Farthest Back in the Closet by Jamila Bey
This essay was originally posted on Skepchick back when we were a humble monthly e-zine. I’ll be periodically re-posting the articles that were on the original site so that they can find a new audience.
Farthest Back in the Closet
Originally posted February 2006
As I sat down to write this very article, the ring of my telephone interrupted me. A woman told me that she had been asked to call, as she was a perfect candidate to be a part of my story. But, within 30 seconds, I knew this woman was the farthest thing from my ideal. This person wasn’t a candidate, as she couldn’t even answer the first question, “Are you an African-American female who calls yourself an Atheist?”
“I call myself a non-deist,” she explained. I asked the woman why was the reaction of strangers important enough for her to change the way she identifies herself.
“‘Atheist’ is offensive to people. I belong to Doubters,” and she continued, “We’re thinking about changing the name to ‘Reasoners.’ It’s gentler.”
Ten and a half minutes later, I made an admittedly lame excuse to bid my caller goodnight. And I fumed.
Why is it impossible to find a woman who is African-American and willing to use the “A” word? I realized that the reason I was so angry wasn’t that this woman had wasted my time. Nor was it that she double talked her way around my simple question until even I didn’t recall what it was. (The question was, “Are you an African-American female who calls yourself an Atheist?”) I boiled because I know that as liberated as we are, as enlightened and tolerant of “diversity” this modern, Western culture claims itself to be, I am angry to know that I am wrong. I am only recently free, truly free, from my religious disillusion. I tore off the ill-fitting Roman Catholic dogma that was beaten into me, literally, as a child and as a skeptical and too-curious young adult. And while I burst forth from my hiding place deep inside that Atheistic closet, I had to fight my way through throngs still happy to remain inhabitants therein. And farthest to the back, (and dare I argue happiest to stay closeted) are other Black American women.
I have shaken the hands of Black women who admit themselves to be free of the belief in any supernatural higher power. Or freedom from all religious belief. But not one Black woman have I met in person, who believes as I do, would tell me that she claimed Atheism. I sadly admit, I’ve never shaken the hand of another African-American woman who openly calls herself, or identifies her religious affiliation when asked, Atheist.
So, for me, the next best thing to nationwide handshaking was to go onto the Internet and search for other women like me. And did I have a hard time! I bounced between e-mails of “God Will PUNISH you,” to “Good luck. I’ve never seen one myself,” and “If you find a Black woman who is Atheist and single, give her my number.” But through the clutter, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of women who are doing their parts to spread reason, logic, and kindness as well, through the world. And I’ll share here, some of the things they wanted to say.
Talking about African-Americans, “…they’re so judgemental,” explained Marcella Lewis of Norcross, Georgia. “You must claim some sort of religious belief or you cannot belong to the Black race! It’s unheard of to be Black and not religious.” Yet, Lewis says that her Atheism isn’t something she will willingly share. Fearing “ruffled feathers,” she believes her friends and family would make it their lifelong endeavour to try to convert her, or reclaim her into the Christian flock.
Courtney Frasier is a twenty year old student from Cincinnati. She says she understands that very pressure. But she says it’s not something she bows to. Frasier lives her religious life out and proud. “During slavery, the Bible was used to keep my people down. Why would you choose the same religion that was used to justify the subjugation of your people?”
Frasier says too often, “Black folks haven’t even read the Bible they spew.” She says it’s laughable the amount ignorance masquerading as faith that is so prevalent. In fact, once at a hair salon, when discussing her Atheist beliefs with the stylist doing her hair, the owner of the salon came over and asked her to “…not talk about religion in her shop. It was of course because I believe as I do. If I had been talking about how I love Jesus, I’d have been able to go on all day.”
N’Jemile Zakiya lives in Albany, NY. She says she’s a former “angry Atheist” who relished the opportunity to give would be converters hell, by arguing with those Christians who questioned her and her beliefs. But today, she’s an ambassador of another way of thinking. “(Theists) think Atheist are cynical, dark, unhappy people. But Atheists tend to be people who say this planet is an amazing thing, and there’s such beauty in the universe. And we’re more inclined to enjoy these things in the now, because there’s no afterlife to wait for.”
