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The 400-Year History of ‘The Black Church’

A music-filled PBS documentary tells a powerful story

By James Napoli

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Rewire.

When Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. told filmmaker Stacey L. Holman that he wanted to capture the entire 400-year history of the Black church in a four-hour documentary, she knew they would need a little extra help on the massive undertaking. She decided to say a prayer.

Churchgoers, The Black Church, Next Avenue
Credit: Courtesy of McGee Media

"God, this is your story. You better help us out — we need a break," Holman joked, recalling her role as series producer for the two-part PBS documentary premiering Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

"The line of people fighting for social justice started in the nucleus of the church."

The result of their efforts — "The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song" — presents a powerful, music-filled overview of the history and culture of the Black church in America, with a special emphasis on the role of faith communities in the struggle for racial justice.

Along with executive producer, host and writer Gates, the series features interviews with Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, Yolanda Adams, Cornel West, Pastor Shirley Caesar, the Rev. Al Sharpton and several other prominent faith leaders and musicians.

"Our series is a riveting and systematic exploration of the myriad ways in which African Americans have worshiped God in their own images, and continue to do so today, from the plantation and prayer houses to camp meetings and storefront structures to mosques and mega-churches," Gates said in a press statement.

"This is the story and song our ancestors bequeathed to us, and it comes at a time in our country when the very things they struggled and died for — faith and freedom, justice and equality, democracy and grace — all are on the line. No social institution in the Black community is more central and important than the Black church."

Rewire spoke with Holman about her role as series producer on "The Black Church," how the church is connecting to young people and the evolution of her own relationship with the church.

What role did the church play in your life when you were growing up?

Quite a huge part. The ritual of going to church on a Sunday was definitely established when I was growing up in Ohio. 

My parents went to a non-denominational, predominantly white church. But my grandparents were actively involved with a predominantly Black church, where my grandfather was a deacon. When I would stay with them in the summer, we'd go to church every Sunday. 

It was one of those two-hour services, so that meant you had to pay attention. You couldn't draw, you couldn't look away, you couldn't sleep. That experience really cemented my faith walk.

I credit my grandparents with giving me an appreciation for Gospel music and the ability to sit through a two-hour service with no problem. The church felt like an extended family, and it has a very warm place in my heart. 

The Black Church, Next Avenue

How did that experience inform your approach to making "The Black Church?"

I had to show respect and honor the institution for what it's done for me and so many people around me. I felt it was important to touch on every element of how the church has impacted African-American people — it was always present. But when you're doing a series of this magnitude, you also want to make it feel intimate. 

What was the impetus for telling the story of the Black church now?

Like all filmmakers, Skip has a list of films that he wants to do, and he's really been interested in telling this story for a very long time. After "Reconstruction," this felt like the next best one to do.

The film is almost an extension of Skip's memories of the church and certain things that have resonated with him throughout his life, like the hymns and songs. Every time he would have a chance to talk to an artist, it was like taking him back down memory lane.

Coming on board, I was trying to incorporate Skip's vision, while also recognizing that four hundred years of history is a lot to fit into four hours — what stories really speak to the essence of the Black church?

I wanted to really unpack a lot of the history and demystify it, too, to take the rose-colored glasses off and really see what's there. That's what I thought was important to show a balanced look at the church.

What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?

First, I hope people will have a better appreciation of history and how we can learn from it. The line of people fighting for social justice started in the nucleus of the church. I want people to know that to continue to make change, you can't really do it by yourself. You're going to need that community. There's going to be rough patches, but we've gotten through it before.

The Black Church, Next Avenue
Host Henry Louis Gates Jr. admires the mural at West Angeles Church of God In Christ  |  Credit: Courtesy of McGee Media

The series also shines a light on how religion has been used and abused to justify someone's agenda. It shows both the power of God's word and how it can be misconstrued.

Besides the Rev. Brianna Parker (founder of the Black Millennial Café), there aren't really any prominent young faith leaders featured in the documentary. Can you talk a bit about how the Black church is connecting with young people today?

One big thread that we didn't get to develop in the documentary is how churches are responding and adapting to this next generation, with streaming services and making things available online. You hear stories of churches dying out because the congregations are so old. But I think a lot of places are also reimagining what church is now.

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One of the people we interviewed doesn't even have a physical church. She's built a community online, and she's kind of reinterpreting church. We definitely wanted to have that voice. Should we have had more? Yeah, definitely. But I hope the presence we do have in the film will make an impact.

Has your personal relationship with the church changed since finishing the documentary?

If anything, it's increased my faith. It's moved me to know how important faith was to my ancestors and to those who came before us. It's given me an extra pride — that I can't say I really had before — to be able to say: 'We created this. We planted the seed for gospel. We planted the seed for social justice.'

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For more on the Black church, watch "The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song," a four-hour series from Henry Louis Gates Jr., premiering February 16, 2021. Watch online at PBS.org, or check your local PBS station's schedule for broadcast dates and times.

James Napoli
James Napoli James Napoli is an editor for Rewire and a freelance photographer, radio producer and event organizer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoli_ or Instagram @james.napoli.     Read More
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