The Black church has been, and continues to be, one of the most influential institutions created by Africans in the Americas. PBS’ two-part documentary series, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” preaches about the role of the church in the post-civil rights era, from the African continent to North America.
The role of the Black church continues to be the subject of lively debate even among those who consider themselves “unaffiliated.” Some argue that it has lost its oracular voice and its ability to mobilize for reform. Others say that the church is very much alive, pointing to the 2008 presidential election, when then-leading Democratic contender Barack Obama from Chicago’s Trinity Church had to publicly denounce what was perceived to be inflammatory language from parishioner Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose now infamous “God damn America!” speech genuinely shocked voters. (Although African Americans were especially less bothered.)
As documented in the Henry Louis Gates Jr.-hosted PBS series, Obama seized the moment to deliver a heartfelt meditation on race in America in a speech titled “A More Perfect Union.” Obama tracked the historical roots of racial inequity, putting Wright’s indignation into much-needed context. The series informs viewers of how slaves passed on a centuries-old story tradition, all the way down to the church’s foundational role as a safe space for African American solidarity where they had no choice but to become one new people.
At Trinity Church in Chicago, preacher Wright is far more complex than a few sound bites would have viewers believe. He stresses pride in African identity and preaches a brand of liberation theology that is “unapologetically Christian, unashamedly Black,” as he says. He formally recognizes the homeless, the elderly, prison inmates, as well as ministries in charge of child care programs and people with HIV.
Eventually Obama broke with Wright and left Trinity, but his “A More Perfect Union” speech spotlighted the role of the Black church as part of the African American experience, as an institution that exists individually, yet is engaged in a continuing dialogue with American society.
Members of the Black church — a term itself that still needs study, evolving from the W.E.B. Du Bois phrase “the Negro church” — classified themselves according to denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and more. Never monolithic, Black churches have always been diverse and decentralized, loaded with a boisterousness that may, at first, seem discordant to the amateur ear.
Some influential televangelists have promoted the so-called “prosperity gospel.” It is linked to a social conservatism that opposes gay and women’s rights. In recent presidential races, Republican strategists courted these practices with success, and host Gates doesn’t shy away from highlighting the church’s failures, including homophobia and sexism.
As historian Anthea Butler — professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of “Women in the Church of God in Christ” — has observed, the church has been profoundly shaped by regional differences, yet it remains consistent in the notion of freedom.
The church in America has provided a safe haven for Black Christians influenced by the legacy of slavery, in a society that is defined by race and class. Yet it is also a place where African Americans can express their anger and aspirations, free from the powerful constraints that dictate dialogue with the larger society. After the fatal losses of leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many Black churches found themselves at a crossroads — fighting to remain relevant at a time of an aggressive secularization while coming to terms with urgent social vexations within their wider communities.
For the PBS docuseries, host Gates Jr. interviews prominent African American figures, including Oprah Winfrey, and presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church, as well as welcomes notable insights from Yvette Flunder, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Rev. William Barber, and those who have been ground zero for social justice, and elevated voices to the sounds of gospel music, like singers John Legend and Jennifer Hudson; gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar, and BeBe Winans; and scholar Cornel West.
The series brings that story to the present — a time of rejuvenated racial justice protests in America.
Today, the Black church has served as a haven for Black Christians in a country shadowed by the legacy of slavery, and a society that remains defined by race and class. But yet, it continues to work as a declaration for a people fighting for inclusivity. It is clear that the Black church is evolving, whether as a competitive, uber-charged contest of thoughts about what it should be, or as a furthering of the civil rights divinatory dictum of social change.
The two-part documentary series, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” aired on February 16-17 and will be rebroadcast on PBS member stations.