Due to the great number of Black atheists that have come out of Harlem, I have decided to blog about them. My last posting focused on some of the women. Now I will focus on some of the men.
Claude McKay was one of the leading poets of the humanistic arts and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-1940s. He was raised a Catholic. However, he was exposed to atheism, freethought, and rationalism at an early age during his childhood in Jamaica. His older brother, U. Theo, was a freethinker and embraced Fabian socialism. U. Theo had contacts with influential British humanists, and he became a member of Britain's Rationalist Association. He read widely on rationalism. Eventually, young Claude founded an agnostics group composed of boys his age.
McKay's best-known poem is "If We Must Die." McKay was motivated to write the poem in response to deadly violence against Blacks by White supremacists. He called upon Black people to defend themselves rather than die "like hogs." Winston Churchill read the poem aloud (without properly accrediting McKay) to rally his people against the Germans during W.W. II.
Though McKay had been a nonbeliever for several years, he again embraced Catholicism near the end of his life.
Langston Hughes was widely regarded as Black America's poet laureate. His poetry influenced Martin Luther King, Lorraine Hansberry and numerous other prominent African Americans. His writings were wildly popular among the Black masses, from whom he drew his strength. He, too, was a major poet during the Harlem Renaissance.
In "Salvation" from his autobiography The Big Sea, Hughes discussed a negative experience with religion when he was about 13. He asked Jesus to come into his life and save him from sin. However, nothing happened, and he was devastated.
As an adult, Hughes wrote some works deemed blashpemous by critics. Two poems, "Goodbye Chrsist," and "Christ in Alabama," were strong targets of religious critics. Hughes's leading biographer, noted scholar Arnold Rampersad, wrote that Hughes was "secular to the bone." However, he loved the drama and passion of religion, such as the singing.
In personal correspondence to humanist writer Warren Allen Smith, Hughes stated that he was certainly nonreligious. However, he rejected the term "humanist," even though the term could certainly describe his life stance. Like Claude McKay, Hughes became increasingly religious in his later years.
Jean Toomer wrote what is widely regarded as the greatest masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane. The novel features non-religious characters that critique religion's hold upon African Americans. One character, Kabnis, refers to Blacks as "a preacher-ridden race."
Toomer attended lectures on atheism, science and numerous other topics. He was familiar with the work of Clarence Darrow and other agnostics of his day. He was very well-read in history, religion, and many other subjects, and drew upon his vast knowledge to add depth to his writing.
Carlos Cooks was the leader of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement in Harlem during the 1960s. Cooks and other members of the group spoke on the streets of Harlem. They displayed red, black and green flags at their rallies and called for Black self-determination. They promoted atheism. However, the group was essentially reactionary, and they made homophobic comments and assumed other reactionary positions.
John Henrik Clarke was a major Afrocentric historian. He was the man behind Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, and other excellent books. He wrote the introduction, commentary, and bibliographic notes for the 1972 edition of anthropologist J.A. Rogers's World's Great Men of Color (2 volumes).
Clarke seemed to have believed in some vague concept of God. However, he was a strong critic of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He was highly critical of the late Libyan dictator Mu'ammer Gaddafi and Louis Farrakhan, calling them "fakers." He accused Gaddafi of using his oil money to buy African leaders. He said that Farrakhan is a theocrat, and that only a fool wants to live in a "religious" society. He was especially furious over Farrakhan's support of the slave-owning regime of mass murderers in North Sudan. Prior to the first Million Man March, Clarke said that as long as Farrakhan supported the regime in Khartoum, "I'm not marching anywhere with Farrakhan."
Joel Augustus Rogers spent over 50 years researching history and uncovering little-known facts about Black people throughout the world. He traveled to 60 nations and won numerous awards. He spoke at rallies organized by the Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. As an atheist, he believed that Black people should read more Nietzsche and less Jesus. He believed that Christianity did a great deal of harm to people of African descent. However, he generally thought highly of Islam.
Rogers's books include Africa's Gift to America, As Nature Leads, Nature Knows No Color Line, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, Your History: From the Beginning of Time to the Present, The Ku Klux Spirit, The Real Facts About Ethiopia, and Sex and Race (Three Volumes).
James Baldwin was one of the greatest essayists in U.S. history. His best-known work is The Fire Next Time. He wrote movingly and shockingly about race relations. During his youth, Baldwin was a preacher. He came to the conclusion that religion was phony at an early age. He was highly critical of Christianity. However, though he rejected the racial dogma of the Nation of Islam, he had a great deal of respect for its leaders, particularly Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.
Last but not least, Hubert Henry Harrison was one of the leading intellectuals of the early part of the 20th century. He was originally from St. Croix, a Caribbean island. He supported women's rights and human rights struggles throughout the world. He became an agnostic during his first ten years in New York City, and he was skeptical of paranormal claims.
According to Harrison's leading biographer, Jeffrey B. Perry, Harrison's New Negro Movement paved the way for Alain Locke's 1925 highly influential publication of The New Negro. Harrison's movement was embraced by the ordinary people and was political. Conversely, Locke's movement was not political, and it was embraced primarily by the middle class.
Harrison argued for the taxation of churches and in defense of the separation of church and state. He defended evolution and wondered how Black people could worship a White Jesus. He viewed Christianity as a major weapon used in the war against the poor. In Harlem, he sold books containing speeches of the 19th century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll.
Harrison greatly influenced Marcus Garvey. He devised the first tripartite colored flag for unity. (Garvey would later develop the red, black and green flag.) Harrison promoted the idea of "Negro First" when he discovered that the socialists of his day put the interests of Whites before class interests. Harrison advocated armed self-defense against White supremacists. (Garvey would later popularize the expression, "The New Negro is ready for the Klan.")
Perry summed up Harrison well by stating that he "was the most class conscious of the race radicals, and the most race conscious of the class radicals. " (Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, (Vol. 1).
These are just some of the great Black atheist men of Harlem. Harlem has been home to groups of nontheists such as the Harlem Atheist Association and the Center for Inquiry/Harlem group. Harlem has hosted debates on the role of religion in the Black community and other important issues. Influential people from this community have long provided strong evidence that not all Black people embrace the God concept.
(For more information on great Black atheists of Harlem, see my first book African-American Humanism: An Anthology.)