My Issues with ‘Black Christians are Uncle Toms’

As stated in my previous entry , Cult of Dusty’s latest video on Black Christians rubbed me the wrong way.

For the sake of brevity I chose not to go in depth with my critique of the video in that post.  In this entry however I will elaborate on why I find the video so problematic. However before I begin it is crucial that I address two key points I’ve heard thrown at Blacks-atheist and religious alike-who have taken issue with the video.

1) “I don’t see what you’re offended about. Why do you have such a problem with a white guy discussing Black issues?”

I do not have an issue with a white man, or any non-Black individual, addressing Black issues. I currently have the book “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” sitting on my dresser at home. It was written by David Brion Davis, a white man and Professor at Yale University. I frequently enjoy the writing of anti-racism activist Tim Wise, another white man. So it is not Dusty Smith’s color alone that is the crux of my problem. Rather it is the gross oversimplification of how Christianity informs the identity of African-Americans and the callous, unnecessarily inflammatory way that  our history and culture was addressed that grinds my gears.

2) “You’re just being hypersensitive. This is an example of ‘reverse racism’!”

Chile PLEASE! You can have a seat with that foolishness. And I prefer you have said seat at your local library. While there you can look up the books of Tim Wise, one of the white men mentioned above. For if you truly think that being called out by a Black person for distorting their experience and slandering the majority of their community makes YOU a victim of ‘reverse racism’, you are in desperate need of fresh  knowledge and perspective on race relations in the United States. You got some learning to do today.

Now with that out of the way I shall proceed.

 “Black Christians are Uncle Toms”. From the title alone I knew there was going to be a problem. He might as well have said ‘Black Christians are Niggers’! Few words have the ability to stir up such controversy and heated response from Black Americans as uncle tom and nigger. Both terms are incredibly vile and stem from our tortured existence in this country. Uncle Tom is arguably one of the most vicious terms that we hurl at each other to express anger and discontent. I personally do not use the term. No matter how vehemently I may disagree with another Black American I will not call them that name. Its implications are questionable. Too often Black American-internally and externally-are treated as a monolith. Holding a differing opinion alone is enough to get you labeled an uncle tom, and since I know how deeply the term can wound my people I will not use it against them. I cannot STAND Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas but I don’t call him an uncle tom. There are better ways for me to articulate my dissent and disappointment with fellow Blacks. To take them term uncle tom, which implies treacherous disloyalty and actions that harm the entire race, and apply it to over eighty percent of Black Americans simply based on their religious beliefs, is extremely crass and nonsensical

But what’s in a word? Some will say there’s no need to get so bothered by him using the term. Even if I ignore that aspect the controversy there’s still the issue of the condescending, haughty tone and the fact that the autonomy of Black Americans is not being acknowledged and respected.  From the time my ancestors were locked in chains on the coast of West Africa, others have told us what to do. Generation after generation my ancestors suffered and cried, hoping that their children would experience the sweetness of a word they could only dream of: freedom.  As a Black American I hold that legacy close to me. My great-great Grandma was robbed of freedom by chattel slavery, the peculiar institution that forever marked the founding of the United States. And thanks to Jim Crow my Grandma wouldn’t begin to experience freedom until she was in her forties.

Full autonomy to live and think as we please is a luxury that is still quite new for us in this country. So when I see the autonomy of Black Americans questioned and attacked in the manner that they were in this video, I get indignant. I do not need or expect all Black Americans to share my beliefs-religious or otherwise. And I will fervently defend their right to make their own choices regarding their religious beliefs-or lack thereof. It is not the place of anyone to sit back and tell Black Americans what or how to worship. The matter of faith is a personal one that we all get to make for ourselves. If my fellow Black Americans choose to follow Christianity, Islam or Buddhism or no belief system at all I FULLY support their autonomy to do so. The hubris of atheists who support such disrespect truly galls me. Atheists from ex-theist backgrounds know all too well what it is like to deal with people who want to boss them around and mock them. To turn around and subject others to similar treatment-especially a racial minority with a complicated history-is unacceptable to me.

My next issue with the video is the assumption that Black Americans who remain Christians are unaware of how our people became Christian to begin with and need a history lesson from Dusty on it to become enlightened. Uh, NO. We do not remain Christians simply because we’re too dumb and ignorant to know any better. When I was fourteen years old I had a better handle on my history and culture than what’s on display in this video. Even with those of us who know the story there is still an attachment to and affection for our faith. I certainly felt ambivalence about that history(you can read more about that here) but that alone did not motivate me to leave my religion. The reality is that some Black Americans never will walk away from Christianity as a whole. Those in the younger generation are doing what their ancestors did: taking a faith that was passed down to them and reshaping it to fit their reality. As long as they are not imposing their religious beliefs on others I see no need to knock them for that.

Finally a word for my fellow black atheist, agnostic and questioning peeps who agree with the video: let’s think carefully about who we choose to embrace.  As secular-minded Blacks in America we are indeed a minority within a minority. Allies are helpful, and our struggle is real. But being an atheist alone doesn’t make someone your ally. Being secular does not exempt one from engaging in racism and/or exhibiting white privilege. I would not say that Dusty is being racist in the video but I certainly think he’s engaging in white privilege.  I feel that those of us who choose to co-sign such a message without thinking about the deeper consequences of embracing it do both ourselves and the larger community a disservice. You have to ask yourself: what is your goal? Do you simply want to mock and insult your Black Christian brothers and sisters? Or do you want to start a dialogue with them, opening their minds so that they hear your viewpoint and bringing more Black nonbelievers out of the closet? If  you seek to do the former-well rock on. However if you seek the latter- insulting and mocking  is not the way to achieve that.