“The church is the oldest, the most continuous and most important institution ever created by the African American people.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr. told Jeffrey Brown of PBS in an interview about his new four hour two-part documentary The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song that premiered on PBS in February as a salute to Black History Month. Gates should know since he is the writer, host and executive producer of the film aimed at telling the amazing stories of the people who shaped not only religion but also politics and culture through more than 400 years of black American life in this country.
Johnson & Johnson, one of the corporate sponsors of the documentary, introduced the PBS special with these words: “Not all black American stories are simple or easy to tell, but for many years Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has told them like no one else by rediscovering lost narratives, correcting historical misconceptions, resurrecting forgotten heroes. Johnson & Johnson has been with him through all these years and will still be along for this incredible journey.”
From the primitive Praise House on St. Helena Island, one of the sea islands in Beaufort County on the lower coast of South Carolina, to the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston that was the site of the massacre of nine members including pastor Clementa Pinckney in June, 2015, the black church in the United States has helped to define the journey of African Americans from enslavement to emancipation, from Jim Crow to public lynchings, from segregation to Civil Rights.
Dr. Gates (PhD from Cambridge) is internationally recognized and respected as an author, literary critic, professor, public intellectual, documentary film producer, essayist and historian whose life-long passion for black history focuses on weaving the African American experience into the fabric of a multi-racial, multi-cultural community that delineates his hope for the country he calls home. He serves currently as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Sound stuffy? Not so much. One of my favorite scenes in the Black Church documentary (that I’ve now watched two times!) is the visit by Dr. Gates to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Patrice Turner, a Director of Worship and Arts as well as an accomplished gospel pianist, sits at a piano in a large empty worship auditorium with only Dr. Gates standing next to the piano, clapping, singing, thoroughly enjoying two favorite spirituals “Ride On, King Jesus” no man can hinder thee and “Great Gettin’ Up Morning” fare ye well, fare ye well. Thank you, Jesus! he exclaimed when the music stopped.
Clearly the documentary celebrates not only the enduring faith of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. but also acknowledges the shortcomings of the black church in its dealings through the years with sexism, homophobia and domestic violence. For example, one of the unresolved questions today is where is the black church in Black Lives Matter?
We celebrate Black History Month in February every year, and this year I choose to honor a living historian whose stories inspire me and whose songs lift me up from the inharmonious existence of a Covid-19 universe. Thank you, Dr. Gates!
Stay safe, stay sane and please stay tuned.