Finding Historical Black Women Atheists

By Christopher Cameron | May-August 2018
The Truth Seeker

Zora Neale Hurston

In her groundbreaking study of gender and black freethought, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Sikivu Hutchinson notes that “while black male non-believers are given more leeway to be heretics, black women who openly profess non-theist views are deemed especially traitorous, having abandoned their primary role as purveyors of cultural and religious tradition.” Those black women in contemporary America who do not take their children to church or who refuse to let others do so are seen as immoral or dissolute. There are a number of factors behind this view of black women atheists. For one, religiosity and femininity have been intertwined in American culture to such an extent that men professing atheism does not call into question their masculinity but women doing so undermines their femininity. Further, in rejecting the black church, black women are also rejecting the cultural and political leadership of black men and this challenge to black patriarchy makes black women freethinkers appear to be race traitors. One 2007 study showed that over seventy percent of American atheists are men. Were the study confined to black atheists, the number of women openly professing disbelief in God would likely be even smaller.

Hutchinson’s conclusions presented both a challenge and an opportunity for me when I first began work on my history of black freethought in 2013. The challenge was presenting a balanced perspective on the rise of black freethought, one attuned to issues of gender and that recognized the significance of black women. This challenge was all the more glaring for me since my project extends back into the nineteenth century. If black women atheists are hard to find in contemporary America, how much harder would they be to find in the 1800s or 1900s? On the other hand, her recognition of the exclusion of black women from the secular movement presented me with an opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of people on whom scholars have not focused much attention. For an historian, it is rare to come across a topic that nobody else in your field has done, but five years ago this is exactly the position I was in.

Some of the earliest sources I turned to were collections of documents published by freethinkers and scholars such as Norm Allen, Jr. and Anthony Pinn. In particular, Pinn’s document collection By These Hands contained short excerpts from women such as Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker that highlighted certain elements of their nonbelief and skepticism. From Pinn’s excerpts, I went back to the full originals in order to critically analyze the historical context of the sources and place them within a broader tradition of freethought. For example, Pinn’s excerpt on Hurston discusses her ideas on prayer and her development as a freethinker. Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, however, the document from which the excerpt was taken, goes deeper and discusses Hurston’s ideas on why human beings believe in God and on the nature of the deity (if any). From this original source, I found that Hurston’s argument that God was a mental projection of weak human beings was similar to the point Ludwig Feuerbach made in his groundbreaking 1841 book The Essence of Christianity, namely that we made God, God didn’t make us. Additionally, her notions regarding human weakness and religion were similar to points Friedrich Nietzsche made in multiple books, books she likely had to read in philosophy courses at Barnard College in the 1920s.

Expanding my net beyond Hurston’s autobiography also allowed me to make a case for the early ties between gender and freethought. In her 1935 anthropological work, Mules and Men, Hurston recounts a theological debate held on a front porch in Eatonville within hearing distance of a Baptist church service. There, she and a number of people bantered about the power and strength of the Black Church. At one point during the exchange, a woman named Mathilda argued that women have the power to take advantage of men and goes on to explain the origins of this power. At the beginning of time, Mathilda noted, man went to God and asked for more strength to control women, which God gave to him. The woman then went to God and asked for an equal amount of strength and God refused, saying that he could not take back what he already gave and that giving her more strength would be equivalent to taking it away from man. “De woman was so mad she wheeled around and went on off. She went straight to de devil and told him what had happened. He said, ‘Don’t be discouraged, woman, You listen to me and you’ll come out mo’ than conqueror.’” Hurston’s purposeful selection and inclusion of this story in her book is significant because it suggests that under Christianity, women will never be men’s equals and that if they want equality, they must reject God and turn to his ultimate rival, the devil. Hurston notes later in the book that for rural, Southern blacks “the devil is not the terror that he is in European folklore. He is a powerful trickster who often competes successfully with God. There is a strong suspicion that the devil is an extension of the story-makers.” In turning to the devil for strength, then, black women are actually relying on human cunning and ingenuity rather than that of a Supreme Being.

Hurston and her contemporary, Nella Larsen, are somewhat well-known in freethought circles and the two ended up forming the backbone of the second chapter of my book, which looks at black freethought during the Harlem Renaissance. A tougher challenge for me was finding black women freethinkers who participated in the Socialist and Communist parties, the subject of the book’s third chapter. It was easy enough to find men, as Jeffrey Perry, Michael Lackey, Anthony Pinn, and others have written about figures such as Hubert Harrison, Harry Heywood, A. Phillip Randolph, and Richard Wright. But from scholars of freethought I saw little mention of black women who combined the same type of religious and political radicalism as their male counterparts.

To remedy this situation, I began with secondary sources on African Americans and Communism more broadly. Most of this work still highlighted the efforts of men, but one book focused exclusively on gender and black women in the Communist Party, Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom. I suspected that if I could find black women Communists in the 1920s and 1930s, I’d also find black women atheists. It turned out I was right. McDuffie discusses at length the activism of a woman named Louise Thompson Patterson that was an early member of the Communist Party. While he does not focus on her religious beliefs, I was able to go to the sources myself to gauge her theological ideas.

A trip to Emory University’s archives allowed me to read the manuscript draft of her autobiography. Here, Patterson notes her early distaste with Christianity due to the racism she experienced in Christian churches out West. While a teacher at Hampton Institute in her twenties, Louise told her coworkers who were on their way to church one Sunday that she doesn’t have to go to church and that she “didn’t sign a contract to go to church.” While this is not a direct statement of her atheism, her anticlericalism and opposition to attending church services makes a strong circumstantial case for her being a freethinker. Additionally, in perusing through her personal papers, I found a postcard from her friend Langston Hughes, who was an atheist. Hughes was traveling in Mexico and wrote on the back of the postcard that he “tried hard to find one without a church on it.” The only reason Hughes would say that is if he knew her to be disgusted with churches in particular and religion more broadly. These sources allowed me to include Patterson in my chapter on black freethought and radical politics and demonstrate the way that gender, race, and class informed the ideas and work of black women atheists in the interwar era.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Christopher Cameron is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Freethinkers: African American Secularism, 1800-1975, to be published by Northwestern University Press in the fall 2019.

For nearly a century and a half, The Truth Seeker has promoted women’s rights, birth control, free speech, science, separation of church and state, and exposed religion as against reason. It counted among its illustrious subscribers and progressive writers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Clarence Darrow, and Robert Ingersoll. Each elegantly designed issue of The Truth Seeker offers a unique blend of contemporary, thought-provoking editorials and historical Freethought articles, archival photographs, irreverent cartoons, along with book and film reviews. A high-definition video preview of each January, May, and September issue is online at thetruthseeker.net.

Black Freethought and Radical Politics, 1910-1975 – Prof. Christopher Cameron

Zora Neale Hurston’s Hometown Legacy | The New York Times

Norm Allen Speaks About Black Freethinkers

143 YEARS OF BLASPHEMY! from RODERICK BRADFORD on Vimeo

THE HERETICAL ABOLITIONISTS from RODERICK BRADFORD on Vimeo

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