Historian and author Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., familiar to PBS fans as the host of Reconstruction, African American Lives, and Finding Your Roots as well as the Peabody Award–winning The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, brings a new documentary series to PBS this February, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. The series features interviews with more than 70 religious scholars, pastors, and gospel artists to give a compelling and comprehensive account of the Black church's origins and transformation in America. The Black church has been, and continues to be, the cornerstone of the Black community in America, and Gates, a renowned scholar with hundreds of books, articles, and documentary films to his name, says this may be the most important story he has ever told.
The four-hour, two-part documentary looks at the Black church from its earliest days on American soil four centuries ago to the prayer vigils led by Pastor Traci Blackmon during Black Lives Matter protest marches today. Senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and newly elected Congressman Raphael Warnock is one of the many interviewees. “The Black church,” says Gates, “was the place where our people, somehow, made a way out of no way. And it’s the place, after a long and tiresome journey, to which we can always return and call home.”
Producer and co-director Stacey Holman hopes that viewers will learn through this series about the Black religious experience in America, about its theological development and its ties to economic and social justice movements. But she hopes that it can provide more than just information: She hopes it will inspire its viewers “to renew their faith, to reflect on how the church has encouraged them through song or preaching.”
In a country that has historically afforded its citizens from the African diaspora tragically few safe spaces, the Black church has always been more than a sanctuary; it’s been a place to nourish the deepest human needs and dreams of the African American community. And, as Gates shows over the course of this series, the Black church can’t be defined by a single role: It is a springboard for social activism, a refuge, a shield, a source of strength, and a force for change. It is a wealth of talent that has given this nation some of its greatest orators, a nurturer of educational institutions now ranked among the world’s best, and a home to music that lifts souls and lends its rhythms to American song and literature to this day.
The Black church has produced familiar names—Aretha Franklin, Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr.—and introduced less-known but no less important historical figures such as Prathia Hall, Louisa Noel, and Absalom Jones. All of these people are products of a place that preached a crucified Christ who affirmed Black dignity in the midst of a racist American culture.
The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song airs February 16 and 17 at 8:00 p.m. CST/9:00 p.m. EST on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings) and on the PBS Video app. You can now preorder the companion book written by Henry Louis Gates, available everywhere books are sold on February 16.