Blackout Secular Rally: An Organizer’s Perspective

Mandisa Thomas, organizer of the first-ever outdoor event featuring nontheists of color, reports on the success of the event and the importance of secularism in the African American community. Also check out photos from the event below.

On July 27th, 2013, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing a monumental project come to fruition. The Blackout Secular Rally, an outdoor event supported by the American Humanist Association and other secular organizations that celebrated and featured atheists and nonbelievers of color, was held at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York. Ayanna Watson (Founder and President/CEO of Black Atheists of America) and I came up with the idea after witnessing the success of 2012’s Reason Rally in Washington, DC. What better place to showcase the rising number of minority atheists than in our hometown of New York City?

The Black community in particular, while very diverse, sheds a spotlight on belief. Pew research polls reflect a high number of African Americans identifying as Christian, and the Black church still inserts itself at the center. Given the history of the economic, educational, political and social roles, it is certainly understandable how so many people have come to see the church as a primary identifier in the Black community. However, it has also showed a decline in effectively helping Blacks progress beyond the many crises that still plague our neighborhoods – such as crime, preventable diseases, mental health problems and financial dependency. This religious influence has also overshadowed the presence of African American freethinkers and humanists, and does not dare broach the subject of atheism on a broad scale.

But in recent years, there has been a surge of Blacks and other minorities openly identifying as atheist and criticizing religion. No longer accepting silence as the solution to dealing with religious family members and friends, there are now groups which seek to connect other nonbelievers of color such as African Americans for Humanism, Black Atheists of America, Black Nonbelievers and Black Skeptics. There are also a number of literary references pertaining to atheism in the Black community by authors such as Donald Wright, Norm Allen Jr. and Sikivu Hutchinson.

The Blackout’s mission was to show not only the minority community, but also the larger freethought community that we are not invisible, and that we can organize events which will bring more of us out of that proverbial closet. With such speakers and entertainers as Alix Jules, Victor Harris Jr., AJ Johnson, Jeremiah Camara, MC Brooks and comedian Steve Hill, this event brought together a marginalized demographic with those who support efforts to increase diversity and challenge previous perceptions of atheists and other banners of secularism. There were nonbelievers from many backgrounds in attendance – representatives from PATAS (Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society) in particular and prominent speakers and leaders such as Jamila Bey and Dave Silverman. The positive response to this event has been overwhelming, and with the excitement that has ensued there will undoubtedly be another planned for next year.

Anyone who has ever organized an event can attest to challenges with coordination and execution, as well worrying about the outcome. I am happy to say that this project was well worth carrying through. We still have some serious strides to make in solidifying our presence within the various communities, but the Blackout was proof that we are well on our way.

Mandisa Thomas Mandisa Thomas

Alix Jules Alix Jules

Gifted Anomaly Gifted Anomaly

Jeremiah Camara Jeremiah Camara

Khafre Zimmerman Khafre Zimmerman

MC Brooks MC Brooks

Steve Hill Steve Hill

Victor Harris Jr Victor Harris Jr