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"Never an Anomaly: A Look at Religious Criticism in Black Comedy and Literature."

This is the recap by Frank Robinson, of a presentation by Mandisa L. Thomas, at the May 12th, 2019 CDHS monthly meeting.


Mandisa L. Thomas, of Atlanta, Georgia (formerly from Queens) is the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Her talk was titled, "Never an Anomaly: A look at religious criticism in black comedy and literature." [Note, "black comedy" is an ethnic descriptor, not a reference to dark subject matter.]

Religion and churchgoing have long played a larger role in American black culture than for white society. This is rooted in slavery, where Christianity was forced upon blacks; and its Jim Crow aftermath, during which the church was a key institution of community support amid white hostility. But one of Ms. Thomas's key points is that freethought and skepticism, though less prominent, has also been widespread among blacks.

She pointed to a number of black comedians who have poked fun at religion, including Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock, whom she quoted: "If you're black and Christian you have a short memory." She also cited "Black Jesus," an irreverent show on TV's Cartoon Network, and "In Living Color," a 1990s Wayans Brothers TV show. Black comedians currently active, who also express religious skepticism, include Leighann Lord and Hannibal Buress.

In the realm of literature, Thomas discussed Gordon Parks's 1964 book (and 1969 film) "The Learning Tree," a semi-autobiographical account set in the 1920s. The book tackles race, the economy, love, sex, and religion its cover description was "How it feels to be black in a white man's world." Also cited was Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," and James Baldwin's "If Beale Street Could Talk" (recently a film).

Why is all this important? The fiction, Thomas said, is not far from fact. And it's an antidote to the close linkage of religion and American black identity, which leads many blacks to be reluctant to distance themselves from religion. The literature helps introduce and legitimize religious skepticism, she said, yet the kinds of works she mentioned actually "don't go far enough into the psychosis" of religion in black communities.

Thomas concluded by quoting James Baldwin: "If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him."


Frank Robinson


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