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Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his new series 'The Black Church'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, a new four-part series, "The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song," premieres on PBS tomorrow night.

It's a sweeping history of religion, politics, and culture.

Jeffrey Brown has a preview for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In the time of slavery, it was a source of strength and survival. In the 20th century, it would spearhead a drive toward political and economic equality.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The church is the oldest, the most continuous and most important institution ever created by the African American people.

Jeffrey Brown: Henry Louis Gates Jr., the noted Harvard scholar and host of PBS' "Finding Your Roots," has been telling aspects of the African American story for decades.

This, he says in his new series and companion book, may be the most important of all.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: It was a laboratory for the formation both of the identity of a New World African people. After all, there were 50 ethnic groups represented in the slave trade from Africa to North America, and they had to forge and form into one new people, the first truly Pan-African people.

And, secondly, it was a laboratory for the creation of Black culture. It's where people learned to read and write, because it was illegal to read and write. So, through the King James Bible, people would memorize passages and repeat those passages.

Jeffrey Brown: There's a kind of tension from the beginning in the story you're telling about -- around Christianity being the religion of the enslavers and then becoming the religion of the enslaved, but also a means towards their liberation.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Absolutely. African Americans created a form of Christianity with a liberating God and its center, a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was slavery.

What Black people did was take the forms of Christianity available to them and refashion them in their own image.

Jeffrey Brown: The story, through several centuries, is told by leading cultural figures, pastors and historians.

Woman: What enslaved people did in this new context where they attempted to merge and fuse these different worlds that they lived in.

Jeffrey Brown: At every point, the sacred mixes with the secular. You can see it in the struggle for legal rights and political power, from Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the country's first independent Black denomination, to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.

Martin Luther King: Nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon.

Jeffrey Brown: And, today, Pastor Raphael Warnock, now a U.S. senator from Georgia.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: He is the most recent example. Politics and religion have inextricably been intertwined in the history of the Black church.

I think that they internalized and fashioned a form of Christianity that allowed them to believe that, by and by, as Black people say, by and by, we would be free and we would be able to progress within American society.

Jeffrey Brown: Central to that experience, music, from early spirituals to the popularization of gospel and its influence on so many Black musicians, like Aretha Franklin, who started out in the church.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The body of the spirituals is one of the great gifts to the collective corpus of world literature. You can't beat it.

I mean, I'm old-school. I like the new church music. I do my best to appreciate it. But I -- you can't beat the spirituals.

(singing): Ezekiel saw the wheel way up the middle of the air. Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.

They did that over and over.

Jeffrey Brown: Gates doesn't shy from pointing to the Black church's own failures and discrimination, including homophobia and sexism. The series highlights the critical, often undertold role of women.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The backbone of the church has been Black women almost from the very beginning. But their role has been suppressed.

One of my favorite examples in the story we tell us of
Jarena Lee. And Jarena Lee goes to Richard Allen and says: "I have been called to preach."

And he says: "I don't think so."


Henry Louis Gates Jr.: He says: "There's no role for women in the pulpit."

She just stands up in her pew and delivers a sermon. And it blows everybody's mind. And Richard Allen says: "You know what, I guess maybe you were called to preach."

Jeffrey Brown: In our time, as many young people move away from organized religion and protesters again demand justice, the church faces a new challenge of relevance and vitality.

There was a very moving moment in there to me when Reverend Traci Blackmon is telling you about going into the streets in Ferguson during the protests, and she talks about holding a prayer vigil. And she says that, halfway through, some of the young people said, "That's enough praying."

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Well, I love that story.

This is what she said in response -- and I quote -- "The Ferguson uprising was church."

And I think that what we're seeing is that, in each historical period in Black history, the church has been refashioned not only in the broader image of Black people, but in the image of Black people at that specific time and place across generations.

And despite all the trials and tribulations that Black people have had to suffer, the church has survived, it's grown, it's morphed, it's transformed, and we're still here.

Jeffrey Brown: "The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song."

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: So looking forward to watching that.

And we have more online, where you can find the stories of two more women who played vital roles in both the Black church, as well as the fight for civil rights in America.

That's on our Website,

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