So there was this billboard in Pennsylvania put up jointly by the American Atheists and the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, and I learned all about it from Kylie Sturgess at the Token Skeptic, in her post Is Anyone Else Talking About How Bloody Awful the American Atheists Inc. “Slaves” Harrisburg, PA Billboards Are?
Yes, I’m late to the party, and I know this is all old news now, but my thoughts have finally cohered enough to make my points, and so I am ready to talk about how bloody awful the billboard is and how bad the people defending it look. I will number my points so I stay focused, and I will employ bold font to add an element of design because I’m artsy like that.
In case you don’t want to click a link to read Kylie or the AA’s discussion of the billboard, I’ll just post it here as a picture (lifted from the AA Facebook page), at full size for maximum effect:
1. It is cultural appropriation.
If you are defending this billboard as a “good message” that is doing “important work” and is “not at all racist,” you need to read up on cultural appropriation and maybe you’ll understand why the NAACP and other people are offended when you take key images from someone else’s cultural heritage to serve your own purposes. If you already know all about cultural appropriation and are a cultural appropriation expert but don’t think this qualifies as “someone else’s cultural heritage” or “serving your own purposes,” consider this:
It is an uncontested fact that the bulk of atheists in the Atheist Movement (to the extent that people formally organize or self-identify) are white men. They have no cultural heritage of 19th Century American enslavement. The image on this billboard is a picture from someone else’s story–a story that echoes still and manifests still as documented, inescapable inequality for the descendents of these very slaves pictured on this billboard–and it was not employed in service of solving some problem for these people, or to establish common ground with the Black community of Harrisburg, or to make some point about how the effects of slavery can still be felt more than 150 years after the Civil War. No. It was employed because the American Atheists, Inc. had some personal beef with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and wanted to express their own “anger and frustration” (read their statement here) with the passage of its “Year of the Bible” resolution.
I don’t even want to talk about whether or not the House of Representatives should have passed a “Year of the Bible” resolution; it’s totally irrelevant. And spare me the details of how it’s a woodcutting on the billboard that’s probably of a hypothetical slave in bondage and not a picture of a real person in bondage and therefore is nobody’s actual ancestor, because I don’t care. What I care about is this: A bunch of white guys are mad at the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania and decided to lift some history from an oppressed group of people that still suffers the consequences of slavery to do their complaining with.
Here’s the text from the actual resolution, PA HR 535:
RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives declare 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania in recognition of both the formative influence of the Bible on our Commonwealth and nation and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.
Which makes a nice segue to my second point (now, with bolding!)…
2. It is historically tone-deaf.
We are talking here about the state of Pennsylvania, and how the House of Representatives passed this Year of the Bible business to recognize the influence of the Bible on the Commonwealth’s history. You know, how the colony was first established by William Penn, the Quaker? You know, those Quakers who were the first people to really speak out as a group against slavery? And who you could argue were major players in the Underground Railroad? Which used, you know, spiritual songs based on Bible stories to code information? Because those slaves and former slaves and free Black Americans who read the Bible found in it proof that they were unjustly enslaved and deserved freedom? All that “Go Down, Moses” business? I get it, I get it that Quakers aren’t really the majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives anymore, but this billboard was directed at–with a picture of a Black person–the Slaves. And the story of American Slavery and the Bible is not a story of everyone sitting around all happily building a new country together until someone noticed in the Bible this passage that said slaves should obey their masters and then Bam! they’re all whistling Dixie until the Civil War. If you really think that religious people sold everyone else on the idea that slavery was a good idea because of Colossians, you don’t know anything about slavery. And if you really think that people who are atheists through and through don’t participate in and perpetuate social injustice, you don’t really know anything about modern times, either.
And you probably haven’t even considered that most of the people going out of their way in their personal and private time to help people overcome the lingering effects of slavery and the accompanying social injustice are churches. It’s true that there are a lot of problematic ways these people perform these services from a secularist’s point of view, but how many atheist organizations are running food banks in metropolitan areas?
So when it’s clear that you really haven’t thought through the interactions between the Bible and American slavery, from a modern or historical standpoint, and are making a billboard to protest some problem that has nothing to do with Black people or slavery at all, but you choose from all the images in the world one of a black person being tortured within slavery just for why? To be as shocking as possible? To make people face the horror of… what? Slavery? If you are trying to get at how the Bible is being used somewhere to justify modern slavery in some sort of human trafficking situation somehow (which is specifically not what the billboard is for by the creators’ own admission, but let’s pretend), why reach so far back for your victim? It makes no sense. Unless of course you consider that this American Atheists group doesn’t care much about Black people or their history beyond their ability to provide disturbing images for the benefit of serving the atheists’ totally unrelated agenda.
On the other hand, these white male atheists in America do consider themselves to have been relegated to second-class status, so maybe tapping into images of racial chattel slavery is totally justifiable.
(Also, and I’m just saying this to say this, but also? If it’s Bronze Age Ethics you’re so worried about, why not show pictures of Bronze Age slaves? But that’s just a quibble fit only for parentheses.)
3. It is completely patronizing.
Now we’ve got this billboard basically telling Black people (it’s an image of a Black person in slavery next to some text addressing slaves–who else in America do you think is going to identify with it?) that the Bible actually contains a verse that says slaves should obey their masters! Surprise! Good thing the American Atheists are out there doing the hard reading for them.
What is the point of informing people of this? Did you think that they’d missed it? Did you think that in all this time, in all these congregations, with all these people for decades and decades speaking and writing to each other about how to understand passages in the Bible hadn’t already made this observation? That they hadn’t been in dialogue with each other about how to interpret it, or how to apply it to modern times? That you were bringing them this new, amazing insight about the Bible that shows them they’ve had it all wrong all this time? You were providing revelation?
And then when the billboard went up, and people criticized it, and went so far as to actually call it culturally appropriative, tone-deaf, patronizing and even racist, you issued this non-apology that kept right on patronizing them:
I want to say that I’m truly sorry that many people have misunderstood this billboard. It was never our intention to use “race” as our message itself – The point of our billboard was:
The bible is NOT holy or moral as promoted by the PA House of Representatives in the “Year of the Bible”.
The bible was used as an excuse for many very bad things – Including American slavery.
We would have hoped this message was clearer to observers. In any case, the point is currently moot. The billboard was destroyed by vandals overnight. Attached is an image, submitted by one of our members who discovered it, of the destruction.
–image omitted here, but posted on Kylie Sturgess’s link above–
The irony of course is in what they destroyed: they left the bible verse that supports slavery, one of many missed opportunities in the bible for the authors to actually say “Slavery is bad”. They removed the entire point of the billboard, the criticism, and left the actual ignorant and savage part.
President, PA Nonbelievers
Nobody’s actually sorry that they appropriated a symbol of another group’s oppression to further their own gains, no. They don’t feel bad that real people actual endured slavery or that real people still suffer from its effects or that real people don’t like seeing images of their history exploited in this way. No. They just feel bad that so many people were too stupid to understand what the billboard was really saying. And that ha ha–even the people so mad they struck out in vandalism were so extra stupid that they turned the billboard into something even more like what the American Atheists and Pennsylvania Nonbelievers were complaining about in the first place, about how bad the Bible is so the joke’s on them! Such a shame, such a shame. Good thing AA and PAN are so much smarter than that, and able to understand the irony.
I eagerly await the lesson in Bronze-Age Ethics on Colossians 3:21.