Coming to a South Dallas Billboard: A Celebration of Black Atheists & Freethinkers
"Here they go again," Reverend Kyev Tatum said. He laughed, but stopped abruptly. He was talking, of course, about the atheists.
When we last caught up with the Dallas-Forth Worth Coalition of Reason, our local band of atheists, freethinkers and humanists, they were trying fruitlessly to get The Dallas Morning News to include a "secular perspective" in their weekly religion blog. Just in time for Black History Month, they're announcing their newest campaign: a billboard in South Dallas celebrating black atheists and freethinkers, both historical and contemporary. And considering the reaction their last ad campaign got -- those "Good Without God" bus ads in Forth Worth -- they're preparing themselves for a big reaction.
The South Dallas billboard is actually part of a national campaign, the brainchild of the upstate New York-based African Americans for Humanism and paid for by a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. The Dallas billboard will feature a picture of Langston Hughes alongside a photo of Alix Jules, a member of DFWCoR's "Diversity Council." The tagline: "Doubts About Religion? You're One of Many."
Jules is a soft-spoken 37-year-old engineer from Brownsville, Brooklyn. "I got chosen," for the billboard, he told us, "because I happen to be one of the more active minority or diverse freethinkers in the Dallas area." He laughed. "I guess I'm known for being the black atheist."
Jules grew up attending an Afro-Caribbean Catholic church, where people regularly caught the spirit and spoke in tongues. He was fascinated with both religion and the occult, and by age five was convinced he would become a priest. "It's funny," he said. "That was my goal in life. The things I saw in church, I was like, 'I'm gonna be part of that. I'm going to help people.'"
But during his teen years at Bronx High School of Science, trying to argue with "nonbelievers," he said. " I started to understand I was a doubter. Through various experiences and life activities, I 'came out' right after September 11. I stopped saying I was 'spiritual but not religious,' or 'agnostic.' After 9/11, I came out and said, 'I'm an atheist.'"
At first, his family told him he was having a "crisis of faith." He pushed back, and they "stopped returning my phone calls," he says. He doesn't have a relationship with them anymore. He married a Caucasian woman; her family didn't care that he was black, but hated that he was an atheist. The couple would send out holiday cards; her family promptly sent them back, often with notes: "Please take us off your mailing list until you find Jesus."
Jules says that the "social cost" to being a nonbeliever in the black community is "huge."
"When you take a look at religion, religiosity, black culture and history, they're all intertwined," he told us. "The church was such a staple in black America, especially when you look at the civil rights movement. That was very much powered by the black church. You have black people who say you can't be black and an atheist," including celebrities like Steve Harvey and D.L. Hughley. "If you're a black woman, you're always told the only place you're going to find a good man is in church. Church is so much more in the black community than it is elsewhere. It's the support system, the mill, part of the ecosystem," he says, for social activities and dating, for free or low-cost childcare, especially in poor neighborhoods.
"When you wind up saying you don't believe, then you're walking away from a mating pool," Jules added. "You're not going to be able to do that because now you're deemed unfit. And you wind up throwing back into your parent's face the belief they gave you isn't good enough for you."
Jules anticipates an angry response from the black religious community over the billboard, especially given that the proposed boycott of the Fort Worth buses was organized in large part by black ministers. "When we did the 'Good Without God' campaign last year, I went down to the transit authority at the one hearing they allowed us to voice our opposition to the changes. And we saw nothing, really, but black ministers there. They threatened a boycott. They were aggravated, upset and angry. This is the irony of it all: a black ministers' boycott, that immediately evokes an image for most people of civil rights. What kept going through my mind was you have black ministers now saying to another minority, atheists, that they can't have a seat on the bus."
Jules acknowledged that "no one is going to boycott a billboard." But, he said, "we anticipate a little bit of a blow-back. They're going to be talking about it in churches." According to Zachary Moore, another DFWCoR member, he and Jules have already spoken with Dr. David Lane of the Marsalis Avenue Church of Christ. They're planning to hold an event at the church called the "Gospel of Doubt," featuring atheists from DFWCoR and Christians from Oak Cliff's black community.
Jules said they're hoping to have a dialogue about some of the famous humanist figures in black history. There are many: Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston among them. Douglass, Jules points out, once wrote, "Praying for freedom never did me any good til I started praying with my feet."
Debbie Goddard, African Americans For Humanism's national director, told us that out of all the cities where they're doing the campaign -- New York, L.A., D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Durham, N.C. -- they predict the biggest responses in Atlanta and Dallas. Already she's heard of local reps in several cities where the billboards are already up getting emails, "the kind that say, 'Jesus loves you whether or not you know it, and I hope you die.'"
A rep in Chicago got this response, from an apparent Dallasite, which Goddard sent on to us. It reads:
.WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.I have looked at your web cite [sic] and your billboards in Dallas. Your blackIt's followed by the writer's phone number, and an invitation to "Call me if you wanna chat."
Athiest Organizations make me sick. There is nothing worse than a bunch of
blacks supporting Gays and Lesbians.. You are infesting are cities with your
foolish beliefs! What is your reasoning behind your Athiest [sic] beliefs? It is
groups like yours that are screwing up lives
Finally, we called Reverend Tatum for his reaction; he's a Baptist minister who's also head of the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a central figure in the proposed Fort Worth bus boycott last year.
"I really don't have a reaction, to be honest with you," he told us. But he really did, as it turned out. "It's a sad indictment on the state of affairs for us as a community. We got major issues going on within our community that we need to address, and this is an unnecessary debate." He pointed to things like high incarceration and high teenage pregnancy rates in the black community, issues, as he put it, "that we could be working on that are more critical."
"When you rely on freethinking," Tatum said, "and you rely on your own individualism to make your decisions, you oftentimes make unrealistic and irrational decisions. It's irrational, in my thought process, for them to put those kinds of signs up," when they could be focusing on more pressing social problems.
"Do something. You know?" he added. "Don't say something. Do something. To just be able to get this kind of attention, not doing anything, just saying something, just saying, 'I'm a human and I don't believe in God ...'" He laughed and trailed off. "I'm a Baptist and I go to church every Sunday. Do I get this kinda coverage?"
"In essence," Tatum said, "What they're doing is they're really exploiting a season and a time when we should be honoring the works of many who have helped others out and over."
We had to ask: If the atheists offered some charitable help to the church-going, would they take it? Absolutely, Tatum replied.
"We have a garden over there that has about two, three thousand pounds of greens that need picking to give to the poor folk," he said. "Pick some greens. It's at 7510 John T. White Road. They pick those greens, we can take those over to Beautiful Feet, another ministry."
The reverend laughed. "We'll tell them, 'The devil might have picked it, but the good Lord sent it.'"