America has a rich tradition of black humanism and freethought, frequently overlooked in histories of both the humanist movement and black life. Historians such as Norm R. Allen, Jr., Anthony Pinn, and Christopher Cameron have sought to shine a light on this heritage, asking, in Allen’s words:
Why has so little been said or written about black deists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, rationalists, atheists, etc., and how their intellectual freedom enhanced their effectiveness as leaders and thinkers?
Norm R. Allen Jr., African-American Humanism: An Anthology (1991)
African American humanists have been influential artists, actors, activists, and academics, but – as has often happened with other non-religious figures in history – their humanist motivations haven’t always been acknowledged. And often, given the wider religiosity of black Americans, religious beliefs have been assumed. Using James Weldon Johnson (best known for ‘Lift Every Voice’, described as the black national anthem) as an example, scholar Anthony Pinn has warned against the assumption that black writers using religious idioms were necessarily believers. In The African American Experience in America he writes:
Those who argue that African American writers making use of African American religious idioms in their work are themselves committed to the religiosity expressed in their work are mistaken. While the sermonic style of African American churches is celebrated in God’s Trombones, it is clear that Johnson’s interest is in the tropes, idioms, and aesthetics of African American Churches.
Below are some of the African American humanists who rejected religion but embraced humanity. The influence of many of them extended far beyond the United States, inspiring freethinkers in the UK and across the world.
…we are here as one brotherhood and one sisterhood, as one humanity, with a responsibility to the downtrodden and the oppressed of all humanity, it matters not under what flag or in what country they happened to be born. Let us have that idea of Thomas Paine, that “The world is my country, and mankind are my countrymen.”
Lucy Parsons, speech at the Founding Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (1905)
Lucy Parsons was an anarchist, activist, and freethinker, born in Virginia in 1851 to an enslaved woman. Her marriage to Albert Parsons saw them both champion socialism, anarchism, and workers’ rights. When Albert was executed in 1887, Lucy Parsons achieved – in the words of biographer Jacqueline Jones – ‘secular sainthood by virtue of her widowhood’, but she was also known until her own death in 1942 ‘as an orator of considerable strength and power and as a fighter for free speech and free assembly.’
W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most prominent American intellectuals, and foremost civil rights activists, of the 20th century: a sociologist, historian, journalist, philosopher, author, pan-Africanist, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois was also closely associated with leading figures of the Ethical movement, and deeply influenced by the First Universal Races Congress, organised by his close friend, Gustav Spiller.
Du Bois rejected religion, living instead by a humanist philosophy rooted in reason, empathy, and active reform.
James Weldon Johnson was a lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, author, anthologist, and civil rights leader. Famous as the writer of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, often referred to as the ‘black national anthem’, Johnson was an enormously influential organiser with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for which he spent a decade as executive secretary. The author of songs for Broadway, anthologies of African American poetry and spirituals, and his own fiction and poetry, one of Johnson’s best known works was God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. This drew on the preaching style familiar from his own Christian upbringing, but Johnson identified himself as agnostic. In his autobiography, Along This Way, Johnson wrote of the primary importance of our actions in this world, suggesting that:
The church must as nearly as it can abolish hypnotic religion, that religion which excites visions of the delights of life in the world to come, while it gives us no insight into the conditions we encounter in the world in which we now live.
Joel Augustus Rogers was born in Jamaica, emigrating to America in 1906 having served four years with the British Army. With limited formal education, Rogers was a lifelong autodidact, and became a prominent anti-racist historian and journalist, working tirelessly to shine a light on black history and achievement. In an explanatory preface to his two-volume work World’s Great Men of Color, Rogers expressed his belief in the importance of history and biography, writing that ‘man’s chief knowledge of himself was what has been done by man; that the good and the evil that others have done were our sole guide through life’s wilderness.’ Like many other black sceptics, Rogers saw hypocrisy in the actions of some professed Christians, and was keenly aware of how religious ideas could be used as tools of oppression:
My Sunday School teacher, an almost unmixed Negro, told us that black people were cursed by God and doomed to eternal servitude to white people because Ham had laughed at his drunken father, Noah. To clinch his argument he read to us from the Bible, which we were taught was infallible. Doubt but a single word, try to change but a tittle, and you were doomed to burn in hell forever and ever. The slavemasters and kidnappers had indeed done their work well. They had so incorporated their iniquities with the Christian religion that when you doubted their racism you were contradicting the Bible and flying in the face of God Almighty.
