Fade to Black: An interview with the NYC Blackout Rally folks

By Ed Cara. Originally posted at Skepchick Events.

This upcoming Saturday, the Black Atheists of America and Black Nonbelievers are teaming up to present quite possibly the first secular event of its kind, the NYC Blackout Rally; a celebration of atheism and secularism through prominent speakers, singers and lyricists of color.

Ed sat down and spoke with the people spearheading the event, Ayanna Watson of Black Atheists and Mandisa Thomas of Black Nonbelievers, about the rally, black atheism and why we can’t just ‘science’ away religion. Enjoy.

Why is the Blackout happening now?

MT: Well, with the success of the Reason Rally as well as the explosion of atheists of color out in the scene, but also still with a lack of [these] atheists of color being represented at the major conventions and other events; we felt like it was time for us to put together an event that featured predominantly speakers that are in the African-American community. Because, honestly, there’s probably a fair bit who don’t get the recognition they deserve. It’s a celebration really – of how many of us have come out and who have discarded religious belief and found support in each other.

Why don’t atheists of color get more recognition in the greater scheme of things?

MT: The black community in particular is still highly religious, for one, and because of that, it can still be difficult to speak up about atheism and non-belief. And we also have, I wouldn’t say, totally been neglected by black media, but we kinda have been. *laughs* It’s not as much of a welcome discussion as it would be within other communities, especially white ones.

AW: Often times, people don’t like change and I’m constantly asked by larger organizations- “How do we get more blacks involved?” I always tell them to stay relevant, ya know? There are serious issues in the black community: poor education, poor healthcare…burgeoning incarceration rates, and the Church does provide a lot of social services to blacks that we’re simply not offering. Like Mandisa says, there’s a lot of people who think there aren’t any black atheists or atheists of color and I think a lot of it is this resistance to change.

With that said, just how accurate is the stereotype of the religious black person? How many people in the community could be atheist?

AW: I think the statistics from the 2011 Pew study are pretty accurate – the percentage is somewhere in the high 80’s who are religious – that number’s even higher for black women – but it’s not that we’re black. You’ll see it in any country where the most disfranchised groups are more likely to be the most religious and I think that’s what we’re seeing here. I think [the stereotype] is completely accurate though. If it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be so hard to find other atheists of color. But we are out there.

How does someone appeal to these groups of people not openly atheist but who identify as such? And has there any blowback to trying to do so from your end?

AW: I think the person has to be serious. Like Mandisa said [earlier], I get that all the time; I’ve been called a racist several times for starting a group that has the word “black” in it. I think it’s absurd to ignore the importance of marketing. I mean, we don’t say that about anything else. In fact, my organization has in its name three separate markets, “blacks”, “atheists” and “America”. Those are three separate markets and I think we make it very clear as to who it is we’re targeting; the same way that the AARP isn’t all-inclusive, it’s targeting a very specific group of people, people that are over the age of 55, and they do things, they talk about things, they lobby for things that are important to seniors. We’re no different. We organize, we do things and we talk about issues relevant to the black community, so anyone who wants to reach out to a community needs to go out there and address those issues. There is no one-size-fits-all that will work.

MT: To add to that, one thing my organization likes to present, is that we’re just as normal and go through the same issues as everyone else in the community. We’re nine-to-fivers. We work. We have children. We have families. There’s nothing inherently evil about us. It’s about showing our faces and speaking up and expressing ourselves to show believers that we have a lot more in common than we both realize and there’s nothing scary about it. And to dispel myths about what atheists and nonbelievers are like, and open up conversations with the community about uncomfortable issues.

AW. And that goes back to understanding the culture. If you don’t understand the culture, you can’t go and have those important conversations. One of the things people will come up and say to me is, “Well, if you just talk about science, then everyone’ll become an atheist!” And they clearly don’t have any understanding of the black community. The fact that eugenics had the support of the scientific community at one point – the first issue there is getting over the difference between pseudoscience and science. I keep repeating myself, but you need to be able to understand black culture to be able to go out there and engage with the community about religion.

What is it that makes religion so attractive then?

MT: There’s such an emotional attachment that goes back to slavery. The Church played a huge role in the black community, culturally and economically to an extent, after slavery. It was the main institution that was instrumental in establishing schools and establishing programs that helped those in the community. And it was a safe place to gather, especially during the periods during and before the civil rights movement, where you could gather and strategize without being killed. And there’s just – due to the tribulations and injustices we’ve faced, because the Church has been such a support system, there’s a tendency to rely on God when there’s nothing else. And other cultures tend to have an admiration for it. You go to any black Church service and it’s entertaining and people tend to appreciate that especially.

AW: Yeah, it’s most certainly thought of as: “Atheism is a white thing.” To me, that’s one of the first arguments I hear from other people, that I’m trying to be white.

What are you looking forward to the most at the Blackout (besides yourselves)?

MT: The super-awesomeness of it. Just seeing everyone there. Our keynote speaker, Jeremiah Camara, we’ve featured him at a few of our events before and he really is a great speaker. We have some great lyricists. And I’m looking forward to a very festive occasion, because we have a lot of creativity in our community, and very intelligent folk around and we’re looking forward to blending that together – because I can say that for the community overall, we do have a bad reputation for being a bit boring. *laughs* And I think there are certain aspects that tend to be overlooked, especially on the creative side, and I’m looking forward to exploring that and showcasing who we are. I myself won’t be speaking for instance, I’ll be singing.

AW: Really looking forward to the support of the community, and just having people all over the country to come by and participate. I think this might just be the largest event of its kind, so really anticipating the event overall.

So I hear there’s a flip-cup tournament the day before…Who’s the odds-on favorite to win?*

Both: YES!

MT: I don’t do beer, so I’d probably be the worst at it. *laughs*

AW: It takes very little to get me drunk, so I’ll be good for the first round, after that, I can’t make any promises…But yeah, we’re looking for a venue right now, though it will be in New York, the Friday before, and there will be a prize for the winning team.

Any last words?

AW: No, other than it’s going to be super awesome. You don’t want to miss it!

MT: Feel free to visit our website, there’s still ways to help support us, to donate, or just find out all the information you need. And just to thank everyone for their support.

*The flip-cup tournamanent scheduled for Friday the 26th has sadly been canceled due to lack of teams, the Blackout FB’s event page indicates that there will still be Friday festivities though.

The Blackout will be held this Saturday, the 27th, in NYC’s beloved Queens, at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park all afternoon. Any and all further info on times, places and guests can be found at the Blackout’s official page.

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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