Letters to my Tutor…

My dear, sweet Simone,

I haven’t finished reading the review scheduled for this week. Most of the reviews I’ve read have been around 20 pages; the latest one is around 40 pages and I didn’t schedule for that.  I could have finished the reading, but I decided that it might be better to stretch it over two weeks.  And plus, this leaves open the chance to write to you about something that has been playing in the back of my head for several weeks now.

Back in the 1990’s one of my African-American history professors asserted during class that all African-Americans were atheists…except for the odd few here or there.  I don’t have a clear memory of my understanding of his statements at the time, so my more recent thoughts might be a rehash of my thinking then.  I also don’t recall the professors exactly elaborations, but I do remember being more in agreement than not.  You’ve written of socializing with Richard Wright, a fellow Mississippian.  Did you two ever speak about religion?  I know he had strong feelings and beliefs about the matter. You’ve mentioned so far in one of your letters to Nelson that Richard might take unkindly to some of your opinions of him, but that you thought that this would be more due to a misinterpretation of your view. I hope to hear more about your conversations with Richard.

I’ve thought back on the subject due to more recent casual observations of an African-American who identifies as atheist.  His atheism is quite strange to me in that it seems to assume and be in reaction to a type of belief that I didn’t think existed in the African-American community.  It’s possible this gentleman grew up in more integrated community, but still it seems that he’s old enough that this should not have skewed his relationship with Christianity so far into the mainstream. He makes remarks along the lines of  this or that Christian belief isn’t true or that church officials will twists general statements in an effort to bamboozle congregants.  Now, my experience (and I think one that was shared by the professor) was that even in a community that was at least ostensibly filled with believers, statements like the above were considered an essential part of the education of the black child such that if an African-American identified as atheist the remarks would come from some place other than Christianity lacked truth.

Part of my early education was that religion, politics, science, society were all used to lie to me about who I was and what my potential was as a black child.  Out in the popular culture “blackness” was spoken of as a punishment from god; “scientific” studies showed that blackness and black culture were inherently inferior; political spin doctors never lacked plentiful justifications for laws now popularly considered to have been unjust.  In all-Black settings especially, there was strongly resistance to these types of things in popular culture.  Children were heavily encouraged to developed a sense of self that stood apart from religious truths and “scientific” truths and truths found in popular culture.  The tone of the statements of the African-American atheist I mentioned earlier suggests to me that he didn’t receive this early education that I thought was the norm.

One thing I do remember the professor saying is something along the lines that Christian religiosity in the black community was more or less a song and dance, a pageant, a play for the benefit of the powers that be.  During American slavery, religious meetings often served as a cover for other activities such as learning to read or planning escapes to freedom or other communications.  Religious singing during fieldwork and other group work was often used as a signal for secret meetings and plans.  Later, during the Civil Rights Movement, stressing the idea that we black people worshiped the same god as the wider population was often helpful in combating racism.  This last thought co-mingled with some of the general thinking about whether all African-Americans are atheist has lead me to reinterpret part of my elementary school education.

I went to a segregated elementary school.  My mother attended an integrated elementary school, at least for a short while, but that had fallen out of fashion by the time I was in school… and then back in fashion again before I had finished grade school.  Getting back to the point, there was prayer in my public school.  And when it was discovered that I did not know the Lord’s Prayer after I had been chosen to lead the class in prayer and failed, my teacher took me aside and taught it to me.  It’s recently dawned on me or perhaps re-dawned on me that prayer in the black school was part of a survival strategy. My teacher taught me the Lord’s Prayer because it was an essential tool for my health and safety as a black child in Mississippi.. this apart from whatever her personal beliefs may have been.  Calls to prayer could sometimes be effective in diffusing racially heated situations headed toward violence.

I’ve been trying to sort out what I was taught about religion as a child.  The same teacher who made sure that I knew the Lord’s Prayer also did a great job at teaching about the religions in other cultures; there was no condescension.  She did not teach in a tone that suggested that non-Christian religions were lesser or further away from some universal truth.  When my mother learned that I liked a Hindu boy she made remarks to my younger brother about maybe having to learn about a whole different religion in a tone that seemed open and accepting.  From many places, I got the sense that Christianity was local and practical.

Perhaps I will revisit this later?  My community service was canceled for tonight, but still I’m writing to you late in the day.  I’ve actually been more efficient this week, but my efforts have been spread across a wider variety of tasks.  I don’t care much for strict schedules generally speaking, but it seems having regularly scheduled chunks helps me get more done during “free” times.  I hope this is true.

Yours faithfully,