Joel Augustus Rogers, ‘How and Why This Book Was Written’ in World’s Great Men of Color, Vols. 1 & 2 (1972)
Grace P. Campbell was a political activist and community worker, who played a central role in numerous organisations focusing on the rights and welfare of African Americans. She helped to found, fund, and supervise the Empire Friendly Shelter, a home for unwed mothers, and in 1919 was the first woman to run for public office in New York State. Beginning her career as a probation officer, Campbell went on to help found the socialist People’s Educational Forum, and later the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), which championed equal rights and self-determination – the only woman among its founders. Raised in Catholic family, Campbell became an atheist as an adult, likely influenced by her feminist principles and freethinking radical networks. Historian Erik S. McDuffie has suggested that Campbell and her associates viewed ‘religious orthodoxy as critical to maintaining the racial, gender, and class status quo’, fighting against this in their efforts for social improvement.
Born in the West Indies in 1883, Hubert Henry Harrison moved to New York in 1900. There, despite never obtaining a college degree, he became revered as the ‘Black Socrates’, and admired as an editor, activist, educator, and orator. In 1917, Harrison founded The Voice, a paper calling for black rights and equality. He also formed the Liberty League, which fought for anti-lynching legislation and black empowerment. An avowed atheist, the wide-ranging subjects of Harrison’s lectures included birth control, science, religion, and evolution. He decried the Bible as a slaveholder’s book, and of himself wrote: ‘I doubt whether I will ever be anything but an honest Agnostic because I prefer… to go to the grave with my eyes open’. His fellow freethinker and autodidact J.A. Rogers said:
Harrison was not only perhaps the foremost Afro-American intellect of this time, but one of America’s greatest minds. No one worked more seriously and indefatigably to enlighten his fellow men; none of the Afro-American leaders of his time had a saner and more effective program…
Joel Augustus Rogers, World’s Great Men of Color, vol. 2 (1947)
Walter Everette Hawkins was a mail clerk and poet, born to formerly enslaved parents in North Carolina in 1883. His first collection of poems, Chords and Discords, was published in 1909, dedicated to a father of ‘stern Christian Character’, a ‘kindly mother’, and ‘a galaxy of Brothers and Sisters’ (he was one of 13). On its reissue in 1920, Chords and Discords included a new preface, as well as fresh and resolutely agnostic poems such as ‘Religion’ and ‘Credo’. In ‘Religion’, the poet describes how moral actions – not religious assertions – define his opinion of a person, concluding with the line: ‘Tis of thy deeds, and not thy creeds, I have a care.’ In ‘Credo’, he is clearer still:
I am an Agnostic.
I accept nothing without questioning.
It is my inherent right and duty
To ask the reason why.
Walter Everette Hawkins, ‘Credo’ in Chords and Discords (1920)
In his second collection, published in 1936, Hawkins wrote of his belief that art must ‘ally itself with the forces contending mightily for universal justice, freedom and peace; and against all those influence and institutions of evil, oppression and cruelty’. He was, as Dickson D. Bruce, Jr. has written, ‘a poet of social criticism as well as of racial protest’ and so ‘an important figure in the transition of black literature from the genteel modes of the nineteenth century to the flowering of black militancy often identified with the Harlem Renaissance’.
