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To Understand America, You Need to Understand the Black Church

11 minute read
Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or coauthored twenty-five books and created twenty-one documentary films, including Finding Your Roots. His newest book is The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song

We are living through a traumatic inflection point in our American story. Millions of our fellow citizens are hurting from a series of pandemics. Our public health system, our economic fate, and issues of racial justice all are on the line at the very same time. So, too, is democracy itself.

Observing the vicious murder of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis last spring was not only shocking; it was disorienting. I wondered: was this 1968 all over again, or the Red Summer of 1919, when anti-black violence consumed the country amidst another devastating pandemic, or 1877, the year the bright lights of Reconstruction were violently snuffed out just a dozen years after the Civil War restored the Union on the basis of freedom and equal citizenship under the law? And this was before the presidential election in November!

The tense days that followed—made all the more desolate by the loss of such icons as John Lewis and C.T. Vivian—only reinforced my sense that the history of the first Reconstruction was being refracted through our own lives and in our own time. Then came the special elections in Georgia in January, when, on the eve of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Dr. King’s church in Atlanta, became the first African American ever sent to the Senate from his state and the eleventh Black American to be elevated to that chamber overall. The first had been Hiram Revels, of Mississippi, in 1870, and, like Warnock, Revels had been a man of the Word. In fact, during Reconstruction, the historian Eric Foner tells us, three of the first sixteen African American members of Congress were ministers, and of the more than 2,000 Black officeholders at every level of government in that era, more than 240 were ministers—second only to farmers.

All of this was a powerful reminder to me of the vital role that the Black Church and its leaders—men and women—have always played at pivotal moments in our collective struggle to realize that “more perfection union”: a lesson that had already been brought vividly home to me in filming my new history series for PBS and authoring its companion book, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. When we began working on it, though, never could I have imagined that we would be launching at a time when the stories we wanted to tell of grace and resilience, struggles and redemption, hope and healing, would be so desperately needed, given all that we’ve lost and endured in the past year.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaching at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, circa 1960.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaching at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, circa 1960.Dozier Mobley—Getty Images

What I’ve learned in exploring the history of African American religion from the earliest days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement to my own return trip to the childhood church that witnessed my conversion in Piedmont, West Virginia, is that the Black Church is as diverse as it is foundational to the African American experience. As the great W. E. B. Du Bois observed in his 1903 masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, “one can see in the Negro church today, reproduced in microcosm, all the great world from which the Negro is cut off by color-prejudice and social condition…. Practically, a proscribed people must have a social Centre, and that Centre for this people is the Negro church.”

Black churches also were the first institutions built by Black people and run independent of white society in the United States, with the earliest Black Christian congregations roughly contemporaneous with the Declaration Independence of 1776, including churches in Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. Since then, African Americans have taken their “masters’ religion” and made it their own through a flowering of denominations that run the gamut from the AME Church to the Church of God in Christ to so many storefront sanctuaries that remain a key refuge for many in hard times. In doing so, they have not only given the wider world astonishing cultural gifts in the form of oratory and song; they have found a new through-line in the Christian liberation story that they have used as a redemptive force to shine a line on the hypocrisy at the heart of their bondage. That was as true for Frederick Douglass as it is today for Rev. William Barber Jr.

As we stare down the array of threats to our democratic life in 2021, as we grieve and offer comfort to one another, and search for hope amid our shared despair, let us look to the history—and future—of the Black Church as an exemplar of what is possible when we, the people, assemble and march in the name of a higher power.

For a people systematically brutalized and debased by the inhumane system of human slavery, followed by a century of Jim Crow racism, the church provided a refuge: a place of racial and individual self‑affirmation, of teaching and learning, of psychological and spiritual sustenance, of prophetic faith; a symbolic space where Black people, enslaved and free, could nurture the hope for a better today and a much better tomorrow. For a community disenfranchised and underserved by religious institutions established by and catering to the needs of white people, it served both secular and spiritual needs. Its music and linguistic traditions have permeated popular culture, and its scriptural devotion to ideas of liberation, equality, redemption, and love have challenged and remade the nation again and again, calling America to its higher self in times of testing and trial.


No pillar of the African American community has been more central to its history, identity, and social justice vision than the “Black Church.” To be sure, there is no single Black Church, just as there is no single Black religion, but the traditions and faiths that fall under the umbrella of African American religion, particularly Christianity, constitute two stories: one of a people defining themselves in the presence of a higher power and the other of their journey for freedom and equality in a land where power itself—and even humanity—for so long was (and still is) denied them. Collectively, these churches make up the oldest institution created and controlled by African Americans, and they are more than simply places of worship. In the centuries since its birth in the time of slavery, the Black Church has stood as the foundation of Black religious, political, economic, and social life.

