Henry Louis Gates Discusses PBS Docuseries and New Book Chronicling the Birth of the Black Church and Its Role in America

Henry Louis Gates Jr., shown inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, hosts “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song,” premiering Feb. 16 on PBS. (COURTESY OF MCGEE MEDIA)

NPR’s Audie Cornish speaks with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on The Black Church, which chronicles the birth of the Black church and its role throughout American society.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The idea of the Black church is often discussed in the context of politics, and that’s really important. But for a new book and documentary, historian Henry Louis Gates wanted to go a bit deeper. He wanted to understand the Black embrace of Christianity.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR: Why did they do it? Did they do it to get into heaven? No. Is that why they embraced religion? Well, I think that that was one distant motivation, and that’s part of, you know, their belief in Christianity. But I think that they did so that they could believe in another kind of future here on Earth.

CORNISH: The churches built by freedmen in the North in the 1800s and the Black Protestant traditions that thrived after the Civil War in the South served as the backbone to Black communities in the U.S., including the National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church of God in Christ, among others. Gates chronicles their rise along with the social and cultural shifts brought about by the Great Migration.

“The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” Henry Louis Gates Jr

GATES: My favorite story illustrating the culture clash – Bishop Daniel Payne, who had been made a bishop in the AME Church, he goes South. He was born in Charleston. He goes South to proselytize, and he’s in a Southern Black church, obviously informal (ph). And the Black people are – have formed themselves into what was probably a ring shout. And they were shuffling their feet and being very emotional. And Bishop Payne jumps out of the pulpit (laughter) and into the congregation and said, stop. Stop. No. Stop. You’re worshipping the devil. This is heathenism (laughter). This is religions you have brought from Africa. This is not Christian. Du Bois said that the – W. E. B. Du Bois said that the Black church had three components – the preacher, the music and the frenzy. And it’s the frenzy that was controversial.

CORNISH: But can I come back to this for a second? This idea that you said, “the frenzy,” quoting – the frenzy versus this – should I be calling it buttoned-up approach? – because I’m wondering if this is also the roots of respectability politics.

GATES: The Black community is under assault because of the rollback of Reconstruction. And one form that assault took was the broad caricaturing of Black people. Middle-class and upper-class Black people knew that we were fighting a war of imagery, that the war against the rollback of Reconstruction, the war against Jim Crow had to be fought on many fronts – through the courts, yes, but also in how we comported ourselves, how we dressed.

CORNISH: So there are some young people, especially today – young Black people who aren’t embracing the church in the same way. They don’t see it as a place that is leading, especially on some social issues – say, LGBT rights. Is this a continuation of a shift in politics that has kind of left the church behind?

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SOURCE: NPR, All Things Considered

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