Asa Philip Randolph was a hugely influential labour organiser and civil rights activist, who founded both the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925) and the Negro American Labor Council (NALC; 1959). A socialist and pacifist, Randolph spent a lifetime fighting racial discrimination and segregation, championing the rights of black workers and advocating for economic equality. He collaborated with, and gained the admiration of, fellow civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr, and when, in 1963, Randolph and the NALC initiated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Randolph specifically called upon King to lend ‘the great moral weight of your name’ to the cause. It was on the march that King made his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
In 1917, with Chandler Owen, Randolph founded The Messenger, self-described as a magazine of ‘scientific radicalism’. Its mission statement read in part:
Prayer is not one of our remedies… We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is. Still we never forget that all wishes, desires, hopes – must be realized thru the adoption of sound methods. This requires scientific educations – a knowledge of the means by which the end aimed at may be attained.
In 1970, Randolph accepted the American Humanist Association’s award for Humanist of the Year, and was a signatory on 1973’s Humanist Manifesto.
Claude McKay was a Jamaican-born poet and socialist, whose Constab Ballads was published by Watts & Co. in 1912. Though a convert to Catholicism in his final years, McKay was a freethinker for the majority of his life, embodying humanist ideals of rationalism, liberty, and cooperation, and becoming a member of the Rationalist Press Association while in London. He described his upbringing as ‘singularly free of the influence of supernatural religion’, and the revelations of scientific writing such as that of T.H. Huxley and Ernst Haeckel as hitting him ‘like a comet’. In England and abroad, he associated with many of the early 20th century’s leading radicals, including socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. In America, he was a formative influence on the writers of the Harlem Renaissance – many of whom were religious sceptics.
Born in Alabama and raised in Florida, Zora Neale Hurston was a writer, folklorist, journalist, and critic. She wrote of her childhood: ‘You wouldn’t think that a person who was born with God in the house would ever have any questions to ask on the subject. But as early as I can remember, I was questing and seeking’. She devoted a chapter in her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, to religion, writing of her belief that:
Feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely on is a creature of their own minds… I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me… It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me.
Novelist Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in Chicago. Her mother was Danish and her father a Virgin Islander. In 1919, she married the trailblazing physicist Elmer Samuel Imes, afterwards working as a library assistant and children’s librarian. In 1926, she became the first black woman to graduate from a library school. Later in life, she resumed her earlier career as a nurse.
In her novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), Larsen explored race and identity, as well as the subject of female sexuality and desire. In a 1928 interview, she was described as:
a modern woman, for she smokes, wears her dresses short, does not believe in religion, churches and the like, and feels that people of the artistic type have a definite chance to help solve the race problem.
Following allegations of plagiarism over her 1930 short story ‘Sanctuary’, Larsen withdrew from public life. In the same year, however, she became the first African American woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. She died in obscurity in 1964, but her reputation was revived by later scholars, who remembered her as ‘a transient literary star in the Harlem Renaissance’.
Eslanda ‘Essie’ Goode Robeson was an anthropologist, author, actor, and civil rights activist. Educated at Columbia University, the London School of Economics, and the Hartford Seminary, Robeson became a prominent voice for African self-determination, decolonisation, and anti-fascism. She married actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson in 1921. In 1941, she co-founded the Council on African Affairs, an African American group formed to lobby against colonialism in Africa. She represented the group at the founding convention of the United Nations in 1945, and again at the 1958 All-African Peoples Conference in Ghana, where she was one of the few women delegates.
In a biography of his father, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson Jr. wrote:
Our family reflected a variety of attitudes toward religion. As an adult, Paul attended church rarely. Grandma Goode was a militant atheist, and Essie was an agnostic.
Langston Hughes was a writer, poet, and leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He was an activist for civil rights and against racism, and believed in the power of art and literature to bring about personal and social change.
In an autobiographical volume, The Big Sea, Hughes recounted his experience aged 12 when, during a religious revival at his aunt’s church, he had felt pressured to be ‘saved’. He wrote that afterwards he found himself crying ‘because I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn’t come to help me’. In his controversial 1932 poem, he wrote:
You did alright in your day, I reckon —
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible —
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many.
