Henry Louis Gates Jr. has an obvious passion for ancestry, having hosted the popular PBS series Finding Your Roots since 2012. But even more palpable is the historian’s enthusiasm for his most recent subject: the profoundly important role the Black church has played in the lives of African Americans for over 400 years. It’s “the embodiment of healing, forgiveness and unity at the heart of our community,” he says, with feeling.
Gates explains why its role is so central in a fascinating four-hour PBS documentary that he wrote, produced and hosts, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (Feb. 16 and 17; check local listings). Interviewing cultural influencers such as Oprah Winfrey, 67, and Jennifer Hudson and a long list of Black religious leaders, he makes a convincing case that the church has been the driving creative force behind African American spirituality, politics and entertainment for centuries.
We talked to Gates about why the church has been so central to the Black experience, and in his own life.
The roots of the Black church
I had no idea about the religions that our ancestors brought with them on the slave ships. The image we have is that the Africans showed up practicing, quote-unquote, traditional African religions. But in fact, they came with a variety of belief systems — traditional, Muslim and Catholic — and out of this stew of morphing, colliding, consolidating belief systems was born what became the Black church.
Its role as an artistic force
Some 450,000 people came here through the Middle Passage, but they didn’t sail alone. They brought their gods with them, but they also brought their cultural forms — music and dance, rhythm, harmony, melody and all of that. When they hit Christianity they just took the standard hymns, or passages from the King James Bible, and they reformed them in their own cultural language. It’s one of the greatest contributions to world civilization that we have ever seen.
The joy at its center
I think they needed the sight of joy [during enslavement]. I mean with all that misery and squalor they had to suffer every day, you need a break, right? But the joy was that you would be liberated — that Moses was coming sooner or later. And if things didn’t get better on earth, you had Jesus advocating for you to get to heaven and eternal life. But, brilliantly, they created a culture of joy around this belief [and used it] to combat a system designed in every way to crush their spirit.
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COURTESY OF MCGEE MEDIA
Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the West Angeles Church of God In Christ.
His own religious conversion
When I was 12 years old and my mother was very sick, I prayed to God that if she came home from the hospital, I would give my life to Christ, as we said. In the hospital one Sunday night, she told me she was going to die. And I went and I prayed, and I cried. And a few days later, miraculously, she came home. And I looked in the mirror and said, “Uh-oh.” You don’t mess with God. [Laughs.] So I joined the church, and I went to that church [Waldon United Methodist Church in Piedmont, West Virginia] every Sunday.
How he worships during the pandemic
Since last spring, every Sunday I’ve been watching Rev. Otis Moss III at Trinity United Church of Christ, which used to be the Obamas’ church in Chicago. He’s a brilliant man. I love the way he shapes language, and the vision of hope that that he brings, virtually. (Services are livestreamed.)
Acknowledging the church’s flaws
Making the film was my way of saying thank you, but also my way of critiquing it. We didn’t hold back about its sexism. We didn’t hold back about homophobia. We didn’t hold back about the fact that not every preacher thought Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader of either the church or the civil rights movement. You know, there were some black churches that didn’t want any part of protest.
Why focus on the Black church now
When we see so much suffering today under COVID-19, and marginalization for lots of Americans, particularly for people of color — I wanted to remind the country that your church is a sanctuary for suffering, a sanctuary for the marginalized. And hope and healing are so desperately needed now, given all that we’ve lost and endured. The timing for the release of this film is perfect.