Ask Mandisa 20 – Black History Month and African-American Freethinkers

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc (Twitter & Facebook). One of the largest, if the not the largest, organization for African-American or black nonbelievers & atheists in the United States.

The organization is intended to give secular fellowship, provide nurturance and support for nonbelievers, encourage a sense of pride in irreligion, and promote charity in the non-religious community.

I reached out to begin an educational series with one of the, and again if not the, most prominent African-American woman nonbeliever grassroots activists in the United States.

Here, we talk about Black History Month and African-American Freethinkers.

*This interview session conducted in February.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With Black History Month ending, who are some important African-American freethinkers in history?

Mandisa Thomas: Let’s start with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who was a historian. It was because his founding of Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month; that we even have this celebration.

While we can’t make claims entirely, it is important to note that the month has its roots in secularism, and critical thinking. And our presence in should definitely be raised every time.

Jacobsen: Who were, also, important secular freethinkers in American history who had an impact on individuals, such as yourself, to come forward, found organizations, and continue to build and maintain a community?

Thomas: In addition to Dr. Woodson who was a freethinker, we can look to Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen, who was an African-American famous actress. She starred in Gone With the Wind. She was honored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1992.

Also, Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, who is a famous playwright who wrote, A Raisin in the Sun, which was featured on Broadway, and adapted into three different film productions. The character Beneatha Younger, is a staunch atheist, much to the dismay of her mother Lena. 

Jacobsen: Who are others making their mark now, in terms of secular and freethought communities in America? What makes them stand out to you?

Thomas: Not so shameless plug, my colleague, Sikivu Hutchinson, who has written a few books including White Knights, Black Paradise, which is a novel about the Jonestown tragedy.

There’s also Bridgett Crutchfield, who is the head of the Detroit affiliate for Black Nonbelievers, and Candace Gorham, author of The Ebony Exodus Project, which details the reason black women are leaving the church and religion.

What makes them stand out, is that like myself, they focus on the black atheist demographic. Especially women, and how we are affected in today’s society.  We have taken the bull by the horns to make sure that our demographic is being represented. 

So, these are my modern day pioneers and heroes. I am glad to be working alongside them this movement.

Jacobsen: If you were to be approached or asked by a young African-American girl who is questioning the religion of her parents, likely, or simply does not take seriously the faith claims of her community, what would your advice to her in terms of starting a student group, finding community, and books to read?

Thomas: First, I would say that it’s okay. She is not alone. I think that’s something many people within the community need to hear, especially of other black folks. It is still an isolating experiencing to find that you’re a non-religionist. 

Finding like minded folks can, at times, be very difficult. So I would assure her that she is not alone; that she is not crazy. That there are more like us out there. I would also recommend reading up on the women mentioned.

I would also offer my own support, as I have done for many in the community. Finally, if there is a young person who has activism capabilities, I would encourage them to do research and look into work with the Secular Student Alliance.

They are doing very good work with students. They are working with historically black colleges and universities. I would encourage them to start participating with them, and start a group if necessary.

It can be a bit intimidating. However, it is also very rewarding. It would be a great experience to connect with other students and people willing to support, and getting to the place where they can also be support will be crucial for the future.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.

Thomas: No problem, thank you, thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.

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