The Harlem branch of the Center for Inquiry used to be one of the few places I knew of where black people could come together as proud atheists. The 20-or-so regulars were under the leadership of Herbert Crimes (a.k.a. “Sibanye”).
A few months ago, Sibanye died of a blood disease. He was only 49.
What has happened to the community he helped bring together?
Unfortunately, they’re not doing too well:
Three months later, the fractured community remains leaderless and none of those who regularly attended Sibanye’s meetings are willing to step forward. “They need some real help,” says Ken Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists.
Because it’s also a center of black culture, the new atheist leader would, ideally, be black, says [professor Charles] Zorn. He is white, and he sees that as a problem. “I feel comfortable participating, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable leading” the group, he says.
I’d love to see someone take charge of that group and help foster its growth, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening right now.
This happens to college groups all the time. The most successful of groups can die out when a strong president graduates. One of the things the Secular Student Alliance has focused on over the past few years has been succession planning — making sure each group knows who next year’s leaders are before it’s too late.
It’s far more difficult, though, when the leader leaves unexpectedly.
Austin Dacey has a nice obituary of Sibanye at Religion Dispatches.
Sibanye and I spent many hours in conversation about secularism, religion, and the black community. He was a tireless activist on issues of public education, racial justice, and black male identity, and he believed that Enlightenment values of pluralism, toleration, critical reason, and secular government were essential to progress. Almost every one of these conversations ended with Sibanye looking forward to some future activities, some next step, and parting with the words, “We’ll just take it from there.” And so I left the audience at Adam Clayton Powell with those words, for everyone still engaged in the endeavors that animated his life. Sibanye, we’ll just take it from there.
Here’s hoping the regular members of the Harlem group can find a different community to attend for the time being.