On March 5th American Atheists Inc. started running this billboard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The announcement on the organization’s Facebook page read in part,
The target audience of our billboard is closeted atheists who support the year of the bible. The fastest way for a Christian to become an Atheist is to read the bible. We want them to recognize that they see the application of the verse and how awful the bible is and come out of the closet. We especially want the in-the-pew atheist to begin to question why they are continuing the charade of going to church and giving their money in coercion of the bible.
I scrolled down the comments on the post. There were arguments about whether the book of Colossians was written in the Bronze or Iron Age, about the “context” of the verse, about misinterpretation from the original Greek. Nothing unexpected.
More interesting were the complaints about the jarring image, about the need to tread carefully on the subject of slavery, about the risk of alienating the black American community. More interesting still was the fact that it seemed to be mostly white Atheist making these arguments.
My initial reaction was a guttural one. I was offended. There’s something paternalistic and condescending about white atheists trying to protect blacks from this advertisement. Would these people pull punches with white Christians like this? The quiet insinuation that blacks are incapable of grasping the nuance of this type of advertisement is insulting.
But the fact remains, the image of a black slave in a cruel, steel collar is jarring. And that’s a good thing.
In the United States February is “Black History Month.” It is time when Junior-High Social Studies classes are awash with the question, “who are you going to do your report on, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas or that dude with the peanuts?” If you wanted to be controversial you could bang out something on Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X.
I didn’t like “Black History Month.” The bright, sharp line between Black-American and American-American history bugged me. Black American history is American history – we were, after all, here from the start. Talking about Dr. Charles Drew’s work during Black History Month gave the impression he pioneered the storage of blood plasma for black people alone. Black History Month seemed to cheapen our role in American history.
I also was embarrassed by the artificiality of it. I spent most of my teenage years in North Dakota, so I was often one of the few black kids in my classes. Black History month discussions in Minot, North Dakota drew undue and plastic attention to every black kid present. I wasn’t much of a scholar. I cherished my anonymity in class and here was a Social Studies discussion that I just could not avoid.
My 8th grade Social Studies teacher, a youngish white guy, enthusiastic in the way that recently certified teachers are, posed this question to our class one fateful day in February,
What would you rather be – a slave or an indentured servant?
That’s a stupid question I thought. Who in their right mind would rather be a slave? There were six or seven black kids in the class. All of us chose indentured servant. More than half of the white kids chose slave. I listened in dumbfounded silence as they described the advantages of being provided for and the difficulty in finding employment at the end of indenture.
Were they nuts? Didn’t they know about the horrors of slavery? About middle passage? Forcefully separated families? Being sold “down south?” The whippings? The rape?
The answer is no, they didn’t. Why would they? What did I know about the Irish potato famine? About the Trail of Tears? About the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? I had been hearing family legends of slavery since my time ducking under the kitchen table in my short pants. From a very early age when I thought of slavery I saw images like the ones depicted in the American Atheist billboard. The image of a slave in shackles is jarring, but (for blacks anyway) it shouldn’t be surprising. As black Americans we shouldn’t be ashamed of these types of images. Slavery happened and it should be remembered in all of its horror.
The blood of West African blacks, white French slave owners and Native American tribesmen runs in my veins. It’s a good mix – an American mix. Some of my ancestors were slaves. Some of my ancestors owned slaves. Frankly, I’m more ashamed of the latter.
The idea that billboards like this will alienate Black Americans indicates a lack of understanding of how atheism is viewed within the community. Wrath Wright, in “The Invisibility of the Black Atheist,” put it best,
It can be argued that in most African American communities it is more acceptable to be a criminal who believes in God and goes to church on Sunday while selling drugs to kids all week than to be an atheist who has a good job, a good education, who contributes to society and supports his family.
Atheists are universally and publically detested in the black American community. If nothing else billboards of this nature spark debate on the issue of atheism among blacks. That’s a worthwhile start.