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Things took an ugly turn for Black Nonbelievers (BN), Inc. before the year was out. In December 2022, five affiliate organizers resigned as leaders. Unfortunately, BN’s president, Mandisa Thomas, became embroiled in misconduct allegations, including claims of unethical behavior, abuse of power towards BN members, and manipulation and coercion of others. 

On the evening of December 2, we convened aboard the ship regarding what happened. Our 6th affiliate, LaTonya Gibbs out of Portland, Oregon, didn’t attend the cruise.

What we learned and how we learned it

We learned that Mandisa had ousted members for trivial things like disagreeing with her over the Chris Rock/Will Smith slap. More severe, BN members were banned for not continuing sexual relationships with her. Six affiliate organizers, Danile Black, DC; Kevon Cameron, New York; Bridgett Crutchfield, Detroit; Tina Marshall, Charlotte; and me, Monica Burns, Louisville, determined her behavior was unacceptable. The vote was unanimous. LaTonya Gibbs, the Portland affiliate organizer, also opted to leave after learning of the allegations. Tina Marshall later reversed course because Mandisa was funding her upcoming Christmas party. Tina wanted to talk to her about her behavior instead of leaving the organization.

If the confrontation on the cruise had been the only concern, talking to her made sense. Leadership had already done that regarding her actions aboard the ship. Now we had to deal with members cast out of BN for crossing her, and she threatened to do it again. 

We conducted interviews and obtained audio and written statements from the members involved aboard the ship and from other BN members, including one of the men who was kicked out in July 2022. He began dating another BN member rather than her. In response, Mandisa published a statement taking no accountability (and deflecting to personal issues). The personal issues in question were made very public by Mandisa herself. She felt we’d betrayed her by not keeping her indiscretions secret. We did not throw her under the bus; she threw BN members under the bus. We held her accountable for her actions.

Accountability

Sikivu Hutchinson of the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles supported BN members and our decision to break away immediately. She removed Mandisa from the annual Women of Color Beyond Belief (WOCBB) event. American Humanist Association (AHA) put her on a leave of absence from their board pending an investigation. However, we’re still waiting to hear from them. She also got removed from the Godless Gospel Project, a nonreligious musical ensemble.

And the lack thereof

However, American Atheists (AA) opted to help Mandisa save face, putting out a joint statement. In it, she claims to be resigning to focus on BN. Their section heaped praise on her. Regrettably, their solution was to prioritize her image and their own. Being the face of Black atheism in their eyes certainly has its privileges. 

A longtime friend of Mandisa’s, Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist, posted an article on OnlySky regarding the allegations after what he claims were “multiple conversations over the past two weeks with people who wrote the open letter.” This is false. Hemant spoke once with one former organizer, Kevon Cameron, who could only provide his personal take on the matter. Mehta used his mega platform to cast doubt on the victims’ allegations as much ado about nothing.

In the article, Mandisa claims our departure was a “massive betrayal of trust.” Should we hide that she kicks members out after ending relationships with her? We do not owe her silence; we owe our members a safe community. People come to Black Nonbelievers traumatized, often ostracized by family. Zeroing in on men for sex and booting them when they don’t want to comply anymore is more than a betrayal of trust—it’s unethical.

Despite the allegations, Matt Dillahunty featured Mandisa on his YouTube channel, The Hang Up, on January 11th. As an AA board member, he had the statements. Would AA and other powerful secular voices ignore it if a man tossed white women from an organization for discontinuing sex?

We’re not a church

We don’t rally around leaders when they’ve wronged members. We hold them accountable. She verbally assaulted a BN member publicly and later said he would be removed from further participation within the organization. She’d done it before, and she was going to do it again. As a leader, you don’t wield authority in this manner. Wrong is wrong; we were not duty-bound to cover her abuse of power.

Mandisa’s outburst on the ship was the last straw. It was not the sole catalyst for our departure. She’d lost control of who and what the movement was about. She’d removed BN members from the organization, revealing a pattern of behavior whereby membership was contingent upon her personal, often sexual, relationship with them. Conversely, that is not what any of us signed up for. That is not a safe space. The last thing these folks need is to be preyed on and thrown out when their only mistake was trusting a so-called leader. Furthermore, her actions clearly abuse power, and prominent atheists helped mitigate the fallout for their friend as such. Likewise, being her friend did not negate their professional responsibilities as leaders in this movement. Using their platforms to support and uplift her despite the allegations was another blow to the victims she ousted.

Creating a path forward

The Black Secular Collective will not subject our people to the whims of any leader. Rest assured; we will not fail them. We will create an intentional community that provides an actual safe space to support like-minded BIPOC people without religious dogma.

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Monica Burns

Monica Burns is the lead organizer for Black Atheists & Agnostics of Louisville and podcast co-host for Blasphemy in the Bluegrass.