Mandisa Thomas, a native of New York City, is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Although never formally indoctrinated into belief, Mandisa was heavily exposed to Christianity, Black Nationalism, and Islam. As a child she loved reading, and enjoyed various tales of Gods from different cultures, including Greek and Ghanaian. “Through reading these stories and being taught about other cultures at an early age, I quickly noticed that there were similarities and differences between those deities and the God of the Christian Bible. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this God so special that he warrants such prevalence today,” she recalls.
Mandisa has many media appearances to her credit, including CBS Sunday Morning, CNN.com, and Playboy, The Humanist, and JET magazines. She has been a guest on podcasts such as The Humanist Hour and Ask an Atheist, as well as the documentaries Contradiction and My Week in Atheism. Mandisa currently serves on the Board for American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, and previously for Foundation Beyond Belief, the 2016 Reason Rally Coalition, and the Secular Coalition for America. She is also an active speaker and has presented at conferences/conventions for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Student Alliance, and many others.
In 2019, Mandisa was the recipient of the Secular Student Alliance’s Backbone Award and named the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s Freethought Heroine. She was also the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association’s Person of the Year 2018.
As the president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc., Mandisa encourages more Blacks to come out and stand strong with their nonbelief in the face of such strong religious overtones.
“The more we make our presence known, the better our chances of working together to turn around some of the disparities we face. We are NOT alone.”
Here, we talk about BN SeaCon 2019.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, you finished the cruise. What were some of the highlights?
Mandisa Thomas: Yes, we completed BN SeaCon 2019 aboard the Carnival Horizon, which sailed out of Miami, Florida on Sunday, November 10th and returned on Saturday, November 16th.
It was a longer cruise this time (6 nights almost a half day), and was our best to date. We had a lot of great speakers, including Dr. Darrel Ray from Recovering From Religion, Bridgett Crutchfield, one of BN’s board members, and the Detroit affiliate lead organizer, Phil Session from the Freethinker’s Association of Central Texas and Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless, (formerly with the Atheist Community of Austin). We also had Brandi Alexander from Compassion & Choices, who discussed death with dignity, and end of life preparation.
It wasn’t just a fun trip, it was educational and full of outreach. And it is indeed a very aggressive event. Because doing a convention on a cruise can intimidating for some. You have to prepare financially for sure; because we advertise a year ahead and cruises can be paid in deposits, we try to assist with as much information as possible. But it can still be overwhelming.
However, it was a great way to bring people together. For many of our attendees, it’s their first time on a cruise. This is an awesome opportunity for everyone to get to know their fellow nonbelievers in an enclosed space for an extended period of time.
It builds the camaraderie and community that we so often seek.
Jacobsen: When you get the feedback from participants and from people who have been invited as speakers, how do you incorporate that into your decision-making processes for the next year, for an improved cruise?
Thomas: I start thinking about the next year while already on board for the current year. My mind is never at rest; I am always in planning mode. And while we receive feedback throughout the cruise, the last day of the convention portion is when the decision to proceed for the following year is cemented. Because that is our “BN Changes Lives” session.
Attendees stand up in front of the conference room, and share their “testimonies” and experiences. We share, we laugh, and we cry. Sure, it tends to coincide with the all you can drink (alcoholic beverages) cocktail reception that is reserved for all on board groups, but that is beside the point [laughing].
Everyone there remarks that they had such a wonderful time, and how important BN is. In that space, in that time, we already know that we’re going to plan this for the following year.
There are some amazing pictures that have already been shared. Which helps with our communication and seeing feedback during the event. And of course, we solicit feedback once it has concluded.
One thing that has improved from the first year to this is our communication with each other. No matter the problems, they are usually resolved before leaving the cruise, which has been great.
There may be some feedback that we don’t receive right away, or not until the event approaches. But we can use the information to plan for the following year.
Jacobsen: Life is unpredictable, even for the best of plans. Accidents can arise given the size of the events. What happened on the Friday of the cruise?
Thomas: Before I get into that – during the cruise, we went to Hell [Laughing]. There is a town called Hell on Grand Cayman Island that we visited; it’s centered around a black limestone formation in the area.
Thomas: One of our attendees was accidentally left behind as we were preparing to leave the port. For my part, I was trying to keep track of everyone in our group, including my youngest son and my husband, who has a serious medical condition. Plus, it was very hot that day, so our minds slipped.
She did get back to the ship on time, and was understandably upset. However, we were able to hash that out, which was great. So, we left someone in Hell by mistake [Laughing]. Also, there were a few people that were treated for heat exhaustion at that port. As you said, things can get unpredictable, and good preparation is key.
On that Friday night, completely unrelated to our group, there was a man who attempted to hand someone his room key from a deck above and fell! There was immediate attention to the situation, but he ended up dying from his injuries. There was even a story in the New York Daily News about this.
While this was very tragic, it most likely could have been avoided. I can only speculate, but due to the abundance of alcohol available on cruises, it can factor into people making unwise decisions.
Security immediately blocked off the area, and were able to get witness statements. A few of our group members were near the area when the incident occurred; I’m not sure if they witnessed it entirely. Ironically, some of us were on the same deck around that same time, but on the other side of the ship. So we were completely unaware of what happened until we were back home.
I have to commend the high level of care that Carnival took to make sure that this wasn’t widespread before our departure.
Jacobsen: What can people hope and expect for 2020?
Thomas: I already booked our group for 2020; we will be sailing on the Carnival Magic. I will be writing a public Patreon post about the “magic” of BN SeaCon 2019.
The cruise will be longer, 7 nights this time. We will start promoting shortly. And we expect more interactive engagement, and of course, we would like more people to attend.
Because this was a transitional year for this event, I did all the of planning this time. I spearheaded logistics for the attendees, getting their cabins assigned, and making sure everything was set in proper order.
Also, the fundraising and programming was done the way I really wanted, but with input from others. This was significant because I’ve expanded my horizons as an organizer, and my focus is always in the best interest of the group, and how we can all achieve a great experience.
And this was not lost on the attendees and speakers; they had a really great time. In 2020, there will be expanded programming, and not just in speaker presentations. This year, we introduced Salsa lessons from one of our attendees; he is a dance instructor.
It was well received, We will include them in 2020. Others on the cruise who aren’t officially a part of the convention may also want to attend on the hush-hush [Laughing].
Thomas: Some attendees may not want to exit on the ports of call, as is quite common. There will be 4 next year, so hopefully everyone will have a well rounded experience. But if the choice is made to stay onboard, there are some great activities that people can partake in – both with the cruise line and part of BN SeaCon 2020.
That is part of the overall experience that we want to provide.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.
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: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist 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, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.