Langston Hughes, ‘Goodbye Christ’ (1932)
In a 1987 article about Hubert Henry Harrison, who he had known personally, the brief biography of John Glover Jackson – historian, educator, and the article’s author – described Jackson’s non-belief unequivocally:
Born on April 1, 1907, he has been an atheist since he could think. He lived for fifty years in New York City, from 1932 to 1977, lecturing at the Ingersoll Forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (from 1930 to 1955). He also wrote for The Truth Seeker magazine and was a writer and associate of the Rationalist Press Association in London.
Richard Wright was born in Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper and a schoolteacher. His mother was devoutly religious, but though Wright wrote that during childhood he gave God’s existence ‘a sort of tacit assent’, he came to label himself ‘areligious’. Wright lived in Chicago, New York, and ultimately in France. He published his best-known work, Native Son, in 1940: a depiction of poverty, prejudice, and race in the US.
In his autobiographical writings, Wright explored his relationship to ideas of God and religion. As a young man, he described being above all ‘welded to the common realities of life, anchored in the sensations of my body and in what my mind could grasp’. In 1954’s Black Power, he wrote:
As I watched the sea and the sky I knew that it was from feelings such as these floating in me now that man had got his sense of God, for, when such feelings stated themselves in him, he felt that some powerful but invisible spirit was speaking to him…
These feelings I do not deny, and I’ve not been the first to feel them. I do not know why they are such as they are, what they really mean, but I stand before them with the same attention that I stand before this sea and this sky. I refuse to make a religion out of that which I do not know. I too can feel the limit of my reactions, can feel where my puny self ends, can savor the terror of it; but it does not make me want to impose that sense of my terror on others, or rear it into a compulsive system. Detached, I contain my terror, look at it and wonder about it in the same way that I marvel about this sea and sky.
Butterfly McQueen, born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, Florida, was an actor, best known for her role as Prissy in Gone with the Wind (1939). Barred from attending the film’s premier, it being held in a whites only theatre, she came to view her character as exemplifying the limitations and stereotypes marring black people’s experience on stage and in film.
Described as ‘nearly a lifelong atheist’ by biographer Stephen Bourne, McQueen was a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation for many years, receiving its first Freethought Heroine award in 1989. Interviewed that year she said:
They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here.
Butterfly McQueen, interview with Gayle White, 1989 quoted in Butterfly McQueen Remembered by Stephen Bourne (2008)
Her comment about making the streets beautiful was more than just words: McQueen was remembered by those who knew her as ‘sweeping the sidewalks all over her neighbourhood’, working ‘to make Harlem beautiful again’.
Remembered today as one of 20th century America’s best poets, Gwendolyn Brooks published her first poem aged just 13. She was born in Kansas but raised in Chicago, excelling in school and absorbing the poetry of modern writers from e. e. cummings to Langston Hughes. Her first collection of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945. Throughout her life, Brooks championed the power of poetry through readings, workshops, and competitions for young people. In 1976, she became the first African American to be appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In discussions of religion, Brooks emphasised the primary importance of action, and her allegiance to kindness. She told an interviewer in 1983 that her poetry ‘cries out for our doing something about our plight right now, and not depending on acquiring God or whatever’, and of her upbringing that:
We were taught to be kind to people. The word “kind” best describes my father. He was kind, and he believed people ought to be kind to each other. His religion was kindness. My father, as an adult, did not go to church, but he was kinder than swarms of church-goers. So I grew up thinking you’re supposed to be nice. You’re supposed to be good. I grew up thinking you’re supposed to treat people right.
Interview with Claudia Tate, 1983 in Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks (2003)
Seven years later, she echoed her humanist belief in this ‘religion’ of kindness:
What I have decided is that what I must do—what I have been doing most of my life, ever since I became conscious of need—is to be kind to people. Kindness is my essential religion, and I have governed my life by the light of that religion. I feel that no matter what the “truth” is, I can’t go wrong with kindness.
