Agents of Change: Black Freethinkers Then and Now

Zora Neale Hurston, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1938 via Library of Congress.

Religion, as part of the trifecta of “sex, politics, and religion” is the most under-examined aspect of contemporary Black feminist movements, particularly in the United States. Globally women flooded the streets on March 8th for International Women’s day to address intersectional policies such as, sexism, race, the racial state, and religious pluralism, including space for non-believers. New Black feminist leaders Candace Gorham, Mandisa Thomas, Jamila Bey, and Bridgette Crutchfield have emerged as agents of change by creating literary and physical safe spaces for non-religiosity.

These women have continued the intellectual tradition of secular humanism and increased its marginal and racial borders to fully represent its convergences. According to Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, “black women have increasingly become involved in the secular movement because of the “extremely reactionary, draconian era” we live in that commodifies the sexuality of women.” Now in the twenty-first century, members of the Black community have embraced religious skepticism and its utility to participate in the building of an equal, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory Black America, and to escape from the same religious ideologies that were politically institutionalized to oppress Black people for over four hundred years.

Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism by Christopher Cameron–Professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and founding president of AAIHS–is a necessary historical intervention that traces the antebellum origins of atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism, its mobility throughout the twentieth century, and its induction into scholarship and African American history. Black Freethinkers is a well-organized, if concise, work centered on four chapters, an introduction and afterword that provide a clear and succinct understanding of early black religious skepticism. Cameron condemns perpetuated narratives by historians and scholars of atheism as a white-only locale. He overturns myths that render Black people as a religious people and opposes the deep-rooted marginalization of African American non-believers by historians and scholars. He argues “atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism have been central components of Black intellectual and political life since the nineteenth century” (ix).

Black Freethinkers is a revisionist history that seeks to rectify the synchronization between secularism and the Black intellectual tradition. By doing so, new historical narratives can provide accurate portrayals regarding American secularism that deal with the entanglements of religious skepticism from the era of slavery to the present day.

Cameron builds on the scholarship of Anthony Pinn, Norm Allen Jr., and Candace Gorham. These scholars challenged previous scholarship on Black religiosity and rejected accounts that generalize and conclude enslaved peoples embraced either Christianity or Spirituality. Cameron continues this distinct research and asserts, “The influence of nonbelief on black life can be seen during many times and among key black thinkers – black freethinkers run the gamut” (ix). This sets the foundation for the institutionalization of Black free thought, such as Black atheist and non-believer organizations largely led by Black feminists. Cameron’s framework proves the intellectual traditions multifariousness. It also speaks to present verbiage of Black secular movements, which provides an accurate understanding of the antebellum era, Black intellectualism, and its leaders who enlarged the ideological parameters of non-religiosity.

Black Free Thinkers uses adept analytical skill when reflecting on the ideas of Fredrick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and others through their letters and speeches. The first chapter “Slavery and Reconstruction” makes a robust claim regarding the exclusion of African Americans in conversations of American secularism. Through examining the narratives from Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibbs, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Ball, and Williams Wells Brown, Cameron argues that early expressions of religious skepticism were indeed prevalent, as their circumstances proved no God could exist in such misery, oppression, and pain. Christianity was rejected because of its use to validate slavery and the violent oppression of African descendants. Therefore, early conveyances of Black freethought are determined.

Cameron’s thesis is substantially supported through various primary and secondary sources. The author provides strong evidentiary support with slave narratives, published literature, newspapers, and “humanist responses” (xvi) of black political organizations of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement. Timeless works of Alice Walker such as, “The Diary of an African Nun,” The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and The Color Purple provided reinforcements central to the author’s argument, highlighting twentieth century public intellectual representations of agnosticism, atheism, and secular humanism, alongside the expansion of Black freethought and Black feminism.

Chapter two “The New Negro Renaissance” veers from traditional texts on the 1920s and 1930s with dominant portrayals of male-centric Black Nationalism. Cameron examines the literature of critical actors of the era, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurtson, and Nella Larson. Cameron claims, “while Black freethought would be dominated by men, Hurston and Larson provided important discussions of irreligion in their writings, works that helped inaugurate the connection between Black freethought and Black feminism” (41). According to the author it was this period that assisted in the expansion of Black freethought and increased awareness of religious skepticism in public spaces.

Cameron also examines the efforts of political organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the SNCC as they continued to “chip away at the ties between religion, racism, and patriarchy in the United States” (120). In the third chapter “Socialism and Communism” the author exposes the agency provided by socialist and communist ideologies as expressed through adherents like W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Harry Haywood, and Richard Wright. Cameron contends, “For those black freethinkers who embraced socialism and communism, religion was simply a tool of oppression black people would be better off without” (xv). The emergence of the Harlem Renaissance was the catalyst for black freethought and organizations such as, the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP) and its members engaged in radical politics of non-religiosity. Cameron proves the communist party held an appeal to African Americans through their support and advocacy for gender politics. Black women such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larson enhanced representations of Black womanhood and respectability within public spaces.

Throughout the book Cameron weaves the theoretical ideologies of the “Long Civil Rights Movement” by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. Although he highlights the uniqueness of each era, this poses a dilemma to its autonomy. He credits each generation’s efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and their contributions toward Black freethought, whether it be through political, artistic, or social agencies. “The civil rights and Black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s had their roots in developments stretching back to the early twentieth century” (120). This historical abridgment reduces the contributions of leading intellectuals throughout the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements as a never ending continuum, rather than highlighting the periods uniqueness and specialty–a key argument in Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang’s “The “Long Movement” As Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in recent Black Freedom Studies.”

Still, Black Freethinkers is informative, vital, and a work of cognoscente balance. It is a solid account and contribution toward secular scholarship that is both thoroughly researched and accessibly written. In concluding the book, Cameron cleverly uses an afterword instead of an epilogue to expand on the trajectory of Black freethought past 1970, while giving sound to his own voice as he concludes the book. Reminiscent of Hall’s Long Movement theory, the afterword renders the work as part of an “unfinished revolution,” metaphorically stating that there is much work to be done within scholarship and humanity. The author highlights twenty-first century organizations and Black women feminists who have created spaces for Black non-believers and continued the tradition of Black freethought as a means of reformative action. Black Freethinkers is a remarkable work that encourages historians and the audience to reimagine and reconsider secularism within African American history.

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Lauren T. Rorie

Lauren T. Rorie is a PhD student in the department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. Her research centers on Black intellectual history, Black Women Artists and the Black Radical Tradition in the 20th century.