First place: William J. Schultz high school essay contest, freethinkers of color by Teneisha Neal

The family heirloom of Christianity

FFRF awarded Teneisha $3,000.

By Teneisha Neal

“Don wrote what?” It was summer in my home state of Alabama, and distant relatives, whose faces I had only ever seen in blurry photographs stowed away in barely pieced together photo albums, had gathered together under the roof of my long deceased great-aunt’s home. Cousin Don wasn’t present, but he was the talk of the living room nonetheless, and his absence only fueled their need to gossip.

Cousin Don had recently penned a novel titled The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go. In it he denounced belief in Christianity and called for the rest of the black community to consider doing the same. Amid fits of laughter mighty enough to stir the dust from the furniture, it was soon determined that Don had, in fact, lost it.

Nonbelief this far south, and especially within the black community, is nearly unheard of. I still remember the callous words poorly disguised as playful which came later that evening when I shared in private that I didn’t see anything wrong with the book, or with Don: For that, I was going to hell with him.

There was no thought to it. The book’s subject matter and what Don believed, what I believed alongside him in my agnosticism, was instantly and almost urgently pronounced “wrong.” No one in the living room would actually read the book to see how they felt about it or if it made any sense to them. As black southerners, it threatened the very foundation they had been brought up on, and the fear, though raised into raucous laughter and quips about crazy Don, was palpable.

Religion is arguably the most precious heirloom of any family, passed down from generation to generation. But for the black community, it also remains a direct root to the slave labor days of our ancestors. An heirloom serves to remind us of where we come from, and such has Christianity been for this community.

What is often kept hushed within the black community, however, is the stark truth that Christ was the name in which many heinous acts of injustice against our ancestors were initially committed. It is often kept hushed that those responsible for converting many of the slaves over to this budding religion were slaveholders themselves.

Yet members of the black community have retained a vise-like grip on what is the world’s most widespread religion, never once wavering in their belief and damning anyone who would choose not to.

Even barely into adolescence, I felt something was off in this blind devotion that was expected of me. Like all nonbelievers, and like Cousin Don, I had questions that I needed answers to, but it seemed no one could give them to me straight, like I wanted them. I was supposed to just close my eyes and believe, but there was no reality for me in that.
I know now that only we can pull the blinders from over our eyes, and what the black community needs is to open its eyes to what is right in front of them, to what has always been right in front of them.

In doing so, we are not losing part of our identity. We are gaining something back that they took from us long ago and never returned.

Teneisha Neal, 18, graduated from Fayette County High School, Fayette, Ala., and will attend Troy University in Troy, Ala., to enroll in the interpreter training program. She has an interest in becoming a sign language interpreter.

Freedom From Religion Foundation