To learn about African American history and culture, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ph.D. is the go-to researcher and educator to expand our knowledge. For his latest PBS series, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” he opens with an admission.
“I’ve spent my career exploring stories about Black life, but there is one I’ve never told, and it might be the most important one of all,” said Gates. “It is the remarkable history of the Black church.”
Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, makes this admission in front of Waldon United Methodist Church in Piedmont, WV, the church where he grew up.
“The Black Church” is a two-part series that premieres on PBS on Feb. 16. (Check local listings.) The series is beautifully produced to explain how faith traditions from Africa blossomed into multiple African American denominations. Viewers will learn how White evangelicals feared that African faith practices among new slaves would turn into an uprising. So, the evangelical preachers worked to convert as many Africans as possible to Christianity. That set the foundation for White supremacy. Once slaves figured out the real deal, it was all about suppression. America’s struggle with suppression today are the same simple truths as 400 years ago, but Black people persevered.
“African Americans adopted Christianity, but also adapted Christianity. They made it their own,” said Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D., dean of the Howard School of Divinity. “They created it so that it could provide for them something that was nurturing, something that made it catharsis, something that provided hope.”
Throughout this history of the Black church the documentary does not shy away from topics that still plague faith followers. What about the role of women in the church? How do we embrace sexual differences? Why don’t we talk about abuse? Where does Black Lives Matter and environmental justice fit into our worship? Questions on how to deliver “The Word” have always been and will always continue for the Black church.
From the film, we learn early on that Black preachers from the Methodist and Baptist denominations were leaders in the community. They made sure that churches were set up to educate their congregations.
“The Black church was more than just a spiritual home. It was the epicenter of Black life,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, president and CEO of the National Action Network. “Out of it came our Black businesses and our Black educational institutions.”
Those Black pastors were also key negotiators with Whites. After the civil war Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with Baptist and Methodist clergy in Savannah to work out ensuring 400,000 acres of abandoned rebel lands from Charleston, S.C.to St. Johns River, Fla. would be distributed to former slaves in parcels of 40 acres. It was the Black church that gave birth to the concept of “40 acres and a mule.” Baptist minister Rev. Garrison Frazier was the spokesperson for those ministers. The chaos following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 saw President Andrew Johnson, renege on Sherman’s land distribution order. There is an important message in this historical fact that is a sign for today.
“Just like that, the ‘promise land’ was restored to those who had declared war on the United States of American,” said Gates.
The documentary looks at the music of the Black church and the influence on jazz and R&B. Singers and musicians who started in the church and who still sing faith music are interviewed including Pastor Shirley Caesar, Yolanda Adams, BeBe Winans, Jennifer Hudson and John Legend. Legend, a co-producer of “The Black Church” documentary, grew up in the Pentecostal Church. He shared in the film how he spoke “in tongues” as did everyone in his church.
“I would not be an artist today if I had not been raised in the Pentecostal tradition,” said Legend.
Gates also explored the impact of Howard Thurman’s teachings on generations of ministers and led to the emergence of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was someone who effectively merged religion and peaceful activism.
“Many critics had been calling for an educated clergy who brings the power of intellect, of having studied, learned, and critiqued the scriptures, someone who is humble and is politically committed to the community rather than to themselves. King is exactly the embodiment of that,” said Barbara D. Savage, historian in the Department of Africana Studies of the University of Pennsylvania.
“The Black Church” documentary connects the dots on the role the church continues to play in seeking political and economic equality. This film is made for all faith groups to watch and discuss. It is a mega-Bible study where you learn from well-known clergy and theologians like Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III, Bishop Michael Curry, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Bishop Yvette Flunder, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Cornel West, Ph.D., Bishop William Barber II, Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Rev. Dr. Dwight Andrews, Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, III and Michael Eric Dyson, Ph.D.
Gates sums up this documentary perfectly, “No social institution in the Black community is more central and important than the Black church.”