Christians experience. The secular beliefs of black authors writing for black people can, for no good reason, become the barrier to advancing our scholarship.
As Siviku Hutchinson said,
“As Lena’s violent rebuke of Beneatha is a caveat to all the uppity Black female atheists who’ve been rendered invisible Lena’s violent rebuke of Beneatha is a caveat to all the uppity Black female atheists who’ve been rendered invisible — both by a white secular culture that only sees atheism through the Islamophobic lens of Richard Dawkins, and a black religious culture that uses heteronormative Christian respectability politics to silence and police women. Decades after the literary slap heard around Black America, to be female, beyond belief and Black (to recast Hansberry’s iconic phrase) is still the ultimate betrayal of the race.”
To be black and voice doubt, sedition, in faith is to be a traitor or seen as abdicating a right to be a voice for black people. I’m sorry but that’s bullshit, and I’m sick of it. The assumption that all black folk are Christian has got to stop. Don’t make me awkwardly nod as you talk about god. Don’t make me coon for other black folk because they think if something isn’t overtly christian somehow its less black…
And stop thinking black authors are black Christians.
I respect the church in theory. I respect all religions in theory. I just have a profound lack of respect for the institutions of religions and how they’re run. See Rev. Creflo Dollar, a con artist to black Americans everywhere as to a reason why. But there’s a particular irritation that comes with people putting another identity on to you because black atheists have been systematically erased, ignored, or rewritten throughout black history usually by those in the churches because those were where black history and interests were cultivated over the last century.
This isn’t about resenting the church or being hurt by anybody as other blacks have suggested to me. Truthfully this attitude is why these Black Christian Authors groups turn me off besides making me wonder why everything in black culture is forcibly tied to religion in 2017(which is also the problem with modern activism, where black LGBTQA+ and women refuse to step down). A lot of black culture has promoted this belief that an atheist or agnostic is broken, and just needs the right home, and is alienated from good black folk. I’m not. That’s the nicer story than simply black folk like me aren’t black and hate being black. Even typing those words makes me feel sick.
Black success should not be tied only to the opinions of church folk, relationships to a church, or expectations that black people are black Christians….but they often are. The church is the place where book clubs meet, and where black authors are often invited to read. The church has always been the heart of the black community, launching careers long before Oprah or In Living Color ever got a platform. Tyler Perry would never be big if it weren’t for black churches and Oprah, his ham fisted religious ( and sexist and colorism filled) themes reinforce the traditions of the black community for better or (mostly) for worst. It is worth noting Mr. Perry is also a giant undercover nerd, who seemingly has shown no interest in truly supporting other black creators in making their visions or battling color the barrier by producing black science fiction or black fantasy. I can’t help but wonder if this is in no small part because he knows many in his audience would say it wasn’t “black” and far too many others would say it was “too black”. Why make millions when you could make billions? The chruch fuels his billions even if he doesn’t really pay it forward.
Also because so many non-black spaces don’t give black authors the same opportunities as whites the church is where the most opportunity to present yourself and your work can be found…so long as you keep that Christian context. To the secular person, this feels like a total shut out…to a game of trying to hold your tongue until you earn approval. It feels like black secular writers are pushed even further towards the margins. And when we make our own spaces so often blackness comes into question, our relationship to the black community at large becomes suspect.
The assumption itself creates a distance, often hidden, but very real. It isn’t Christianity, but the inherent racism of assuming ones beliefs based on race.
As Jenee Desmond-Harris of The Root noted:
Your frustration is a reminder that being stereotyped doesn’t feel any better just because the offender thinks the assumption he or she is making about you is a positive one (even the most positive one possible, as Christianity likely is to many Americans). And it doesn’t make it any better when the offender is the same race, either.
It isn’t Christianity, but the inherent gate keeping creating this false divide between black and atheist/agnostic. It isn’t Christianity, but Christians who come to invite me to their writing groups expecting Christian literature or themes only to find I write about dystopian space epics, psychological thrillers, and African, Haitian, and African american influenced fantasy far more often than traditional literary black stories. I tell them what I write. Their cheeks thin, their mouth jobs, their eyes glaze to disinterest, and I see them thinking “that’s not really black, but ok” before they remember Chronicles of Narnia or something more Christian…and when I say I’m not a Christian their mouths close, they cut the conversation short, and say–to be polite– “You’re still welcome”….
So they can convert me.
And Heaven forbid I tell them about conjure or voodoo or any alternative that is available to black people to try.
I know they mean well, but seeing every other writers group of facebook be labeled simply “Black” and it’s overwhelming books, posts, and expectations be about Christianity is tiresome. It’s disheartening. It’s annoying because you know it will be just that much harder for you, and that you’ll have to justify that Christ doesn’t necessarily fit into your themes or beliefs or life. Their eyes will glaze over, and you’ll feel exhausted.
So stop assuming all colored folk are Christian in America.
That’s all I ask.
Resources for black non-religious folk?
** A fair warning the AA Athieists and Agnostics group on Facebook is honestly massive and filled with homophobic hotep ashy misognegroes who use atheism as an excuse for their bigotry and stupidity. I do not recommend it. The foolishness of it is stifling.