By Naima Cabelle
I tend to dislike conventions, large conferences, etc., as opposed to smaller groups where there’s a greater possibility for more individual interaction. Had I not understood that an unprecedented number of people of color and women were invited as convention speakers at the April 2011 American Atheists convention, there would have been no incentive for me to go. Even so, I had to justify my attendance after considering the expense and time commitment. I decided to go because I certainly wanted to be present as well as support other women and people of color. However, I also wanted to do more than just passively listen to the convention speakers or endlessly bump shoulders with hundreds of strangers. Since I’m a member of AA, I decided to distribute a statement [DC Atheist Advocate] expressing my concerns as well as expectations about the organization. I also added another paper [Ideas for Expanding the Secular Community]. Because I am also a member of the Washington Area Secular Humanists, I thought it would be good to let others know about our work by distributing back issues of WASH’s newsletter, the WASHLine as well. I also decided to meet as many people as I could, have a little conversation with them and tell them a little bit about WASH before finally asking if they’d like a copy of the newsletter. Generally, I’d rather stay in the background, and I was clearly stepping out of my comfort zone, but I needed to shun the easy route. I took over 50 copies of all of the materials with me, and after 2-1/2 days, I returned to DC with very light travel bag and laryngitis!
I tried to meet every African American present and I think there were approximately 15 in attendance. As I recall, they came from Lincoln, NE: Atlanta and Macon, GA; Sterling, VA; St. Louis, MO; Chapel Hill, NC, and Washington, DC. I also met several people from India as well as a few Hispanics. From what I could gather, there were approximately 30 people of color at the convention.
Approximately 5-7 people protested the presence of American Atheists outside of the hotel, including one person who was “hell-bent” on being confrontational. On Friday, the mayor of Des Moines was one of the speakers who offered opening remarks at the convention. He enthusiastically welcomed American Atheists to the city of Des Moines, let us know how much they appreciated our business, and asked that we try to see as much of the city as possible. He said he hoped that we would return as a group as well as individuals. For a very Christian city, 5-7 protesters represented a poor showing especially since the convention has received a considerable amount of advanced coverage in newspapers along with TV and radio coverage. Our presence wasn’t a secret however the god-fearing in Des Moines apparently realized that they had nothing to fear from the godless!
A Few Convention Highlights: The convention was well-planned and the convention speakers ranged from interesting to excellent. I do believe that having the convention addressed by an African American woman, in this case, Jamila Bey from Washington, DC, may have been a first for the secular community. Not to take anything away from the other speakers, my two favorites, Hector Avalos and Greta Christina both earned five stars. Both gave very powerful, captivating, and insightful presentations. Many of the individual speakers who addressed the convention were given approximately 45 minutes to make their presentation. There were five people on the Diversity Panel and when several panelists attempt to share 45 minutes of time for a “discussion,” the value of what is offered is simply going to be limited. The panel was comprised of nonbelievers who were women, Hispanics, African Americans, lesbians, etc., and frankly, none of the challenges faced by any one of the groups represented on the panel could have been intelligently addressed during a single panel discussion. Because I know very little about secularists in the Hispanic community, I would have preferred a “dialogue” between Ms. Indra Zuna, who moderated the panel, and Prof. Hector Avalos and for them to explore the issues facing the Hispanic community and well as the challenges of Hispanic nonbelievers. While, I think this would have made for a more focused discussion, I heard many people say that they enjoyed the Diversity Panel. I was rather disappointed with the presentation which was to explore the reasons behind the lack of women in the secular community. I think it lacked depth. Although, many people lined up to ask questions after this presentation as well as after the Diversity Panel, there simply wasn’t enough time to entertain many questions.
Secular & Social Networking:I did have an opportunity to meet a blind African American who came to the convention from Lincoln, NE, however I wasn’t able to get back to him for a meaningful discussion. I was able to talk to three African Americans from Georgia who belong to Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta: blacknonbelievers.org. All were friendly, upbeat, and intelligent. Mandisa, a founding member of Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta, said she came to Iowa primarily to network, and at different times she could be seen talking to people at the convention, exchanging contact information and ideas. She also described some of the challenges regarding the work in Atlanta: the need to develop better and more positive means of communication between members of her organization as well as those outside of the secular community. Fund-raising and creating financial stability are also challenges since the organization will need to have money to support its work.
Maurius, from Macon, GA said he came to the convention to make connections with other atheists as well as to get ideas and inspiration from other attendees. He said that he was getting a great deal of both from being in Iowa. He explained that in Georgia there is a very active Facebook community of nonbelievers as well as monthly meetings which attract 15-20 people. He’s looking forward the group being able to do work in the community.
