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 archival works.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We have some really, truly exciting history for Black Nonbelievers and secular African-American history. What happened recently? Who contacted you? What instigated their contacting you?
Mandisa Thomas: I was contacted by Teddy R. Reeves, who is one of the researchers and directors at the Smithsonian Museum of African-American Culture. He contacted me to start sending them archives of Black Nonbelievers’s work.
What facilitated this was cultivating a working relationship based on the 6-part “gOD-Talk: A Black Millennials and Faith Conversation Series” on Black Millennials who are leaving religion. I had the opportunity to work with his staff when they shot the Atlanta segment.
He also wanted to circle back around to interview me, and others in the organization. He reached out on October 16th about starting the process of collecting the archived work.
This is major for us. Because, as we talk about the trajectory of the Black community, especially with the role that religion plays, now that BN is representing black atheists, they want to document us.
It is amazing because we have had people interview us, previously. There has always been good interest. But to have this interest from a major institution like the Smithsonian, is groundbreaking.
Jacobsen: In a way, the work of the Smithsonian reaching to you. It sets a tone of the importance of secular and freethought history of African-American history within American history. How do you see this moving forward?
Thomas: I think it is going to move forward and be progressive because of the detailed history that the Smithsonian Museum of African-American Culture provides. It goes all the way back to the 16th century, when my African ancestors were brought [E.d non-consensually/by force] to this part of the world, and the horrific treatment and enslavement.
It also speaks to Black accomplishment. It speaks to our community. Certainly, the secular piece has been omitted for a large part. Now, there are organizations like Black Nonbelievers, and individuals who are now detailing not just our experiences and making new history, but revisiting parts of African-American history that have taken a back seat for so long.
We are not just making history. We are also reshaping the historical narrative and rewriting history in the process. It is not just important for our community know, but for everyone to know and understand this information.
Jacobsen: What do you want to be the main takeaway for individuals who visit and see this aspect of African-American history – freethought and secular history – at the Smithsonian?
Thomas: The main takeaway that I want them to have is that atheism and secularism isn’t foreign to African-American community. It has always been a part of our history; in fact, we have always been part of making history within our community. Whether it has been critique about religion and the church as well as those who are letting go of these God concepts, we have always been here. However, there are now more of us who are becoming visible and open about our perspective.
It is important that we acknowledge all of the history – good and bad. It is important to emphasize the Black community is not, and never has, been monolithic.
There are many schools of thought and perspectives that have nothing to do with belief in God. The church does not define all of us. And with time, this is changing even more. And our communities need to be prepared.
Jacobsen: Will this go out in phases or stages planned so far? or is that still up in the air?
Thomas: Because we haven’t had the initial call (at the time of this writing), I am hoping that it will be done in stages. There will be time needed to gather the materials.
I know that we’ve done so many interviews. Although most of them are chronicled and cataloged in a centralized database, the information will still need to be complied. So hopefully, we can all put this together and make sure that it is a fantastic project. One that will resonate with the visitors of the Smithsonian if our work is ever on display.
It will not be an overnight process However, it is something that I am anticipating and preparing for.
Jacobsen: Will other secular African-American organizations help you?
Thomas: At this point, I am not too sure. I know the Center for Inquiry still has some archives from the African-Americans for Humanism program, which just went defunct. I will need to contact the researchers over there.
Also, some of the Black secular organizations that were around when we got started, should be able to help.
So hopefully, it will be a collaborative project. I still have a good relationship with the other African-American secular leaders, so we should be able to work together.
Jacobsen: Could other organizations, like the Secular Coalition for America, assist in the effort with compiling the history?
Thomas: I hope they can. Our resources are limited, so assistance from other organizations would be welcome. However, WE (i.e., Black Nonbelievers) are the ones that need to ensure proper representation and information. Although I would love the Secular Coalition for America’s (and others’) help, it is important that we spearhead the project.
I know the Freedom From Religion Foundation has an amazing archive of African-American freethinkers. We will be contacting them as well. That is work that I willing to do because it is part of what I have taken on as part of the demographic.
Jacobsen: What other museums or organizations would be good to catalogue this aspect of American history?
Mandisa: Definitely, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. There’s also the National Civil Rights Museum/Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, which I visited in 2016. There’s a lot of information on the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 1960s. Additionally, there’s the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta.
Since this research is so new, we are paving the way for those facilities to have catalogues of African-American humanists, freethinkers, nonbelievers, etc. And I am happy to be breaking ground on it.
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.