Fifth Place (tie) College Essay Contest for Students of Color winner: By Tyneshia Griffin

The removal of my mental shackles

FFRF awarded Tyneshia $500.

By Tyneshia Griffin

Similar to any African-American, I am the product of an inhumane, perplexing history. But I diverge in my thinking from many African-Americans because I am aware of our neo-slavery. That is, the mental incarceration that shackles us.

For instance, as a conflicted teen, I found that infantilizing, yet spiritually mobilizing sermons began to leave me feeling hollow. I desired an existence where I could receive enlightenment from reflecting on my faults and peculiarities, rather than shame. As I know now, and as I was learning then, religion teaches African-Americans to suffer under illogical fallacies, such as racism and sexism. We are taught that “better days are a’coming,” to wait patiently on a miracle instead of acting to legislate equality and empower each other as brother and sister.

But, as I know now, and as I was learning then, it is a choice to let such concepts undermine one’s bliss and blind one from truth. Human beings, innately conscious, are vulnerable to many forms of pain and deserve human rights.

Recognizing humanity as an evolutionary manifestation is difficult. My beliefs result from empathizing with the struggles and ideals of individuals who illustrate true freedom. They inspire me with images of a fully enlightened self and humanity. Such an inspiring feeling comes over me when I walk through the exhibitions of the contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley. To me, his larger-than-life oil paintings place women of color in the positions of nobility where they have always stood in life, but never in pure, realistic illustrations.

As a freethinker, seeing these portrayals, portrait after portrait, renews my belief in the oneness of humanity and my inherent mental and physical strength. But Wiley’s muses also communicate that the validity of his message, no matter how emotionally poignant, contradicts the objectification of woman that is intrinsic to religion, and resultantly, worldly cultures. And in such moments, my reasoning gains value because it permits me to understand the context of my life as an African-American woman, and recognize how ideologies can blind me from the powerful, true messages that are always within grasp.

When it comes to expressing this newfound exoneration, I find myself not fully connecting with the perspectives of those I love, while also searching for an open, safe space where my realizations stand united, and not demonized within my ethnic community. In reflecting on my ethnicity, it can feel more than impious to neglect my people’s beliefs. Religion is literally and figuratively their saving grace, and it brings our communities together in a way one could never understand unless they are the descendants of the enslaved. In order for African-Americans, such as myself, to become a part of secular organization, the sincere and honest compassion and sense of respect and reciprocity that we feel for one another would have to exist in that organization.

Letting my mind go where it wants brings me an intellectual freedom that I would never relinquish. I have the option to discover different ideologies, look at them objectively, and decide how I want them to influence my life. And in living in this space of freedom, I only desire the same exoneration for others who allow doctrine to limit their happiness.

The religious may paint secularism as immoral, but if that were true, how come I am consistently filled with love? Why do I constantly aim to empower others who struggle with cyclical sufferings, ranging from sexual discrimination to self-hate? If secularism frees me to see, and respect all religious institutions for their power to invoke action from within the minds of billions of humans, how could I be infantilizing religion?

Even without considering such backlash, nonbelieving is undeniably an obstacle, especially if I have to watch those I love open their hands to receive a blessing that they can grant for themselves. However, for me, in this moment of my life, freethought is a necessity. It provides me with the mental objectivity to respect the ideas of others, validate my human condition, and be open to receiving compassion from anyone, no matter their religion.

Tyneshia, 19, lives in Prince George, Va., and attends Virginia Tech University. She plans to major in geography, with additional studies in writing, Spanish and sociology.

Freedom From Religion Foundation