“The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” is a soul-stirring two-part, four-hour documentary series from executive producer, host and writer Henry Louis Gates Jr. It traces the centuries old story of the Black church in America, all the way down to its foundational role as the site of African American survival, freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power.
The upcoming PBS documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from the African continent to the New World while interpreting them into a form of Christianity that was truly their own, in a nation whose original sin was the enslavement of their ancestors across the Middle Passage.
“The Black church is the oldest, the most continuous and most important institution created in the history of Black people in this country, and I’m honored that we have made this series, and will be sharing it with audiences at a time when these stories of grace and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing would be so desperately needed, given all that we’ve lost and all that we’ve endured in the last year,” Gates said on Friday during the TCA’s Winter Press Tour virtual PBS panel. “We wanted to make a series about the sheer transcendent power of belief, and never has that message been more important than now.”
In Part One, host Gates explores the roots of African American religion, beginning with the transatlantic slave trade and the extraordinary ways enslaved Africans preserved and adapted their faith practices under the brutal realities of human bondage. Gates speaks with noted scholars, public figures, and religious leaders about faith and the struggle for rights in the midst of growing racial violence that would continue well into the 20th century. Key figures whose stories are told in the series include founder Richard Allen and preacher Jarena Lee of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; abolitionist Frederick Douglass; influential religious figure Henry McNeal Turner; and pioneers Virginia Broughton and Nannie Helen Burroughs of the National Baptist Convention.
The series continues with Part Two, documenting the Black church’s expansion of its reach to address social issues including inequality, and ministering to those in need, from the Great Migration — the movement of millions of African Americans out of the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West that began around 1916 — to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. After the assassinations of leaders Black like Martin Luther King Jr., many Black churches found themselves at a crossroads — struggling to remain relevant as secularization increased, while having to take on urgent social and cultural issues within their congregations and broader Black communities.
Interviewed guests include prominent figures like celebrities Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, and John Legend; Bishops Michael Curry, Yvette Flunder, Vashti Murphy McKenzie and T.D. Jakes; Rev. William Barber, Pastor Shirley Caesar, and Rev. Al Sharpton; Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock; social critic and public intellectual Cornel West; gospel legend Yolanda Adams; Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Evelyn Higgenbottham, and more.
“One thing I would say that we really wanted to carry throughout the series is that with each decade we hit, it was important for us to say the church was the first place of agency for enslaved and free blacks,” said director/producer Holman. “It was a place where they could gather freely, and where we still feel like we can; that we can commune freely; we can just surrender; and we can worship God. So it’s in our roots; it’s in our blood regardless of where we each stand with it now, but it’s really instrumental in sustaining us. It’s the hope for a better tomorrow, the belief that things are going to get better, back then and still today.”
The series will not shy away from critiques of the Black church, including its exclusion of women, especially at the highest levels. But it’s a critic that other religions have faced, and not unique to the Black church. “The church is not without its flaws,” Gates said. “The church’s primarily backbone is women, and yet it’s dominated and controlled by men, and that’s wrong. It’s been homophobic, and that has to be changed; it has to be critiqued. So it isn’t just a blind celebration of a true believer, but it’s someone who loves the culture, and I wanted that love to come shining through in every way.”
Anticipation for the docuseries is apparently high, as prominent churches, like the Trinity Baptist Churches, as well as T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House megachurch and others are organizing screenings for their congregations. “He’s promoting it, because he said he loves it, and he told me he couldn’t stop watching it,” Gates said of Jakes. “So, there’s momentum.”
The series is a riveting exploration of the many ways in which African Americans have worshipped God throughout history, and how they continue to do so today, and it comes at a time when the very things enslaved Africans struggled and died for all seem to be on the line again. Ultimately, its aim is to bring the story of the Black church into the present, as the struggle for racial justice in America continues.
A production of McGee Media, Inkwell Media and WETA Washington, D.C., “The Black Church” airs on PBS in two parts, on Tuesday, February 16 at 9 p.m. ET, and on Wednesday, February 17, also at 9 p.m. ET.