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 the year of 2019 in review.
*Interview conducted in early 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, Mandisa Thomas round-up for 2019. What are some of the highlights? What are some fun things that happened?
Mandisa Thomas: Yes, 2019 has been an amazing whirlwind of a year. In January, I wrote an article for a Black digital travel magazine called Griots Republic. This was for their “faith exploration” issue, and I wrote about Black Nonbelievers as an organization. Our beginnings, what we do, why we do it and the events that we have coming up. I also wrote my first ever grant proposal for the Soros Foundation along with the help of some of our members who are more skilled in that area. One of our members from BN’s Atlanta affiliate will be featured in a production with the Smithsonian Museum and the Museum of African American Culture. It’s their six-part series called “god-Talk,” which will eventually be turned into a documentary. It focuses on religious perspectives in the Black community – millennials in particular. And we were contacted for an atheist/nonreligious representative.
That was just the beginning. In February, I had the opportunity to meet with some of the researchers at Pew. They’re crafting a new study on religion in African American life. They wanted to speak with me and others from the organization about questions and other areas that they could consider adding in order to generate more participation from black atheists, agnostics, non-religious, etc.
From there, there’s just been a slew of speaking engagements. I’ve travelled pretty much all over the country this year with my last appearance in the Phoenix, Arizona area. And among the events was the first ever Women of Color Beyond Belief conference that was produced by BN, Black Skeptics Los Angeles, and the Women’s Leadership Project. In November, we finished our third annual cruise – complete with a new title, and aboard a new ship. That among other things, has just made it an amazing year. There were some the first time visits too – the cities of Phoenix (as mentioned earlier), New Orleans and Pittsburgh. I tend to document my travels on social media, and this year has been confirmation why I resigned from my full-time job the year before. The number of places I’ve “checked” into are almost exhausting, lol!!! Also, before I forget, I also received two awards this year: the Backbone Award from the Secular Student Alliance and the Freethought Heroine Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
So, it has also been a year of recognition. As I’ve said before, it seems weird that I would even receive awards, and it almost seems unbelievable that the work is being recognized in such a way, but again, I’m glad it is.
Jacobsen: How does that make you feel?
Thomas: Now, I know that what I’m doing is important. It’s work that I’ve come to love, growing the black atheist demographic in particular and community in general. It’s showing our growth of the organization. We launched our Columbus, OH, and New Orleans affiliate this year. It’s a challenging process, and we carefully vet new organizers. They don’t have to be as dedicated as me, but at least committed to staying involved. That’s the best way we make sure that we reach the people efficiently. I tend to suffer from Imposter Syndrome quite a bit. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s a fear that people will find out that you’re a fraud or you’re not really doing as much work as you say you are. It tends to be common among folks who actually are doing a lot of work, but feel like we’re still not doing much at all. So while I KNOW there are a lot of great things going on, that I know I’m doing great work, and that the accolades are deserved – the syndrome makes things weird.
Jacobsen: What criteria should be used when recognizing others for their activism, or for the community organizing, or for their written popular or academic works for secular communities?
Thomas: So, I know that we’ve discussed this previously. I tend to look at a person’s ability to communicate – whether it’s punctual, reciprocal, and if it’s considerate of all aspects and people who are involved.
Also, for certain types of activism – church and state separation for example – front line for protesting or picketing and such, tends to get a lot of recognition. There’s also lots of credit given to speakers with academic credentials, and perhaps a body of literary work under their belt. But how people are treated on the back end is a HUGE factor for me. I could care less about what you have written and what you say in the public realm. If you treat people badly privately, in my eyes, that negates all of your public work.
I think this is also how leaders and organizers should communicate and work together. If we are actually practicing what we preach, and putting their money where their mouths are, this is a very important piece to what we do. Because much of the organizing work tends to go uncredited, especially for women in the movement. This speaks to values, and how you develop teamwork. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be perfect, but as long as you’ve done your part, then that speaks to your ability to build that community and the support and the visibility that people need.
Jacobsen: What about your final thoughts for 2019? The wrap-up.
Thomas: 2019 is when I completely went into activist mode. I am definitely now full-time. It has been a test of my skills, as well as my ability to remain as level headed as possible. That part can be challenging, and having been involved in a number of projects this year, it takes a lot of multitasking. It has taken a lot of re-evaluation, and reflection on what I need to prioritize. This year has definitely pushed the boundaries of my organizing abilities, and what I can do for the future. Now, that we have certain things in place at the organization, we can focus on improvement in other areas. So while it has been daunting at times, I am proud to say that we have the foundation to keep moving forward.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.
Thomas: 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: 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.