Billboard Brouhaha

Recently, Sikivu Hutchinson wrote a wonderfully insightful piece taking down the responses by many atheists to the topic of diversity and whether the movement should concern itself with issues of social justice. I highly recommend you read it, there are few others in the secular community that are as masterful at articulating these issues as she is (though Jamila Bey, Ian Cromwell, and a handful of others come to mind).

I bring this up because the need for people like Sikivu and so many others to continue fighting for diversity and to hold discussions of issues concerning white privilege, race, etc is underscored by recent events surrounding this:

In case you aren’t familiar with this story, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have called this the year of the Bible. The resolution among other things says that the bible “inspired [the] concepts of civil government” contained in our nation’s founding documents. **Barf** It also suggests that by “Renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture” that our nation can be strengthened. **Double Barf**

So understandably atheists and secularists, along with anyone with any understanding of history, can understand why those and other statements in the resolution are not only wrong but also offensive. They are offensive because not only was our nation was founded on the separation of church and state, but this sort of resolution also ignores all the citizens who lack faith but those who share in other faiths as well. Then there are a whole slew of reasons I could get into about how the bible is not the wonderful moral document that its advertised to be but I won’t- at least not today.

In response to this resolution the Pennsylvania Chapter of American Atheists decided to protest this resolution by exercising their first amendment rights and putting up this billboard. The message according to Ernest Perce of the PA chapter is that,”Slavery is brought to you by the bible and the House of Representatives.” I am not sure how slavery “is brought” to you by the legislature but I think taking a dig at the bible to show that it’s not the epitome of moral truth is warranted. That is a perfectly valid discussion to have since the bible condones and sanctions a number of horrific acts.

But what was the reaction to this billboard? Hostility and a great deal of it.

The billboard was placed in a predominantly black neighborhood in Harrisburg and residents there were extremely offended by  the image of a slave in chains. Some, including at least one member of the NAACP viewed this as a racist message targeting blacks and viewed it as a hate crime. Now that was clearly an overreaction.  But not all the criticism of this billboard amounts to an overreaction.  I think if anything this incident just demonstrates a lack of cultural sensitivity on behalf of the American Atheists. Slavery and its history in our country is a very difficult subject to discuss particularly in relationship to blacks in this country.  It’s true that many of the horrific and brutal aspects of slavery were defended using the bible, which is what I think American Atheists were trying to convey, but the bible is not the primary reason blacks were enslaved.  Talking about why blacks were enslaved and continue to deal with discrimination and economic and political disenfranchisement  means having a long uncomfortable conversation about  white supremacy, privilege, power, etc. That is just the reality of the situation. One cannot boil down slavery to the bible. Unfortunately, by choosing this image they have invoked that history, whether they choose to own that or not. What kills me is that I’ve seen folks defend the use of this image by saying “blacks are not the only ones who have experienced slavery”  and what have you. And its true enough that black people are not the only group to have ever been enslaved but images like other types of stimuli affect us. They hold meaning. And when one uses an image connected to such a troubling  moment in history you have to be ready to discuss the issues that are bound to come up. As a black person I am offended to see the history of my ancestors used to attack others in this manner seems flippant. Even if the intention wasn’t to be flippant, one still has to remember that any good advertisement has to reflect a number of things including (Bear with me if I miss anything important, all my advertising “expertise” comes from middle and high school class projects. :-)):

  • it has to be attractive or catchy (which can include controversy)- So half a check there maybe. Ok, I’ll be generous and give a full check due to controversy.
  • it has to have a message that is immediate and easily understood- FAIL 
  • it needs to reflect its audience- EPIC FAIL


This ad failed to consider its audience. Now I don’t believe they were trying to target African-Americans because from what I understand they bought space on this billboard because the price was right. But I still don’t think that means they get a pass, the fact that they did not consider that the price of ad space wasn’t connected to socioeconomic conditions in Harrisburg demonstrates either a profound lack of sensitivity or a deep disconnect with these types of issues. Of course while many black will have an emotional reaction to an image like this, so will many whites. This is because references to the history of slavery in the US and elsewhere invoked by this image are liable to make many white people defensive and put off by this as well. And while controversy can be a good thing to stir up, it seems to me that many folks within our community are ill-prepared to deal with courting the kind of controversy that comes when you bring up our not so distant racial past. And this in a way explains to me why so many of them are unwilling to deal with issues of social justice or expanding the scope of the movement in such a way the it will attract a more diverse array  of non-believers, secularists, and skeptics to our ranks.

