On the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.: From an Atheist

On occasions, I am asked if I would date a believer, or a person who believes in a god or supernatural being, such as a Supreme Being. Being an atheist, there was a time that I said unequivocally no to that question. But, about two years ago I began to soften my response. For example, in 2012, in an NPR interview with Jamila Bey, I said openly that I was “flexible.”

Recently, I met someone who is a believer, and we connected. Although he is not what I would call a religious enthusiast or fanatic, at times he talks about his god and his faith with subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to inform me that his god is real. Because of my feelings for him, I overlook it, and there are times when I engage him gently with questions about his religious thoughts and philosophies. I am willing to be in this kind of critical engagement with him because 1) I understand his actions; I once did the same kind of thing – used every opportunity to “witness” or share my faith (often when it was not requested) with others; and 2) because it is another way for me to get to know him and the basis for his everyday actions or behaviors in life. And, I have yet to encounter a Christian who does not feel compelled to be vocal about his or her faith. It goes with the territory.

So, what did it for me? How could I allow myself to be in an intimate relationship with a man who believes in something that I don’t? On what grounds is it conscionable that I get along or share myself with a man who does not share the same ideas or philosophies that I hold? These are questions that I am contemplating at length on the 29th anniversary of the Martin Luther Kr., Jr. national holiday.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who challenged the white racist ideology or philosophies of his time. By the 1950s and 60s, those white racist philosophies and socio-political expressions of whiteness were incorporated into federal, local and state policies and institutions, such as urban renewal, which was a federal housing policy that had a disparate impact upon former urban Negro communities, and at a time when urban blacks were fighting institutional oppression at an alarming rate. Throughout my lifetime, I have come to understand Dr. King as a man who stood against social division and exclusion on political and personal grounds. I have also come to know him as a man who believed wholeheartedly in achieving a peaceful coexistence despite everyday unjust behaviors and inhumane practices, here in the U.S. and beyond.

With regard to my political and personal commitments, I have come to realize that I do not want to section myself and my life off to only those who think or behave like me. I want to meet and know others whose lives and philosophies are different from mine and without the compulsion or the need to willfully mock or dismantle what they share with me. On the other hand, there will be times when I will be openly critical of ideas or philosophies (including religious ones) that are expressed in public that I reject or disagree with; that is something Martin Luther King Jr. did with the power of the spoken word, and he did it mainly from the pulpit, as an American preacher. Likewise, I am fundamentally empowered by the freedom of speech as we know it in a Western way. And, it is that freedom of speech that I rely on, as an atheist, to say publicly that I do NOT believe in gods of any kind. Unfortunately, I have that right, even though the majority may respond to that statement with hate, rejection or discrimination.

In addition, what I have come to learn is that I am not responsible for the thinking or the belief of others, which, I think, is one reason that I can spend my personal time and person with a man who believes in a supernatural god. I am not his keeper. I am not responsible for what happens to him when he dies or really at any time for that matter. I do not choose an intimate partner on the basis of what he believes, but on the content of his character. In other words, my being with a man is essentially not predicated on where he lives, or how much money he makes, or how supportive he is of my thinking or behavior. And, most importantly, my decision to be intimately involved with a potential partner is not determined by whether or not he believes in a god or whether he shares my worldview. My being with a man, or being with any person for that matter to accomplish any goal, is rooted in a healthy engagement of ideas and critical thinking. At the end of the day, I want to know who a man is overall. I want to know if he is committed to doing good; to being the best person he can be; if he is willing to use his talents and skills to help and empower others; and, is he a man who is a peaceful, loving person, even when his ideas are not supported or he does not get what he wants.

Indeed, this is not the kind of behavior that I have seen from many atheists or theists who use their positions and philosophies like weapons to discredit those who don’t ascribe to their ideas or theories of reality. These are extreme and unjustifiable attitudes that I cannot support as a human being because the truth of the matter is that others may not choose to walk the paths that I have taken. We each have our own paths to attend to. For example, when I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., I don’t worry about whether he was a Christian believer or not. I respect and honor him because he was a great human being who courageously endeavored to bring about fairness and equality, and not exclusively for his own clan or Christian friends. Of course, I know that there will always be those who choose to remain divided over philosophies and ideas, but I have lived long enough to know that there is no future in that position, and fortunately I know that there are those who have found the wherewithal to accept those who are different or divergent in thought, word and deed without resorting to contempt, hate and violence, but who are not willing to let injustice and hatred go unconfronted. This kind of boldness and willingness to speak compassionately and thoughtfully, I think, is a significant part of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. And it is, in my humble, atheist opinion, one of the attributes that made him one of the greatest human beings who ever lived on the face of the Earth.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Saying My Name: The Power of Fictions and Everyday Name-Calling

