Not many years ago, I spoke at a standing room only event at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library System, in Harlem, New York. I was invited to discuss humanism and great humanists of African descent. As I was speaking, it dawned on me that I could have given a whole lecture discussing great non-religious Harlemites.
Harlem has been home to some remarkable non-religious women. Nella Larsen was a major writer during the humanistic arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-1940s. In her novellas Quicksand and Passing, Larsen made her mark as one of the most important contributors to the movement.
In Quicksand, the author wrote about the oppressive nature of religious conversion. Helga Crane, the woman at the center of the story, is forced to embrace religion. However, religion only causes her psychic and emotional duress. Helga is not religious. On the contrary, she opposes the suffocating grip of the Black church. Yet, due to the overwhelming religious pressure, she marries the pastor of the church responsible for her conversion.
In the beginning, Helga tries to convince herself that she is happy. However, as time passes, she feels that she is being suffocated by religion and her life with the pastor. She comes to see how religion is a tool of oppression, not only for individuals, but for the poor and Black people, and especially African American women.
Another major leader of the Harlem Renaissance was Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was an anthropologist and novelist. She grew up in a very religious household and regularly attended church.
However, it was just a matter of time before she started asking questions and thought her way out of the faith. She had problems with the concept of sin, finding that to be sinful and human seemed to be one and the same. She did not understand how theists could profess love for a being that could not be perceived through the senses.
While in college, she studied history, philosophy, and the history of Christianity. It became obvious to her that Christianity, like the other religions, had human origins. She stopped praying and embraced a naturalistic worldview.
Hurston's writings profoundly influenced many African American female writers, including the Pultizer Prize-winning author and former Humanist of the Year laureate, Alice Walker. During her lifetime, Hurston was the most widely published African American woman author. Her most well-known works are Dust Tracks on a Road and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The great playwright Lorraine Hansberry was another highly impressive non-religious Harlemite. Hansberry was born to Carl and Nannie Hansberry at Provident Medical Center on the South Side of Chicago. Her parents encouraged their children to think critically and to be actively engaged with political ideas.
Lorraine's uncle was the Africanist William Leo Hansberry, who encouraged her to read widely on Africa. He would sometimes bring students from Africa home for the holidays to meet Lorraine and her family. Lorraine read Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya so many times that she remembered entire pages. Such literature greatly influence her literary themes. She rejoiced the more she learned of African nations such as Kenya and Malawi gaining their political independence from neo-colonial powers. These developments also found their way into her writings.
Lorraine Hansberry is best known as the author of A Raisin in the Sun. Her play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, influenced her friend, singer Nina Simone, to write an anthem of the same title.
However, Hansberry was also an activist. She fell in love with Harlem, and while living there, she joined the Harlem Youth Chorus and served as an usher at rallies in churches, and at the Golden Gate Ballroom. She spoke on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.
Hansberry was a secular humanist, and was not primarily concerned with the question of why human beings exist. She was mainly interested in exploring how human beings ought to live. She believed it was up to human beings to impose reason upon their existence.
When Hansberry died from cancer at the age of 34, her funeral was held at the small Presbyterian Church of the Master in Harlem. Malcolm X was in attendance, and activist and actor Paul Robeson and actress Ruby Dee spoke. Martin Luther King sent a message of condolence.
Last but not least, Florynce ("Flo") Rae Kennedy was one of the most dynamic leading second-wave feminists. Kennedy was a lawyer, political activist, and an opponent of racism, homophobia, militarism, nuclear weapons, police brutality, the war on drugs, corporate greed, etc.
Kennedy, the second of five daughters, was born to Wiley and Zella Kennedy, in Kansas City, Missouri. In essence, her parents taught her and her sisters to disobey authority, a lesson that Flo learned extremely well. Years later, after her mother died, Flo and her sister Grayce moved to an apartment in Harlem.
Flo attended Columbia University. However, when she tried to apply to Columbia Law School, she was denied entry because of her sex. She threatened to sue, and won admission. In 1951, she was the second African American woman to graduate from the law school (the first was Elreda Alexander in 1945).
As an attorney, Flo defended the Black militant H. Rap Brown and a female member of the Black Liberation Front. Both were charged with bank robbery. She also defended radical activist Assata Shakur and Black Panthers charged with conspiracy to commit bombings.
Flo was a member of NOW and worked closely with leading feminist Gloria Steinem. She left NOW to form the Feminist Party, which nominated African American Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm for President.
Flo also supported some unusual causes. She fought for the decriminilization of prostitution, and she led a mass urination on the campus grounds of Harvard to protest that institution's lack of bathrooms for women.
By the late 1980s, Flo had had two heart attacks and three strokes. She had to use a wheelchair. However, she had still not lost her sense of humor. She would hold memorial parties for herself to see what people would say about her after she died. She eventually died on December 22, 2000, at the age of 84.
These are just some of the fascinating figures of non-theism from Harlem. Later, we will learn about some of the fascinating male figures from the Mecca of Black America.