Oak Bluffs summer resident Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates Jr. has been filling in the blanks of our national race consciousness for decades. Gates, a Harvard professor, has authored 22 books and co-authored 13 others on Black life and racial divides in America. His latest, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” is extraordinary, a taut, nonfiction thriller.
“The Black Church” is essentially a secular book concerned with the role of Black churches in nurturing daily lives and providing hope, first to African American slaves, then to their descendants in a “free” America.
The book is not what I expected, a treatise on Black religion and liturgy. Instead it provides a fresh perspective on Black life in America from our beginnings until 2020, with new information and detailed cause and effect over the past 400 years.
As a writer, Gates is a history reporter with a knack for storytelling and an eye for the national moment in which he is writing. David McCullough has it. Tony Horwitz had it. Making history real promotes reader understanding, allows us to be enveloped in the whole cloth of an era as a living, breathing entity. Where race is concerned, we sorely need huge dollops of understanding now.
“The Black Church” is a sequel to and based on Gates’ four-part PBS documentary of the same name (pbs.org/weta/black-church), which debuted in February 2021.
Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham pithily summarized the role of the Black church movement in the development of Black communal life. In answer to Gates’ question asking whether there would be an African American people today without the Black church, Higginbotham says, “I don’t know, because the church was all we had … And what we had, the message we had, was to keep the faith.” As Higginbotham explains, the church was a go-to pragmatic tool, attending to the physical, economic, and political needs of congregants’ daily lives in addition to their spiritual health.
Gates’ literary mural says that all oppressed people need hope of deliverance to survive. That was true of the messaging given the Israelites in Egypt, the Irish under Cromwell and his Roundheads, and countless other peoples during the continuum of recorded time.
The development of the Black church in America, like so much of what we are learning about the nation’s history, requires knowledge and understanding. For example, Africans were regarded as godless savages being brought to America. In fact, many were converts to Catholicism, Islam, even Jansenism, along with their native religious systems and liturgies, the result of a century of work by missionaries before the slave trade began. So not a stretch at all for many Africans to recognize the Christian tradition.
Gates’ research makes clear the competing duality of the slave state in America. Slaves lived in fear of their masters. Their masters lived in terror of their subjects rising against them.
Slaveowners reacted very cautiously to the introduction of Christianizing slaves, and were dead-set against slave literacy. Several white missionary churches made a deal with the devil: We will save their souls and preach obedience to their masters.
But the Black toe was in the door. It creaked open slowly, first with Blacks attending white services. Then Black-only services with white monitors in attendance. Blacks had carefully edited and excised Bibles. Exodus, the story of Israelite deliverance, was nowhere to be found in those sanitized texts.
But bit by bit, the door opened wider. Blacks, often with the help of literate freedmen, did begin to read, and read the entire Bible. Many of the literate became preachers to their illiterate brethren.
And as Black worship became freer, the spirit of community grew. By the turn of the 18th century, notably in Praise Houses, small, out-of-the-way buildings at which Black attendees, free of white watchmen, heard the Word, then gathered after to catch up on who had a baby, died, or had been sold. Sort of the after-church parking lot today.
The communal life was alive, and with it, as Gates explains, a proliferation of liturgies, most incorporating the African traditions of participation, singing, speaking up, sometimes in tongues, dancing, and music. Knowledge of the Bible led to creation of the spiritual hymns that slaves sang as they worked. Many were coded prayers for deliverance, which in the 19th century blossomed into the mainstream, thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and others.
By that time, the prayer for deliverance in the hereafter had sped up to desire deliverance in this life for Black citizens dealing with Jim Crow laws and attitudes. The Black churches created the opportunity for hope, then freedom, and were the dominant political weapon to achieve it.
The white church both helped and hindered the Black freedom movement. Gates has deftly worked in some ironic twists. For example, Georgetown University, run by the Roman Catholic Jesuit order, was foundering financially in the 18th century until it sold 272 slaves it owned who were working plantations Georgetown had in the South and in Argentina. Those funds righted its ship, helping it to become the premier college it is today.
The Times spoke with Gates last weekend.
“The Black Church” reads like a secular text, not a religious one. It seems counterintuitive.
I wrote the book after making the PBS film series. I didn’t make it from within the churches, but as an observer. I make films about things I want to learn about, and the genesis for the series and the book came when I went to Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs to hear a preacher, at the insistence of [activist and writer] Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
The feelings I had listening to the sermon and the singing were the same as having a fire and an ample blanket at night. As the PBS series developed, people wrote to me, wanting that fire and warm blanket. And I want the younger generation to know about their church.
[The book] is a kind of a love letter to the church in which I was raised, and to the people who created the most important institution we had. Midway through making the series, I realized the Black church was also a cultural laboratory, where musicians, preachers, and artists perfected their art.
The Black church shows up as pragmatic in this book.
Yes, there is a pragmatic aspect. It is politics. Through slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow was that continuing need to interpret the Bible as a message of liberation.
In the context of George Floyd and voter-suppression legislation, is this a “mountaintop” moment for change?
We don’t know, and we won’t know for some time. There are very positive signs: Donations to Black schools and to progressive social programs are at an all-time high.
But the slumbering beast of white supremacy has always been among us. The election of Barack Obama woke the beast representing more than 400 years of institutionalized racism.
Racism is not a matter of some people making bad choices, or a few bad people. I’m hopelessly optimistic. Americans are good people. There’s a lot of fear, and that makes people do horrible things. We need to remove the causes of systemic inequality to find the solution. That effort will cost a lot of money, time, and effort.
“The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Edgartown Books, and online.