I didn’t always like or embrace my birth name, “Annalise.”  During my childhood and adolescence years, many teased me and arbitrarily shortened my name for convenience. I suppose in that light I was very uncomfortable with my name; it seemed inconvenient, burdensome, and not “classically beautiful” or cultural-enough for a young black girl. The discomfort that others had regarding my name, with saying the name, Annalise, when referring to me, caused me to implicitly reject it very early on. For the most part, I only used Annalise – the name that was assigned to me at birth by my parents – in formal settings, or when I had to. Otherwise, in personal and familial settings, I didn’t refer to myself as Annalise for a very long time.

As I came of age, or when I began to develop my own identity (apart from my family and friends), and as my choices exposed me to the the complexities of life as a human being, I finally let go of the nicknames and used Annalise exclusively and everyday. Of course there have been some family, friends, and even some acquaintances, who have continued to “call me out of my name,” or to call me something other than Annalise. Mostly, when that happens, I take it as a term of endearment, but it also is indicative of how patterns (including speech patterns) are extremely hard to break. However, ever since I started introducing myself as Annalise, that name has been the name that I have chosen to embrace. It’s not Anna. Not Lise. But Annalise. My name is annalise [which is how I spell it intentionally – with low-case letters]!

Being known as annalise has been a very complicated affair. I didn’t know myself as annalise until I was in my 20s. Once I accepted it, and rather awkwardly back then, I gradually learned to like it, but the acceptance of my name took years to achieve.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the new Shonda Rhimes’ television series, How To Get Away With Murder. Due to the central role that black women have been placed in these shows, Rhimes has challenged many viewers to consider taboo subjects and social conventions. Through black women characters, like Miranda Bailey, Olivia Pope, and Annalise Keating, Rhimes constructs a storyline that situates black women in personal and professional (as in working or labor-related) relationships with white men. The narrative that Rhimes has put together is very complicated and complex. As a black woman, I can totally relate to the intersectionality of this landscape because race, gender, class and sexuality are always converging and often when I least expect them to meet. Many of the black women that I know personally and those who watch the Thursday night Rhimes trilogy deal head-on with living their lives in close proximity to white men who often articulate (verbal and nonverbal) troubled expressions that have been aimed historically at black women – or what I refer to as women of apparent African heritage. A myriad of issues and factors go into the lives we hold and the names we have been called by white men and others. We have repeatedly been called “bad” names: like bitch, whore, wench, and cunt. And along the way, there have been some “good” names like: colleague, lover, partner, sister, etc. [but I will caveat that to say that the terms “good” and “bad” can be quite relative]. For example, last year, in 2013, I wrote a blog voicing my initial thoughts on the Scandal series featuring Kerry Washington as the main protagonist, Olivia Pope [which is not available because I am currently editing it for e-publication].

In spite of my criticisms of Rhimes’s characters and plots, I am still glad that she does what she does: write and produce television programs. That I don’t particularly like a perspective or an storyline does not mean that I have rejected Rhimes or any of her productions. In fact, I have continued to watch for a couple of reasons, at least: 1) to show my support for who Shonda Rhimes is and what she represents in the overall scheme of “Hollyweird”; and 2) so that I can continue to articulate an opinion from an informed and intelligent place. One of my biggest peeves is when people form opinions, but do not take the time to educate themselves about the subject or the landscape of their opinions (in fact, we really shouldn’t call such talk opinion at all, because it is really just blubbering on and on). Anyhow, since watching How To Get Away With Murder, I was not ready for how affirming it would be to hear my name, annalise, repeated over and over again and in reference to a lead, black female protagonist. I was not ready for the power of that act: of repeatedly hearing the name Annalise in reference to a black woman protagonist. As humans we learn and come to understand many things in life because of repetition. Yes, there are challenging and troublesome issues or factors associated with the part of Annalise Keating, but it has been very refreshing and powerful to hear a name that I once did not embrace, and a name that many do not associate with black women or black culture personified by Viola Davis, who is, in my opinion, one of the most awesome black actresses in Hollyweird today! It was so good (positive) to hear that I often found myself repeating it after certain startling scenes from the episodes: Annalise! Annalise! Annalise! [Like the one where Annalise removed her wig and confronted her husband Sam with his naked picture on the phone].