Zakiya is publishing a book called “A Peek Inside the Goo,” that discusses her struggles with depression. Depression, that praying to God never cured. She says her Atheism came out of the cold hard facts she realized in her life. “My prayers weren’t being answered. But nobody’s prayers were being answered. But if you do things for yourself, than things can change.”
Crystal from the West Coast, asked that I not use her last name. She says that today the discipline she received during her upbringing would be labeled child abuse. Her grandfather who raised her was a Pentecostal minister and didn’t subscribe to sparing the rod. Crystal eventually went to college, married in the church, and was on her way to Lutheran seminary when a tragedy brought her to what she calls her turning point. Crystal lost one of her twins to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. This, after she did everything right according to what her church taught her to believe.
The passage Mark 5:41 tells of Jesus resurrecting a twelve year old girl. Jesus takes the child’s hand and commands her, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And the childâ€™s spirit returned to her, she stood up and began walking around. When Crystal prayed over her child as Jesus did, but her little girl did not rise, Crystal says her eyes were opened. “These promises are not real. I knew. I need to stop living this lie,” she thought to herself. Crystal has decided to make every day the best she’s able, because it’s all she’s guaranteed. That’s the way, she says, her Atheism is directing her.
And while Crystal still has people praying for her and hoping she’ll return to her church, she paraphrases the Biblical Paul on the road to Damascus, when he is enlightened. She says she’s cannot unknow. This knowing, coupled with a ministerial education makes Crystal a scary Atheist to many folks who would question her. “A lot of people won’t talk about religion with me, though, because I can back everything up I say with scripture… In the South I’d get into debates where people would say, ‘I’ve read the Bible and scripture says this.’ And I’ll explain, ‘You’re misinterpreting that and you didn’t know the other part of the passage existed until I showed it to you just now!’ … And I was evil for showing them!”
In Philadelphia, 25 year old student, Debbie Goddard has paid heavy prices for coming out. In 8th grade, she was blackmailed to go to church each week in order to keep her scholarship to a Catholic high school. Once there, Goddard founded a philosophy club that asked questions like “Does God exist.” Such antics put the 10th grader with a history of being thrown out of religion class for asking questions, on a train straight to scholarship revocation station. So in her last year of high school at her new public school, the l’il hellion was up to her old antics. Goddard became a “raving atheist” and again started a philosophy club that also led to a few kids’ Atheist conversions.
In college, Goddard was a representative of Black Freethinkers, and says she thinks Black conformity needs to be retired. “Blacks identified with Christianity and it was an important part of Black identity. Atheism was seen as part of a Western paradigm because it’s blacker to be spiritual. But one true to Black liberation would throw off the white man’s shackles of (forced and then later accepted)Christianity.”
Laura Paris is the 37 year old mother of an 18 year old Born Again Christian daughter. Her eight and five year olds sing in church when they attend with their non-custodial father. And that’s just as well with Paris. “It’s fine for them to go to church, but they know that I don’t believe what they hear there. I teach my children to be critical. Ask questions. Don’t accept everything on the first go-round. Be critical and be tolerant of other people and their beliefs.”
Paris says she wants to raise her children to be good people who think. And that dedication to knowledge is why Paris says she doesn’t mind telling pushy people when they ask about her religious background that she is an Atheist. “It’s not a dirty word. We should take the time to learn something different from how the other thinks.”
Long after I hung up the phone from the college professor who is too afraid to say that she is an Atheist, I continued to get e-mails and phone calls from other women interested in being interviewed. And I’m not fuming anymore. I realize that as twice a day, a broken clock is right, a scripture passage can rightly be applied to make me feel better. Luke 6:37 “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Just because I would like an intelligent and educated advocate to inspire other women, particularly other women like me, to stand up and step forward into the light of reason, I can’t demand it of her. As my parents and parochial school teachers could not beat the devil out of me, nor the light of Jesus Christ into me, I can’t ask for conviction that isn’t true. I understand that the Atheist closet still has throngs of brown women in the back. Yet, I decided and so did the women I interviewed, to break free and come out. And we will be out here waiting for those others, free of judgement. Because truth doesn’t change. It will be here when she’s ready to accept it. And she will then acknowledge what she knows by answering, “Yes, I am an African-American female who calls myself an Atheist.”
Jamila Bey is a writer and reporter living reasonably in Washington, DC.