We are now in the middle of celebrating another Black History Month, and again the failures and achievements of the black struggle are discussed and debated in almost all arenas. These debates are waged between people some describe as Traditionalists, Fence-Sitters and Dissenters. However, despite these debates and the category one may be placed in, have we neglected an important lesson that for years has been staring us in the face? I believe we have.
One aspect of the black experience that is certain to capture the center of these discussions is the black religion, or more correctly, the black church. One is certain to hear the statement, “Religion has always been a part of Black life in both Africa and the U.S” (Karenga, 1993), made constantly. This statement is something of a mantra used by many people of color as they defend the continuing need for religion as a viable institution in the Black community. Indeed, as one looks back through antiquity, the many uncertainties that plagued our ancestors explained why God and what became known as religion may have been needed. Thus, in this context, God and religion seem, as supported by a huge body of evidence, to have been created by early humans in an attempt to calm their fears.
The statement that religion has always been a part of the black experience both personally and collectively is indeed a true one. Not only to black life in Africa and the United States, but also to black life in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
In this essay, however, I am not interested in religion as a personal influence. I believe that every individual has his or her right to worship whomever or whatever he or she wants, and for their rights I will certainly defend. My concern here lies in religion as an institution, around which people collectively form their identity. This I believe is harmful to the collective harmony of a society, since a society may not be homogenous in all respects.
Nowhere else has a people’s identity been more tied to religion than in the black world? In the United States, for example, “92% of African Americans identified themselves as Christians” – (Hutchinson, 2011). Of course, there are the Afro-centrists who identify with the many Traditional African Religions, the black Islamists, i.e. the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, etc. This level of religious adherents is also true for the Caribbean region. Grenada’s population is identified as being 98% Christian, for example. In the black world, theism can be found in all forms, and not accepting one sadly places an individual in the absurd category of race traitor.
Moreover, apart from arguing that religion has always been a part of the black experience, another reason given for its continuing need is its claimed use as a tool against oppression. From the African continent to the Americas our ancestors engaged in struggles against the European colonizers, and in their struggles, religion certainly played a role. In Haiti, for instance, the Vodoun religion played a significant part in the Haitians’ struggle for freedom. The Black Church in the United States also played a significant role in the struggles of African Americans against white discrimination. Here, however, is what I think is worthy to note, neither religion itself nor its God/gods or deities were responsible for the success in these human struggles. Instead, these religions simple provided a safe space and community from which revolutionaries were protected as they carry out their work. The fact is, “It was the human being who did the work,” (Lewis, 2012).
With this understanding, I believe that throughout the continuing struggle for black liberation, self-identity, sociopolitical and socioeconomic equality, we, the black population, has missed a noteworthy lesson. This lesson, despite being virtually ignored, has been significant to the success of the black struggle.
To elucidate what I am talking about here, I am pointing to the Marcus Garvey Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), as a case in point. The UNIA I believe presents us with an obvious, and maybe the best, picture of my argument. No, I am not asking that we create today a UNIA type organization. There is I believe no real benefit to racially homogeneous type organization in a multicultural world. We are living in a global village, where we are interconnected in diverse ways. However, I am arguing that there is an intrinsic feature to the movement that allowed it to achieve the successes it did; the largest mass movement in African history. Indeed, “the Universal Negro Improvement Association was the greatest and strongest movement ever started among Negroes” (UCLA African Studies Center).
Even though Marcus Garvey was, to all accounts, a religious (Christian) man, placing his liberation philosophy within a god-based theistic framework, adopting the motto “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” the movement itself embodied a feature of secularism. In that I mean, Marcus Garvey, unlike the leaders of the many black movements that followed, did not promote his movement as a religion. Marcus Garvey is recorded as saying that he had “no time to teach religion” (UCLA African Studies Center). In fact, the defeat of the UNIA’s Muslims members in 1922 and its Christians members in 1924 from trying to make Islam and Christianity the official religions of the movement speaks to the intent of building a movement that embodied a secular characteristic. Despite Garvey’s assertion that black people should view God as being black, the UNIA members did not have to drop their religion to become a member. As Garvey said, “our God has no color, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles,” (Garvey, 1986).
There is no doubt that the massive growth and success of the UNIA, despite how short lived it may have been, was a result of its secular nature. If one surveys the black experience after the UNIA, we will notice that all the liberation movements that followed, failed to eclipse the UNIA although possessing almost the very same philosophy and goals; for example, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI), Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish Science Temple of America, Dr. Malachi Z York El and the Nuwaubian nation, and even the Black Churches that feature Liberation Theology as their manifesto. The problem here is certainly religion/theism as an identity for the community.
As I have mention before, we are a diverse group of people. This truth cannot be denied. Thus, designing a community/society with a specific religious ideology as its identity, be it Euro-centric or Afro-centric is unhealthy for us and the world in general. Indeed, many of us are believers, but some of us are not. Some of us are heterosexuals; some of us are not, and list of diversities goes on. We are certainly “at the crossroads of freedom and equality.” As a result, I ask that as we reminisce on our pass struggles, achievements, and debate on how we should move forward, remember that an unprejudiced society that embraces and accommodates all human beings, regardless of sexual orientation, religious belief, non-belief, color, sex, etc., is most certainly the best recipe for success, and only a secular humanist society can, I believe, accommodate such a vision. This, I believe, is the lesson we have missed.
Happy Black History Month!