I spent the first twenty years of my life rejecting the name, Annalise, and now, twenty years beyond that (since I have embraced it for myself), a black woman actress who I respect plays a critical role that many can identify with across lines of race, gender, class and sexuality. In watching this particular television show by Shonda Rhimes, I have felt such an amazing and warm sense of validation for who I am and how I have “named” myself via the acceptance of my birth name. Truly, that feeling caught me by surprise! Who knew that a fictive television character would have such a good and positive impact upon my personal identity through the repetitive saying of my name? Indeed, many black people have know the power that comes from saying one’s name everyday with pride and respect in a world that has historically called us out of our names and assigned us names that we did not accept or agree with. I imagine that this is one of the reasons that some black people have rejected their birth names and assigned themselves new names to give voice and power to the persons they are and to the lives they wish to live. And, as a former United Methodist minister I know that this is one reason that many people, especially black people, have embraced fictive narratives and cultural myths, like religion or Christianity (however, I am not by any means arguing that one should exclusively situate or place one’s total human experience in a fiction, a myth or an outdated belief system).

As complicated as the characters in Rhimes’s shows may be, one thing is for sure: there are some black women writers and actors who are standing in the tradition of other black women, and men, and those in between, who dared to speak up, write bold new scripts, and break down the ignorance that held them back from expressing and loving ourselves as boldly and fiercely as they possibly could! So, what have I learned by watching How To Get Away With Murder? That no matter what, we – black women and all oppressed, disinherited people – must continue to speak our names, for in the everyday calling of our names, honestly and authentically, we can come to a better understanding and acceptance of who we really are!

©2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

N/B: Please note that there are allusions to several other writers in this blog, including: bell hooks, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Howard Thurman, Pearl Cleage, Alessandra Stanley.

Congratulations to Kim Socha for Writing Such a Liberating Book!

Every now and then I am asked to support the work of other writers and artists, and most of the time I am thrilled to do it when the author or the artist is actively engaged in promoting freedom and ending oppression, domination and abuse. Recently I was asked by Dr. Kim Socha, who is an educator and an activist, to write a blurb for her forthcoming book, Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed, which will be available on Amazon on October 7th, 2014 (published by Freethought House).

About a decade ago, I was a vegetarian, but it was primarily for health reasons; I wanted a healthier diet, which today is a very popular idea to embrace. In recent years, I hadn’t thought much of vegetarianism or veganism, but, after reading the advance copy of Dr. Socha’s book, I must say that I am seriously reconsidering my food consumption habits from a whole new point of view, and with atheism in mind – as an ethical/conceptual framework. Upon receiving the advance copy, I found many similarities between Kim and myself, but I also came to respect her for being a scholar-activist in her own right in spite of the challenges and the hostilities that she has encountered from loyal meat (flesh)-eaters. In addition, I was keenly aware and appreciative of the way in which some academicians and some of us with PhDs are not hiding in the shadows. We are making our ideas and voices heard in the public square and articulating education as “the practice of liberation” (Paulo Freire).

Thank you Kim for giving me and all those who will read your book so much to consider about the narratives and ethics we employ to justify human domination over non-human animals. Although I have much to learn about veganism, I support your efforts to stand up to the myths that have enabled us to do harm to non-human animals in the name of human survival and nutrition. And, I am inspired that you are challenging the treatment of non-human animals as an atheist! Indeed, there are many who cannot fathom that one can be morally good and atheist at the same time, which is often an attitude exhibited by religious narcissists and fanatics who are gripped by fear, paranoia and an unrelenting desire for immortality (when, in fact, most violent and abusive crime in the U.S. – and beyond – is committed by theists).

For those of you who follow my blog, it is without a doubt that I recommend Kim Socha’s bold, new book, and I applaud and stand in solidarity with her for daring to dismantle the myths that have informed and dominated our eating habits to the point where we are not really as free as we think we are. This book is a reminder that liberation is something that we must strive for each and every day for ourselves and on behalf of others, and especially for those who cannot defend themselves against violent, malevolent powers . For more about this book, or to learn about it on Facebook, please follow this link!

