FIRST PERSON | Dehumanized and Still Holding onto Jesus

While I do make an attempt to see things through a non-racial lens, I have to admit, at times it’s difficult to do. I am currently sitting in a coffee shop in the Montrose neighborhood in Houston, Texas. Two young men are next to me talking, a mentorship it would seem. The mentor is telling the mentee about his calling, about Jesus… I can’t help but eavesdrop. The mentor is, in some way, shape, or form, asking the mentee for some type of compensation for this “Jesus” program that in turn will help the mentee get a job. Though I grew up around this hustle and know it all too well, when it comes to Black folks, I’m sorry—whatever Western Christianity has devolved into, it wasn’t meant for Black folks. Whatever this is in the coffee shop, it feels tainted and rife with ignorance. When you have preacher men buying yachts and Lamborghinis and wearing $5,000 sneakers, all under the guise of “Christianity,” something just don’t smell right.

I am a perpetual adjunct professor, and I only teach at religious institutions. Many of my students have a clue that, hey, “Maybe Prof. Clay is an atheist, or agnostic.” If that’s the case, if they have peeped this out, then I’m doing my job well. I love working in higher education, but the crossover I see with religion and education isn’t good. Sorry, Jesus can’t help you with this quiz, but studying can. Your hard work can. Your intelligence can.

I am also a person of color, and considering how Western Christianity was forced upon my literally enslaved, abused, and raped ancestors, I’d think an outside observer would be at least a little critical of its tenets. Slaveholders cherry-picked scripture in order to secure their economic well-being and to keep Black people enslaved—that’s it, period. Therefore, is it not just a bit hard to swallow that something as traumatic as slavery wouldn’t affect Black people for generations? Yet, many still worship a deity that would allow such transgressions. That tells me that the psychological chains of slavery are still there and unbroken.

Slave owners had numerous rationalizations for keeping Blacks in the shackles of servitude. From there, Black dehumanization was allowed to spread. The American thesis is that Blacks are not only non-human but constantly “less than.” It was baked into the cake that is the United States, and you cannot unbake a cake.

Many state that Blacks need to get over slavery, yet living in Texas, that Confederate (ahem, rebel) flag is a constant reminder of said slavery. So if I need to get over “it,” why can’t people who hoist that flag get over the fact that the South lost? Dehumanization coupled with oppression creates trauma that still exists today. Slavery was more than a dehumanizing foundation of American life, it is still ever-present in how Blacks, and how predominantly Black males, are treated in American society. In times of slavery, there was a constant assault on the Black male form; it was also a mental and spiritual assault. The corporeal damage, i.e. branding, limb abstraction, and other physically extreme punishment was rare, but not so rare as to not remind us of how James Byrd Jr. was dragged by the back of a pickup truck to death simply due to the amount of melanin in his skin and the amount of hate in the men who committed such an act.

Dehumanization is the act of making a human less of a human. Europeans played a part in this and continue to play a part. Europeans took Africans off their continent, forced Eurocentric religious beliefs upon them, and took away the African traditions that made the African people who they intrinsically were. They forced dehumanized Africans to make their lifestyle Western and then characterized it as primitive and “less than,” a particular mode of thought that we still see today.

In a national survey conducted in 2016, 38 percent of white respondents saw Black people as less evolved than whites.

In the survey white participants habitually described Black people in dehumanizing ways such as: “I consider Blacks to be closer to the animal kingdom,” and they “lack the intelligence and morals” of other races. It was also stated by one person that Blacks “carry and conduct themselves” in ways that are “almost animalistic.

Unsurprisingly, the above survey data came from Trump supporters who mimic their leader in sounding devoid of any type of intellectual heft. These supporters need to see Black and Brown people as “less than” in order to mentally cope with a society that in many ways is leaving them behind. But white Democrats were also among those who said they thought Black Americans were less evolved.

What I think is that if this was going to change or get better it would have happened by now. But it persists. Religion and dehumanization coupled together have been highly detrimental for Blacks in the United States. So we have to change the paradigm, yet many don’t have the know-how or the will to do so. Half of my life is over, and my wife and I will be emigrating to Canada next year. We have spent so much time there and it feels like home. Plus, we’re more of a “why not?” and less of a “why?” couple when it comes to life decisions. Why not move to a place where the legacy of slavery and dehumanization is not, on its face, as persistent—unless you talk to an indigenous Canadian (a topic for another time)?

I feel that many Black Americans are always looking for a savior, whether it’s Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, President Obama, Jesus… there’s that need to have someone be our avatar. To say that maybe, just maybe, we need to look inward more often to find answers is damn-near heresy. Until we do that, amongst other things, I fear we’ll never turn the corner as a people who still live in this Western culture. White Jesus will not save us; he was not meant for us.

This hit home in a hilarious manner just recently. Asking one of my PhD advisors for guidance, I was told about God. Not only did this person not have the answers, she told me to look to God for the answers and also that God would bring my wife and me a baby. This advisor was talking to an agnostic atheist who had a vasectomy and was asking for academic advice, but, sure, God will bring me a baby. Got it!

All the advisor’s conversation taught me is that not everyone with a PhD is smart.

I think that people such as myself need to stop being scared to be a humanist and to speak out. I have the ability to see the humanity in all people, yet I understand that not all people give me that same benefit of the doubt. That’s actually ok. I can’t change others, but I can work on myself and keep teaching. It’s the least I can do.

With that being said, the mentor has left the mentee. So I will now engage with him. If I want to see change then maybe I need to speak out to young Black men more often. So I will take a risk, sort of like the angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other. It feels good being “Satan” today.