Like I said before, I don’t take issue with criticizing the bible but the quote is powerful enough on its own. Why not lose the image increase the text size and leave it at that? I don’t think this t-shirt is less powerful because it isn’t accompanied by a picture of the middle passage, do you?

Sometimes the truth doesn't need much help.

 For those who can’t make out the text:
“Slavery is Ok. Homosexuality. Not So Much
Leviticus 20:33, Leviticus – 21
Sincerely God”

So the question is… how do we proceed? Should we blame religiosity or ignorance for the response to this ad? Or do we take some responsibility and consider how incidents like these effect the perception of what it means to be an atheist, skeptic, freethinker, non-believer, and all the other categories we label ourselves within the secular movement?  Do we try to educate one another and try to broaden our perspective in this movement so that we can correct the misunderstandings and attitudes that have led to the perception that atheists are assholes lacking social awareness? Or that atheism/secularism is boy’s club?  A perception that I struggled with before I came out as an atheist myself. Whats it going to be?

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8 thoughts on “Billboard Brouhaha

  1. I think whoever produced this billboard, attached the image in a clumsy attempt to relate the verse to an event in history that should resonate with ALL Americans. Here’s the subtext as I see it.

    “The bible condones slavery. You know, like when we enslaved black people. Remember?”

    Clumsy, but well intentioned. That said, the best way to communicate is by using direct, uncluttered language and/or imagery. The campaign would have had more impact without the distracting image.

    Oh, and the NAACP’s position that the Blllboard is reactionary bullshit. Its not racist; its factual. America enslaved Africans.

  2. Good post. I am not offended by the billboard as I am educated about the past. Getting the people worked up was part of the plan. The citizens should direct their ire towards the Bible and history and not the billboard.

    The fact that Black Christians want to defend the Bible is a tragedy. I spend some time going back and forth with a Christian on slavery in the Bible and frankly I am discourage at the state of affairs in America.

    I personally to mind the use of shock for effect. It is a quick way to get your message across.

  3. Walter Beals says:

    It boggles the mind that African Americans are Christians. Christianity was the religion of the white men who came to Africa, captured them, brought them to a foreign land and forced them into slavery. One would think they would have rejected Christianity, or at least just pretended to go along with it until they were freed. Yet African Americans are one of the most Christian in the country!

    Don’t they remember that when the Southern plantation owners were fighting to keep slavery legal, one of the first places they went to was the Bible. After all, it was “God’s word” and it condoned slavery, even encouraged it!

    So sad that these folks who tore down the sign couldn’t take a moment to reflect on the actual message of the billboard.

    • Perhaps, their response to the message has something to do with how ineffective it was. But why should it “boggle” the mind? Many of the emotional and psychological reasons that draw people from other backgrounds to christianity are the same things that black people find attractive. But despiye the fact that religion was the religion of many slavemasters church was one of the few refuges black people were allowed. Sundays were the only day slaves were generally allowed “off”. Many slaves actually worked on their sundays to buy their freedom. And later it would be the church that would offer former slaves and future generations social services. Many black churches offered scholarship opportunities while blacks were still being denied entrance to higher institutions of learning. Many churches had food programs for the homeless and people down on their luck. And while I don’t necessarily praise their methodology, understanding this history gives you a glimpse into how the black church became the institution it is today. None of those activities are outside the scope of things we can do as secularists and humanist, but no secular organization has yet provided those things on the same scale. So I think it shows a lack of consideration and a poor read of history to suggest that this condition should “boggle the mind”.

  4. Well,, once again, you’ve outdid yourself. Brilliant at always. I never thought I’d disagree with you. I wouldn’t say that I disagree completely. I’d say that I disagree to a certain degree. Issues like white supremacy *barf*, systemic racism and subjugation of Blacks to this very day *double barf* are important issues to discuss in the public forum. You made the assertion that the contraversial picture was unessesary and the bible verse alone was enough to convey the message that slavery is wrong, and furthermore the bible is a piece of shit for advocating it. I diagree. I think the image makes the piece even MORE powerful. It really hammers home the sentiment that slavery is deplorable, and bible is a disgusting, deplorable piece of shit for condoning and advocating slavery and the beating of slaves (so long as they don’t die). The image doesn’t offend me as a black/half-black/mulatto/bi-racial person, or whatever the hell you want to refer to me as. If people understand the image in context they should know that it is fervently against the bible and slavery… not for it.
    Keep the fantastic work going.
    PeAcE!
    - Justin

  5. […] video reminded me immediately of last year’s Billboard Brouhaha, when the PA chapter of American Atheist put up a billboard featuring a picture of a shackled […]

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