Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has done it again.
In his new four-part PBS documentary series titled, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” which airs on Feb. 16-17, 9 EST, Gates brilliantly weaves together a beautiful and compelling narrative that tells the history and influence of the Black church from slavery, to Reconstruction, through the segregated days of the civil rights movement, all the way up to the present moment.
In a range of interviews with leading civil rights and religious figures, academicians, and entertainers, Gates conveys the electrifying power of the Black church and details how this institution with all of its many denominations and stylistic differences, evolved over time yet remained deeply connected to the culture and the politics of the era.
In the process, the documentary showcases the triumphs and the challenges of the church—namely the slow embrace to confront sexism and homophobia within its ranks. And it offers an important history lesson on how slaves didn’t simply accept the religion of their owners, but how they “Africanized” their belief system, drawing from rituals and customs that accompanied them across the Middle Passage.
Gates, who is the Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, uses the documentary to educate viewers about the formation of the Church of God in Christ, the significance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and how historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) served as an early training ground for those seeking to become religious leaders.
In the process, Gates introduces the nation to some of the most prominent historians of the Black experience, including Dr. Martha Jones of Johns Hopkins University, Drs. Cornel West and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham of Harvard University; Drs. Anthea Butler and Barbara D. Savage of the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Eddie Glaude of Princeton University and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson of Vandebilt University.
The two stars of the documentary, however, are Dr. Yolanda Pierce, the dean of Howard University’s School of Divinity and a Professor of Religion & Literature and Womanist Theology and Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University. They provide a nuance understanding of the ways in which the Black church offered resistance and a way of life for millions of Blacks across the generations.
The two will be in conversation on Feb. 25 with Reverend Delman Coates, senior pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland next week, to reflect on the documentary and share insights about the documentary. The event is free and open to the public.
Though church attendance has waned across the years, the power and influence of The Black Church cannot be overestimated. It has been a refuge and a sanctuary for African Americans against the widening forces of White supremacy and remains one of the most sacred institutions in America.
At a time when Blacks were restricted from fully engaging in life in the broader society, deacons, trustees, and members of the religious auxiliary groups, held prominence in their brick-and-mortar buildings. When whites refused to acknowledge the humanity of Blacks, forcing them to worship from the balcony of St. George’s Episcopal church in Philadelphia, Reverends Richard Allen and Absalom Jones left and formed The African Methodist Episcopal Church, which now boasts a membership of more than 1.4 million.
The civil rights movement would not have gained traction, had it not been for the tireless work of the Black church, which served as a meeting place for activists and provided a national platform that would thrust a 26-year-old preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into the annals of history.
Indeed, this is our story. And it is a story that is worth retelling, over and over again.
Dr. Jamal Watson’s weekly column appears here. You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson