In 1989, I attended a Free Inquiry conference at American University in Washington, D.C. It was the first time I had attended a major gathering of humanists. I was surprised to find that I was the only African American there, although I spotted a couple of East Indians. I thought this was odd, because humanism, in my estimation, was a life-stance with much to offer human beings from all backgrounds.
I wrote a long letter to the editor of Free Inquiry to express my concerns about the low numbers of non-Whites at the conference. Tim Madigan, the editor at the time, shared the letter with Paul Kurtz. They invited me to turn the letter into an article. I did so, and the article, “Humanism in the Black Community,” appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of Free Inquiry.
On August 31, 1989, I started working full time for the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH), now the Council for Secular Humanism. My primary job was to try to foster humanism among African Americans. To that end, African Americans for Humanism (AAH) was formed.
AAH has always been comprised of and supported by Blacks, Whites, and members of any other group who are sincerely interested in promoting humanism among people of African descent. We formed an international advisory board. Shortly thereafter, we issued “An African American Humanist Declaration,” in which we presented the case for humanism in the African American community (see FI, Spring 1990). The declaration was published in full or in part in scores of African American newspapers and commented upon on numerous Black radio stations throughout the country. Leading Black religious studies scholar, humanist, and author Anthony Pinn considers the declaration to be a major document in African American history. He reprinted part of it in his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience and the entire declaration in volume two of his major two-volume encyclopedia, African American Religious Cultures. (I have an entry on “African Americans and Secular Humanism” in the first volume.)
This was the first time humanism was presented to the Black media in a major, positive way. Later, members of AAH would write numerous essays and issue many news releases that were eagerly picked up by the Black media.
In 1991, there were three main events. First, I edited my first book, African American Humanism: An Anthology. It was the first book to demonstrate the extent to which humanism and humanist ideals helped to substantively develop Black activism and intellectualism. Second, The AAH Examiner, the international newsletter of African Americans for Humanism, was born. Third, I traveled for the first time to meet with organized humanists in Africa.
My first trip to Africa was incredibly successful. I first stopped for a week in Ghana. I spoke on a major television show on the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation and was featured on the front page of the country’s leading newspaper. I was hosted by the Rational Centre of Accra, Ghana. The late Hope N. Tawaiah (see his obituary in FI, December 2009/January 2010), one of the founders of the group, joined the international advisory board of AAH a couple of years earlier.
I spent the following week in Nigeria. At that time, there were two humanist groups, Action for Humanism, headed by the Ghanaian Emmanuel Kofi Mensah, and the Humanist Friendship Center, headed by Charles Ufomadu. Both leaders were former seminarians who had grown disillusioned with theism.
One of the highlights of my first trip to Nigeria was my meeting with Tai Solarin, one of the country’s leading educators. On January 27, 1956, Solarin established the Mayflower School, the first secular school in Nigeria. “Uncle Tai,” as he was affectionately known, gave me a tour of the campus and allowed me to speak to about eight hundred students in the school auditorium.
All over the campus, visitors found secular messages stressing the importance of education. The Mayflower School has a reputation as one of the best in Nigeria, and former students, also known as ex-Mays, are widely respected throughout the country.
Solarin regarded himself as the only atheist in Nigeria, and he was proud to “yell it from the rooftops.” He wrote explicitly humanistic columns in one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, The Guardian. He was delighted to meet me, and he joked that he “wouldn’t mind being the pope of Nigerian humanism.”
Solarin’s death in 1994 was reported in The New York Times. Today, many Nigerians visit his burial place. Nobel laureate for literature and International Academy of Humanism laureate Wole Soyinka dedicated his book The Open Sore of a Continent to Solarin.
In 1992, Emmanuel Kofi Mensah attended the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) Congress in the Netherlands. He told an audience that one day Africa would host impressive humanist conferences. What sounded like a pipe dream at the time turned into a marvelous reality within a decade.
When I first came to work for the Council, there were three organized humanist groups in Africa—one in Ghana and two in Nigeria. Today, there are about seventy. In 2001, AAH, the Council for Secular Humanism and the Nigerian Humanist Movement hosted the first humanist conference in sub-Saharan Africa. Solarin’s widow, Sheila Solarin, attended and gave a presentation. Singers from the Mayflower School performed, and African dancers thrilled the audience.
In the United States, AAH members were writing articles in opposition to psychic hotlines and faith healing and voicing opposition to intelligent design (ID) and creationism. By the end of 1999, psychic hotlines were earning about $2 billion annually. African Americans were among their biggest customers. Black celebrities promoted them. Singer Dionne Warwick even sang about them.
The Black media viewed psychic hotlines uncritically. Black newspapers would report on supposed psychic phenomena without even a hint of skepticism. Popular Black talk-show hosts of the day such as Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams, and Bev Smith of Black Entertainment Television (BET) would regularly feature psychics. Psychic phenomena were even incorporated into the ideas of Afrocentric thinkers who were popular at the time. Major leaders such as Minister Louis Farrakhan routinely talked of prophecies.
In the summer 1998 issue of Free Inquiry, I wrote an article titled “How Psychic Hotlines Exploit African Americans.” I noted that though many Black editors report the prophecies of psychics and religious leaders, they do not report when the prophecies fail. I pointed out that many African Americans are attracted to psychic hotlines because they believe in biblical prophecies. Most important, I stated that Black leaders must “take an uncompromising stand against bad science, pseudoscience, irrationality, religious fraud, and misology.”
We sent my article and a similar one by AAH advisory board member Patrick Inniss to the Black media. They were both picked up by numerous Black newspapers throughout the United States. AAH has been the only organization promoting humanism and skepticism in the Black media on a continual basis.
AAH has been outspoken in its criticism of faith healers in Africa and North America. In the Winter 1993/94 issue of Free Inquiry, I wrote an article titled “Faith Healing in the Black Community.” I discussed the fact that though African Americans are among the most religious people in the world, they have the worst health and the shortest life span in the United Stat
es. Further, I made it clear that it is no mere coincidence that African Americans have inadequate medical care and health insurance—major reasons for African American disparities in health and longevity.
Leo Igwe of the Center for Inquiry in Nigeria and other African humanists have written and spoken against faith healing in Africa. I have had the opportunity to travel throughout the world speaking out against this form of exploitation that, obviously, most religious Blacks are unable or unwilling to examine.
Another topic that many religious Blacks are unable or unwilling to explore is intelligent design, or its country cousin, creationism. In 1995, AAH issued a statement in defense of evolution and against the teaching of creationism or ID in public schools. It was included in the book Voices for Evolution, published by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). It was the only statement from a Black organization in the entire book. Though the Black media published many news releases and articles from AAH, as far as we could tell, not a single Black radio or newspaper picked up news of this statement.
AAH has not had much success in promoting humanism in the Caribbean. We have had contacts with humanist groups in Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, and other countries. We were on the verge of starting a group in Barbados, but we were unable to generate enough interest. However, hope springs eternal, and we will not give up.
Like the efforts of those who have come before us, AAH has not been able to attract large numbers of African Americans to organized humanism in North America. However, since the founding of AAH, there have been some ten books published on African American humanism and atheism. My books, including my second, The Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion, (as well as some of my articles) have been used in colleges and universities throughout the United States. Humanism, and humanist ideals are regularly featured in African media. There is currently an anti-superstition campaign in Africa that has been initiated by the Center for Inquiry. Increasing numbers of African Americans are coming out of the closet—at least in cyberspace. These are just some of our accomplishments, and the struggle has been well worth it. We will only continue to “keep on pushing.”