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Whoopins For Your A*s: I Am Not My Parents

Of course, after recent videos of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson inflicting harm upon their so–called loved ones, we are now seeing many posts about spousal or partner abuse and child corporal punishment. So, for the record let me say that I am absolutely, positively AGAINST partner abuse and child abuse in whatever form they come; physical, mental, emotional, financial, social, political, etc. However, my parents are of a generation that utilized and advocated corporal punishment (i.e., spanking) and for a number of reasons they felt entitled to putting their hands on my siblings and I as a form of punishment or discipline (and sometimes the two were equated).

Yet, well into my adulthood those “whoopins” remained as one of the most painful memories from my childhood. Often, when I remembered them, they were emotionally terrifying and inexplicable. Now, I am grateful for those memories, for they taught me to respect myself and the importance of my feelings, then and now. Many women and children are disrespected each and every day, by those who claim to have power and authority over them. Yet such violent and dismissive  power and authority are not worthy of respect, only fear. As a result, I do not support or defend people who use fear or tradition (my mamma did it, or “we” as black people did it) as reasonable justifications for corporal punishment or domestic abuse. I am not my parents, and I am not into saving or redeeming aspects or practices of black life and culture that I feel are personally and socially detrimental. I have my own choices to make when it comes to how I relate to others, whether it be in relationship to a partner, children, or people I associate with professionally or casually. My parents are solely responsible for their own choices, and the consequences of those choices. Yet I know, because of the emotional work and self–recovery that I have initiated for myself, that some people, perhaps many people like Adrian Peterson, will attempt to defend and save their parents or a collective/cultural practice through their actions and all kinds of creative justifications of their actions. Doing either of these things is in my opinion, self–negating, which can be very hard to overcome in the long–run.

Putting my hands on another human being, to exert power or influence over them, is not something that I wish or aspire to do. Such an act of force does not make me feel powerful or influential. It does not make me feel in control. If I cannot express myself in a way that acknowledges and respects the personal space of others, including children, then I must realize that and take the appropriate action, perhaps with giving myself a time–out, talking to a trusted friend, reading an informative book, taking a class, or detaching from the situation or the person as appropriately as possible. I have dedicated my life to learning, which includes letting go of my need to control others, but it also includes modifying and sometimes even rejecting teachings and behaviors that do not serve me or others in healthy, honest ways. In addition, I see no nexus whatsoever that proves that the “whoopins” that my siblings and I endured were solely responsible for how we all “turned out” as adults. Who we are as adults today, who I am, is not something that can be positively attributed to the whoopins that were employed or advocated by my parents. Rather, the lives that my siblings and I have crafted for ourselves have been informed by a multitude of happenings in our lives, some of which were good, and some of which were not so good. I love my parents, and we now have many opportunities to talk about the past, but their disciplinary practices were just one of the many aspects of my entire life that has gone into the making of who I am today.

In summary, I am not exactly sure what it is that can be credited with my successes in life, but it probably was not the whoopins! And, as long as I am in my right mind, and I have breath in this body, nobody will ever whoop my a*s again (as in put their hands upon me or consciously hurt me for the purpose of teaching me some kind of lesson), nor will I feel entitled to “whoop” another human or non–human being’s a*s, unless it is for the purpose of self–defense.

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

On World Changers: The Few and Far Between

Many people claim that they want to “change the world,”

Until they actually come into contact with those who have claimed the power and the passion to change themselves in a world that is so resistant to change.

At that point, the people who actually endeavor to change the world

Become few and far between,

While the others remain many and very popular.

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Joan Rivers: Remembered

I am amazed at the number of people who are doting over Joan Rivers when she recently justified the killing of the Palestinians.

I wonder how some would react had she justified the slaughter of black people here in the U.S. or in South Africa when Nelson Mandela had been labeled a terrorist by the United States government;

Or what if she openly advocated for the continued exclusion and harm towards millions of LGBTQI folk?

What if she used her position to side with the Christian Right against  atheists worldwide;

Or against health care/contraception for women employed at businesses like Hobby Lobby?

What if she called for the annihilation of indigenous peoples of the Americas, or Australia? 

Or what if she praised the senseless killing of nonhuman animals?

I suppose, for some, this kind of blatant, unabashed, racist, ignorant, violent talk only matters when it happens to their own group or cause?

If that’s the case, if some people are willing to dismiss and look the other way in the face of Joan Rivers’s unjustified, flagrant hate of a group of people that she probably didn’t even know, then I submit to you that such people are not committed to freedom and justice;

And they are opportunists.

