I think I must have been 9, maybe 10 years old when it finally dawned on me that the doctrine Pastor Bivens was hollering at the assembled black folk from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church didn’t make any damn sense to me.
I remember it distinctly because of how uncomfortable I was at the time. Physically uncomfortable. My scalp was sore. It was sore because the night before, my mother had combed it to within an inch of its life and I, like many black 9-year-olds, was tenderheaded. She raked that comb through my head with all the loving violence of black mothers making their children look “nice” for church.
My scalp was sore the next day, and she touched my hair up again because it was starting to revert and nap up on its own. Scalp sore and collar choking me, buttoned all the way up to the top. The pew was rigid and hard and I was in full misery sitting there squirming and occasionally getting popped in the leg with a paper Jesus fan and told to sit still through clenched teeth. That’s when Pastor Bivens told the story of Noah and his arc.
I remember thinking, “That don’t make no sense.” I remember thinking it because it snapped me out of my uncomfortable state, and it may have been the first time in this life that I have sat still and intently listened to an adult speak. I was transfixed. He talked about how Noah was a vigilant man and how he put every animal that ever was on a wooden canoe and sailed that wooden miracle to the New World because God was finna flood the old one.
“That don’t make no sense,” I said to my mother later on. She explained to me that some things were beyond my understanding, and just because I didn’t understand it didn’t mean it didn’t make any sense. She told me to just accept it. So did my Sunday school teacher when I asked her the following week and so did every other adult, and over time, I just couldn’t bring myself to believe it any more. As I got older, the stories and tenets of the Christian religion became less and less believable to me and began to not make sense in ways that I couldn’t ignore. Their resonance in me deteriorated until any faith I had died on the vine.
And so, here we are.
By last count, there were only four black atheists in the entire world. Even Grace Jones got the Spirit. If I am in the company of black people and the subject of God comes up, I will politely excuse myself to the bar, and I don’t even drink. It is often a sticky and fraught discussion with our people, since faith is the cornerstone of the black community. Christian faith, mostly. And if you tell an old black woman you don’t believe in God, you might catch a King James Version to the temple. I have never been able to reconcile why we cling to Christianity so stubbornly. But I do not try to convince others.
Last year we threw a landmark birthday party for my mother, and if I told you what landmark, my mother would send me personally to find out if there is, in fact, an afterlife. It was a surprise, and I snuck into town without telling many of my family members, and we had the black cookout to end all black cookouts.
You know that thing that happens these days when your social media profile starts to circulate among your family members? I have not been shy online about my stance on these matters, and therefore, my cousins, great-uncles and aunties and everybody else know about my stance. I was roundly avoided by many of my relatives and family friends, and I could have sworn the new pastor would do the sign of the cross on himself every time I passed by him, and he ain’t a damn bit near Catholic.
These conversations are difficult. How do you tell the people you love the most that you don’t share their most fundamental belief? The answer is: You don’t. Not if you can avoid it.
Cousin: Who the hell ever heard of a black atheist?
Me: Butterfly McQueen was a black atheist.
Cousin: And you see how she died, right? In flames!
When I was younger, I was more vocal about it. I told my mother and she looked at me the way black mothers do when you have stepped out of line. She told me that I was getting way above myself and that any seat at her table would belong only to those who serve God. So we don’t talk about it anymore. She and the rest of my family believe. They believe with everything they have that there is a life after this one where they will be rewarded. I believe only in this one. So at family gatherings, I have to deal with the discomfort of having half my family play “Dodge the Heretic.”
But let me be honest. My mother raised three children pretty much on her own. She worked and worked, and I’m sure that there were nights alone in her room that I don’t know about when she had no idea what she was going to do, so she fell on her knees to what I am now so arrogant to call “the Great Invisible.” But something kept her going. Something has kept all black people going, and I have watched my mother shoulder indignity from this racist society with the full knowledge in her heart that the meek shall inherit. With aplomb and tenacity.
Who the hell do I think I am? Who am I to tell her what forces in heaven or earth to believe or not believe in?
If she wanna call that something that keeps us going “Jesus,” who am I to shit on it? The problem with atheists is that our atheism can be so damn insufferable sometimes. Arrogant. I’d like to punch Richard Dawkins in the face myself sometimes. So I will never thumb my nose at black people for believing in God. Just so long as you don’t insist that I believe it, too.
The symbolism of my mother causing me pain to get my hair as straight as possible to go worship what I feel is the white man’s God isn’t lost on me. I am not confused about what I don’t believe, and I am not the first black person to look toward the heavens and wonder why a merciful God would continue to have my people so hard done by. But I do not begrudge anyone their hope.
The way things are going now, I kind of wish I did believe. We got Nazis marching proud to tell the world that we are somehow less than human, and I sometimes wish that there was a hell for them to go to. What with Donald Trump and North Korea and nuclear power and destruction in the news, I wish I did believe.
And maybe black people actually will inherit the earth. Maybe we’ll all stand in a line together after “they” blow up God’s world with hate and he’ll realize that it was his other human creations who were the bad guys after all. And we’ll all stand in a long line of beautiful brown and black humans at the crust of the smoldering earth when he bursts angry through the clouds and say to him:
“It wasn’t us.”