Letter from the Editor in Chief
The following is an excerpt from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, the companion book for the PBS series The Black Church, premiering in February 2021.
No pillar of the African American community had been more central to its history, identity, and social justice vision than the “Black Church.” To be sure, there is no single Black Church, just as there is no single Black religion, but the traditions and faiths that fall under the umbrella of African American religion, particularly Christianity, constitute two stories: one of a people defining themselves in the presence of a higher power and the other of their journey for freedom and equality in a land where power itself—and even humanity—for so long was (and still is) denied them. Collectively, these churches make up the oldest institution created and controlled by African Americans, and they are more than simply places of worship. In the centuries since its birth in the time of slavery, the Black Church has stood as the foundation of Black religious, political, economic, and social life.
For a people systematically brutalized and debased by the inhumane system of human slavery, followed by a century of Jim Crow racism, the church provided a refuge: a place of racial and individual self‐affirmation, of teaching and learning, of psychological and spiritual sustenance, of prophetic faith; a symbolic space where Black people, enslaved and free, could nurture the hope for a better today and a much better tomorrow. For a community disenfranchised and underserved by religious institutions established by and catering to the needs of white people, it served both secular and spiritual needs. Its music and linguistic traditions have permeated popular culture, and its scriptural devotion to ideas of liberation, equality, redemption, and love have challenged and remade the nation again and again, calling America to its higher self in times of testing and trial.
The Black Church has influenced nearly every chapter of the African American story, and it continues to animate Black identity today, both for believers and nonbelievers. In that sense, the Black Church functions on several levels, as a spiritual center—a place of worship—and as a social center and a cultural repository as well, a living treasure trove of African American sacred cultural history and practice: literally the place where “the faith of the fathers and mothers” is summoned and preserved, modified and reinvented each Sunday, in a dynamic process of cultural retrieval and trans‐ formation, all at the same time.
Call‐and‐response exchanges between congregation and pastor; at its best, the seamless interplay between the rhythms of the sermon and the harmonies of song, both reflecting the pastor’s biblical exegesis of “the text for today”; modes of prayer, both formal and informal; and possession by the omnipresent Holy Spirit: all are really links in a chain of cultural continuity that connects Africa to Black America. They are repetitions with brilliantly improvised differences within a received “frame,” a discursive frame, a sacred cultural “language” in which worshippers are so thoroughly fluent and literate that they can riff within that frame freely and creatively. They are echoes of sermonic and musical formations of the past fashioned by our ancestors over successive generations of creation, repetition, revision, and, most importantly, improvisation, quite probably since the first hundred years of American slavery.
We see it in jazz, with musicians riffing upon standards in the jazz tradition and in popular culture. John Coltrane did it with “My Favorite Things,” and Louis Armstrong did it with “La Vie en Rose,” to take just two of countless examples. We see it in the work of performers today, this living chain of Black cultural signifiers imbibed and internalized, respectfully acknowledged yet sublimely transformed. Daring and defiant artists, ranging from Thomas A. Dorsey, with his experiments in gospel, to Kirk Franklin, with his fresh fusions of hymns with hip‐hop, risked the opprobrium of the more conservative keepers of the tradition by daring to alter and infuse the sacred with borrowed techniques from the scandalously secular: that long and controversial tradition of Saturday night sneaking into the church on Sunday morning.
With a language all its own, symbols all its own, the Black Church offered a reprieve from the racist world, a place for African Americans to come together in community to advance their aspirations and to sing out, pray out, and shout out their frustrations. It was the saving grace of both enslaved Black people and of the 10 percent or so of the Black community that, at any given time before the Civil War, were ostensibly free; the site of possibility for the liminal space between slavery and freedom, object and subject, slave and citizen, in which free Black people were trapped. The church fueled slave rebellions, nurtured and sustained the Underground Railroad, and was the training ground for the orators of the abolitionist movement, and for ministers such as Richard Harvey Cain who emerged as powerful and effective political leaders during Reconstruction. It powered antilynching campaigns and economic boycotts, and formed the backbone of and meeting place for the civil rights movement. Rooted in the fundamental belief in equality between Black and white, human dignity, earthly and heavenly freedom, and sisterly and brotherly love, the Black Church and the religion practiced within its embrace acted as the engine driving social transformation in America, from the antebellum abolitionist movement through the various phases of the fight against Jim Crow, and now, in our current century, to Black Lives Matter.
The Black Church, in a society in which the color line was strictly policed, amounted to a world within a world, providing practical physical and social outlets and economic resources for local African American communities. Even in the antebellum period, the Black Church was the proving ground for the nourishment and training of a class of leaders; it fostered community bonds and established the first local, regional, and then national Black social networks. It was under the roofs of these churches that African Americans, in the heyday of Reconstruction—especially in that magical summer of 1867, when Black men in the former Confederacy got the right to vote—also learned of the opportunities and obligations of citizenship and the sanctity of the franchise. (It is a shocking fact and disgrace of American history that even free Black men—with the exception of those living in five of the six New England states plus New York, if they satisfied an onerous property requirement—could not vote until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.) The story of religion in African American culture carries us into almost every corner of the African American experience. As the Reverend Al Sharpton puts it, “The Black Church was more than just a spiritual home. It was the epicenter of Black life.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University