© 2014 annalise fonza, PhD

Who’s Dumb and Stupid? Thoughts on Spin and the Potential Legacy of Don Lemon

All week-long I have watched mainstream media put its spin on the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri. Like many, on the day that it happened, Saturday, August 9, 2014, I was in shock at the senseless gunning down of this young, black male. Brown’s death reminded me of the many black men and women who have been gunned down by white male police officers and pseudo police officers in the last two decades.

As I watched the news, I was reminded of how out of control the cops are in the U.S. They claim to be there for civilians to “protect and serve,” but when it comes to black life in America, it seems that the only interests being protected and served are the interests of white men and white-controlled institutions, such as police departments and correction facilities. Most of the people who I know are extra nervous when they see flashing blue lights in their rear-view windows. And, come to think about it, I don’t know one black person who does not know that the encounter with a police officer, with an over-zealous white male police officer in particular, could go absolutely, positively, horribly wrong in a matter of seconds. Having that understanding is not unjustified in any way, shape or form.

So, along comes Don Lemon in response to the Michael Brown story. Lemon has been with CNN for what – nearly a decade (since 2006) – and he goes live to the scene to Ferguson, Missouri, reporting the news. Late one night, I turned to CNN for an update on the public protest that was underway. And, I watched as Don Lemon described some of the people involved in the protests – the ones allegedly looting and being violent – as dumb and stupid. I was immediately struck by Lemon’s choice of words and his attempt to characterize certain protestors as dumb and stupid – as in lacking in intelligence; as lacking in meaning or relevance. I wondered if Don Lemon would be willing to say the very same thing on camera about the actions of certain officers of the law? I wondered if he would label certain Ferguson PD officers as dumb and stupid to their faces? I doubt that very much.

As I continued to watch the broadcast, a few things came to mind. First, I became uncomfortably aware of Don Lemon’s inability to analyze matters of race and racism on CNN adequately. Time and time again he is front and center (which is a good thing), but he never misses an opportunity to discursively degrade and dehumanize black people; often he says explicitly or implicitly that black people are operating in some dysfunctional or unacceptable way (which is a very common but bad narrative – as in disproportionate, stereotypical, and unsubstantiated). On other occasions, Lemon’s “respectability politics” have been the talk of Twitter and the subject of public backlash and ridicule. That Lemon recently characterized the alleged Ferguson looters as “dumb and stupid” caused me to question what he really knows about social protest; for he seems to lack a complex or critical understanding of looting and how the term “looting” is applied quite liberally and disproportionately to black people when a terrible disaster or injustice has occurred. Don Lemon has often chastised black people, and young, black men in particular, in this very degrading, elementary way. Therefore, I can’t help but ask aloud if Lemon has been commissioned by corporate elites – his bosses – to say – in blackface – what they would probably never say directly to black folk? All this makes me wonder if Don Lemon is the agent for a much deeper and present reality: white male supremacy.

Unfortunately, because of these mis-representations, Don Lemon is losing credibility, and especially amongst those who possess a critical consciousness, language and ability for debunking racism, sexism and heterosexism (which is an acquired skill). Given his most recent choice of words to describe what’s currently happening in Ferguson, Missouri, I personally doubt his ability to understand public protests or social movements beyond a fifth-grade level or vocabulary. I can only hope that Lemon is the puppet of CNN news elites, because if he is not, then ironically, I’d say it’s he, not the looters, who is acting dumb and stupid. And, given the dearth of black journalists on prime-time television, this is very sad to me. It’s sad that a black journalist with that much visibility and influence does not appear able to articulate the complexities and nuances of the black lived experience in the context of racist, white America. I suppose Don Lemon believes that we have actually become a post-racist society, and that racism is a thing of the past? This too could not be any further from the truth.

Of course, in years to come, there will be some who will remember Don Lemon as a trailblazing and pioneering American journalist, but if he fails to educate himself further about the history and residue of racism in America; if he continues to trivialize and demoralize the black lived experience with convenient, simplistic and shame-bearing comments, then Don Lemon’s potential legacy as an American journalist (and an openly black gay journalist at that) will regrettably be cut short by thoughtless commentary about those he repeatedly appears to despise: and that’s just plain dumb and stupid. But, I think he can do better. I hope that he will do better.

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.