Freethought in Black History and Culture
A version of these remarks was presented at the “Freethought in Black History and Culture” event at Bronx Community College on May 7, 2012.
In the ongoing narrative of the various liberation struggles of African Americans, religion tends to loom large. We think of the religious dimension of the search for social justice, the central role of the church in Black communities and culture, the civil disobedience of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the political and spiritual mobilization of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.
But a thorough examination of these struggles uncovers a different narrative — one in which many of the cherished champions of black liberation were also pioneering freethinkers — doubters, skeptics, secularists, agnostics, atheists, humanists — whose critique and even outright rejection of religious authority and tradition was often inseparable from their moral and intellectual commitment to social activism.
Even a very cursory list of prominent black freethinkers reveals some of the most important and influential participants in every stage of the struggle for African-American equality, from abolition and reconstruction, through the Harlem Renaissance and political radicalism, the Civil Rights Movement and its long aftermath:
• escaped slave, orator and writer Frederick Douglass
• scholar, labor activist, orator and educator Hubert Henry Harrison
• historian and Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson
• activist and jazz poet Langston Hughes
• author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston
• sociologist, historian, author, editor, and NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois
• novelist, poet and playwright James Baldwin
• editor, writer, and labor activist Chandler Owen
• author Richard Wright
• poet Gwendolyn Brooks
• playwright Lorraine Hansberry
• author, historian and journalist Joel Augustus Rogers
• film actress Butterfly McQueen
• jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Miles Davis
• author Ralph Ellison
• Africana studies pioneer John Henrik Clarke
• Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Black Panther Party, and International Black Workers Congress leader James Forman
• labor and civil rights movement leader A. Philip Randolph
• leading March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin
The list goes on, and on, tracing a philosophical lineage that includes contemporary figures like author and activist Alice Walker and astrophysicist and educator Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
The narrative of the African American experience as inherently and inescapably religious is further disconfirmed by the increasingly visible presence of Black Freethinkers today — on college campuses, in national organizations, on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, in rap music, and even in bus and subway advertisements. This alternate narrative, of freethought and social justice, provides a much-needed corrective to the dominant strain in our discussion of Black culture and history.