Interview with Susan Elizabeth Howe and Jay Fox, 1990 in Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks (2003)
Saxophonist Charlie Parker died at just 34, but left an indelible mark on music, part of a group of musical innovators who developed bebop – a style of modern jazz. Raised in Kansas City, he was one of his generation’s most influential jazz musicians, but struggled increasingly with addiction. His death in 1955 contributed to his status as a legend, and he was widely memoralised. One biographer wrote:
As for religion, Parker described himself as a “devout musician.” As for society, he said, “Civilization is a damned good thing, if somebody would try it.” He lived for pleasure intensely; luckily, one of his pleasures was music.
Robert George Reisner in Bird: the Legend of Charlie Parker
James Baldwin was a Harlem-born novelist, essayist, and activist, who spent much of his life abroad, having fled the racism and homophobia he experienced on his native soil. Raised by his mother and strict preacher stepfather, as a youth Baldwin preached in a Pentecostal church, but came to reject religion in favour of a richly lived humanism. He wrote of being able to date ‘the slow crumbling of my faith… from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again.’
As well as the novels and essays which would make him one of America’s most revered writers, Baldwin took a prominent role in the civil rights movement. Although he left America for France at 24, he became a powerful voice in challenging national myths and standing for genuine equality. He took part in 1963’s March on Washington in 1963 and 1965’s Selma to Montgomery march, and wrote, lectured, and organised for civil rights.
Baldwin criticised the role of the Church in contributing to oppression, and resented the hypocrisy he saw in the behaviour of many professed Christians. In The Fire Next Time he wrote:
I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.
Baldwin saw an immense power and possibility in humankind, if only people were willing to meet reality with open eyes. This meant an honest evaluation of history, and an active willingness to address the problems of the present day in order to reshape the world. ‘I know that people can be better than they are,’ he wrote:
We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.
One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.
Chicago-born James Forman was a prominent civil rights activist, who played a leading role in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): Executive Secretary during the early 1960s, and later Director of International Affairs. He also founded the Unemployment and Poverty Action Committee, a non-profit organisation for social action, serving as its President for almost three decades.
In his autobiography, The Making Of Black Revolutionaries, Forman outlined his path to atheism. He described ‘the belief in God or any type of supreme being’ as having been ‘the greatest disorder that cluttered my mind’, and his relief in leaving it behind while at university.
My philosophy course had finally satisfied my need for intellectual as well as emotional certainty that God did not exist. I reached the point of rejecting God out of personal experience and observations; now I had intellectual arguments to satisfy me that my private feelings were correct. It was a great load off my mind to say with conviction, “God is a myth.”
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1985)
Forman wrote of his conviction that ‘the belief in a supreme being or God weakens the will of a people to change conditions themselves’. Alongside a growing awareness of the wider civil rights movement, this fundamental realisation of responsibility spurred him to action.
Lorraine Hansberry was a playwright, humanist, and civil rights activist, who believed fundamentally in the power of art to change the world. Her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun was the first drama by a black woman writer to be performed on New York’s Broadway, and won her the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award, making Hansberry the youngest and first black recipient of the prestigious honour. Hansberry felt deeply her own responsibility to work for civil rights and racial equality, writing in 1962:
The acceptance of our present condition is the only form of extremism which discredits us before our children.
Letter to Kenneth Merryman, 27 April 1962 in To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1970)
Of Hansberry’s use of her art, as well as her voice, to champion transformation, her friend James Baldwin wrote:
Lorraine made no bones about asserting that art has a purpose, and that its purpose was action: that it contained the “energy which could change things.”
African-American Humanism: An Anthology by Norm R. Allen Jr. (1991)
By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism by Anthony B. Pinn (2001)
Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism by Christopher Cameron (2019)