I had an opportunity to speak to Charone Pagett from Atlanta at length. She described herself as an organizer, a queer, and a disabled person. As a problem-solver, the focus of her work is on social justice and human rights issues. She’s also a feminist who is very much influenced by the work and life of Audre Lorde whom she quotes as saying, “Make human rights your religion.” Charone actually cleared up a point for me because I’ve been unable to get a fix on “gay Christian congregations,” which have formed as a result of gays being made unwelcome in the established church particularly in African American communities. I just couldn’t figure out how those congregations deal with the anti-humane directives which are not only in the Bible but are part and parcel of religious dogma. Charone, as it turned out, is very critical of these churches and thinks that the “queer church had de-radicalized” the queer community. Where many queers may have once openly challenged religion and anything connected to it, Charone says that the “queer church has acted as a silencing agent and caused the queer community to become complacent” even though its members are still oppressed. Again she quoted Audre Lorde caution against attempting to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools. Charone doesn’t see how religions, whether they accept queers or not, can fully engage in social justice, nor engage people in the community in ways which will cause them to ask the hard questions and to demand more from leaders. She sees critical thinking as the tool which will help people ask those hard questions and in turn hold people in positions of leadership accountable. Charone is also in broadcasting and does the LAMBDA Radio Report on Tuesday’s from 6:00-6:30pm on WRFG 89.3 FM in Atlanta.
Ronnelle Adams also from Washington, DC was in Iowa to introduce his children’s book entitled Aching and Praying, published in 2011 by American Atheists Press. Ronnelle certainly displays the experience, talent, and personal insight required to create a book dealing with the Middle Passage, slavery, and the forced Christian indoctrination of African people which took place in the New World. Although he’s written the book for children, I found it very to be something which adults can appreciate and learn from as well. His creative use of Bible verses demonstrates how many of those soothing words stood in brutal contradiction to the reality of slavery as ropes, whips, and chains were utilized to keep millions of Africans in bondage. The book is also beautifully illustrated. As an added bonus, Ronnelle was invited to recite one of his poems at the convention; a poem which cleverly spells out the divisive and destructive nature of bigotry, especially religious bigotry. To learn more about his work, book a speaking engagement, or purchase copies of Aching and Praying, please contact him on Facebook or through Atheists.org.
Wrap-up:I recently received a message from the American Atheists saying that nearly 800 people attended the convention. The number of women as well as people of color may have been amongst the largest as well. There were many information booths, scheduled book-signings, and because only one event occurred in each time-slot there were no conflicting presentations. Once the main hotel quickly filled up, I along with other attendees stayed in another hotel several blocks away. While I was happy to have an opportunity to stretch my legs before going to the convention, other people may not have felt the same way. But, there was a shuttle bus which transported people between the two hotels and provided a safe way of quickly getting around. The full-length feature film, The Ledge, produced by Matthew Chapman (the great- grandson of Charles Darwin) was shown, and was well-received by an appreciative audience. As far as I could tell, every effort was made to make it an excellent and meaningful convention. In spite of the very upbeat tenor of the convention, there was clearly one very somber presentation in the form of a letter addressed to members of the convention from Christopher Hitchens. His illness forced him to cancel his appearance at the convention, but his very dignified letter was filled with hope for the future as he encouraged us to continue our work in the secular community.
The new president, David Silverman, is a human dynamo! No resting in the wings for him. He could be seen throughout the entire convention, moving around, talking to people, handling logistics, etc. and he delivered such a powerful speech! I had a few moments to speak with him and to give him my paper. I also mentioned that I thought it would be a huge mistake for American Atheists to allow such a dynamic group of people to leave the convention only to not have any contact with them until next year’s convention. I suggested that AA make it a point to contact each attendee as soon as possible to find out what kind of work they are doing in their hometowns around secular issues; to determine what challenges they face or if they aren’t active because they lack the means for doing so. The American Atheists have over 20 state directors and these directors ought to be in contact with every convention attendee in their state. The fact is that not everyone at the convention belongs to American Atheists, and being in contact with them would be a way to expand the work of the secular community.
Finally, the fact is that the more diverse secular organizations become at every level—committees, state directors, grassroots activities, membership, local and national leadership—the less need there will be to cram and/or attempt to address diversity into annual one-hour panel discussions. American Atheists as well as all other secular organizations must make sure that diversity exists at both the top and lower tiers of the organization.
The American Atheists President also announced preliminary plan which calls for having 12 of the national secular organizations working with American Atheists to prepare for the 2012 convention. I hope to be able to host a few reunion type activities and get together with some of the people I met in Des Moines. The next convention which sounds like it will be the mother of all secular conventions is scheduled for July 2012 in Washington, DC!
Naima, an atheist, feminist and socialist activist, currently serves on the Washington Area Secular Humanist Board of Directors. She can be reached at [email protected]