The Black Church has influenced nearly every chapter of the African American story, and it continues to animate Black identity today, both for believers and nonbelievers. In that sense, the Black Church functions on several levels, as a spiritual center—a place of worship—and as a social center and a cultural repository as well, a living treasure trove of African American sacred cultural history and practice: literally the place where “the faith of the fathers and mothers” is summoned and preserved, modified and reinvented each Sunday, in a dynamic process of cultural retrieval and transformation, all at the same time.

With a language all its own, symbols all its own, the Black Church offered a reprieve from the racist world, a place for African Americans to come together in community to advance their aspirations and to sing out, pray out, and shout out their frustrations. It was the saving grace of both enslaved Black people and of the 10 percent or so of the Black community that, at any given time before the Civil War, were ostensibly free; the site of possibility for the liminal space between slavery and freedom, object and subject, slave and citizen, in which free Black people were trapped. The church fueled slave rebellions, nurtured and sustained the Underground Railroad, and was the training ground for the orators of the abolitionist movement, and for ministers such as Richard Harvey Cain who emerged as powerful and effective political leaders during Reconstruction. It powered antilynching campaigns and economic boycotts, and formed the backbone of and meeting place for the civil rights movement. Rooted in the fundamental belief in equality between Black and white, human dignity, earthly and heavenly freedom, and sisterly and brotherly love, the Black Church and the religion practiced within its embrace acted as the engine driving social transformation in America, from the antebellum abolitionist movement through the various phases of the fight against Jim Crow, and now, in our current century, to Black Lives Matter.

The Black Church, in a society in which the color line was strictly policed, amounted to a world within a world, providing practical physical and social outlets and economic resources for local African American communities. Even in the antebellum period, the Black Church was the proving ground for the nourishment and training of a class of leaders; it fostered community bonds and established the first local, regional, and then national Black social networks. It was under the roofs of these churches that African Americans, in the heyday of Reconstruction—especially in that magical summer of 1867, when Black men in the former Confederacy got the right to vote—also learned of the opportunities and obligations of citizenship and the sanctity of the franchise.

The church also bred distinct forms of expression, maybe most obviously its own forms of music. Black sacred music, commencing with the sacred songs the enslaved created and blossoming into the spirituals (which W. E. B. Du Bois aptly dubbed the “Sorrow Songs”), Black versions of Protestant hymns, gospel music, and freedom songs, emerging from within the depths of Black belief and molded in repetitions and variations in weekly choir practice and Sunday worship services, would eventually captivate a broad, nonsectarian audience and influence almost every genre of twentieth‑century popular music. The blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul and R&B, folk, rock, and even hip‑hop bear the imprint of Black sacred music. It is evident in the sound of such a wide array of legendary artists that it is difficult to limit a list, but there are some names that simply cannot go unspoken: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington; Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, and James Brown; Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye; Donny Hathaway and Teddy Pendergrass; Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler; Tina Turner; Whitney Houston; Patti LaBelle; practically all of Motown, all the way to Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, and Kirk Franklin, whose talents were nurtured in church pews and choirs. Mahalia Jackson, Dr. King’s sacred soul mate and private muse, is, of course, in a class of her own, stubbornly resisting the extremely lucrative financial lure of “going secular” but nevertheless influencing the styles of a plethora of Black singers ranging over a host of genres. “The church is our foundation,” Hudson says. “Somehow to me it relates to our culture. I noticed when I was in Africa how the music wasn’t just music; it was a message. Well, it’s the same in the church. When you’re singing a song, it’s not just a song; it’s your testimony. It’s your story. You’re singing with purpose and to God.”

Today, African Americans, like all Americans, are increasingly moving away from organized religion. Yet in nationwide surveys, roughly 80 percent of African Americans—more than any other group—report that religion is very important in their lives. This is hardly surprising when we understand just how central faith institutions have been in the history of Africans and African Americans and their cultures and social institutions in this country. For centuries, these religions—primarily but not only many denominations of Christianity—have served as a lifeline for African Americans. Whether that lifeline will remain as vigorous and vital in the twenty‑first century is an open question. At a moment when the Black community and the nation overall seem to be at a crossroads in the future of race relations, it is more important than ever to illuminate the Black Church’s past and present, both to appreciate what Black religion has contributed to the larger American story and to speculate about the role it will play as race relations transform in this society.

Worthiness. Personhood. Somebody-ness. Religion has fed generations of African American souls in this country, through the brutal trials of slavery to a new hope within a new nation, through the struggle for liberation, economic freedom, education, and the fight for full citizenship in the country we helped build.

From THE BLACK CHURCH by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


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