Reasonable Doubt: A Descendant of Slaves Questions Their Faith
1 year ago
Agnosticism recognized as both a tribute and refusal of the God of our ancestors
Last fall, not long after I returned from a family trip to Jerusalem, we received word that my cousin in Alabama had passed away. For my mother, Natalie’s death was more like losing a sister. We gathered our still-unpacked bags and, like migrants returning to the old country, we made our way to Bessemer to pay respects to our departed kin.
On the day of the service, my mother sat near the first row wearing a stricken expression that I had never seen before. The church itself seemed to sway as the pastor sang my cousin’s praises, exhorted us past our grief and assured the bereaved that God had greeted this virtuous woman with open arms saying, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
The pastor spoke of an eternal day, not far off, when we would be reconciled with her cherished sweet soul.
I broke down at that point.
It was not solely because of the sermon, but because something at the core of me had been shaken by what the sermon represented.
Inside that small church, filled on an Indian summer day in Alabama where generations of my forebears were born, toiled, struggled and died, I recognized those words as a birthright -- the purest product of their battered hope for a promised land. I was struck by the sweep of it all, by the recalcitrant beauty of preached words and ritual binding generations of the dead to we, the living heirs to their legacy.
This was beauty and sustenance hewn from the quarry of grief and suffering that had been the lot of black people born in Alabama, people whose capacity to survive was evidenced by the simple existence of me and my entire generation.
I understood two things as I sat in the church that morning -- that I witnessed something whose profound vastness lay beyond my capacity to describe. And that I did not believe any of it.
To be a black agnostic is almost akin to being a foreigner in your homeland. Agnostics, like bisexuals, political centrists and neutral countries, conform to the rule that by standing in the middle of the road you risk being hit by traffic from both directions.
So much of the history of black people in this country and in the broader diaspora is bound so much in religion that it is literally impossible to decipher our collective past without understanding the centrality of God within it. Our traditions, particularly the Christian ones, are the cornerstone upon which we forged not only spirituals and gospel music, but also where Nat Turner and Alexander Crummell found inspiration, and the cradle of black business and the black freedom movement were born. It is the laboratory where black preaching, which Zora Neale Hurston regarded as the first art form we created in the United States, was honed and perfected.