February 11, 2021

By Lapacazo Sandoval

Contributing Writer


To tell the story of American religion is to tell a political story. A point made throughout THE BLACK CHURCH: THIS IS OUR STORY, THIS IS OUR SONG— an excellent series which surprised me because it told the truth and was not afraid to do so. It also helped the viewer understand that there is something deeper inside this religious community that lives and thrives inside a hidden code.

Truth, we are, for the most part, the product of enslaved or genocided people that were considered property or so dangerous that they needed to be wiped away from the pages of history altogether (the native experience on this land). 

In an environment of sanctioned brutality, our ancestors were forced to relinquish their languages, culture, religious rituals, and all of the deities that mattered to our people.


Our “Goddesses and Gods” were demonized and their “God” — the white man’s God—was forced down our throats without hesitation or mercy.

It’s an almost absurd notion but the facts remain that the Bible has been used to justify and support heinous crimes against humanity. Praising God and killing people going hand-in-hand.

Many people who embrace the faith don’t know about the slave Bible which was created specifically for educating slaves. The full title was: Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands. Produced in England in the early 19th century for use in the British West Indies (the part of the British Empire in the Caribbean). Such Bibles had all "references to freedom and escape from slavery" excised, while passages encouraging obedience and submission were emphasized.

THE BLACK CHURCH: THIS IS OUR STORY, THIS IS OUR SONG a fast-moving four-hour, two-part series from executive producer, host, and writer Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research is going to uplift and educate. This I guarantee.

The series traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, all the way down to its bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity, and speaking truth to power.

But they don’t sugar coat anything. In the South, things were so bad that African-American ministers just preached hope, to just live another day. Our ancestors' hope helped us. It's just that simple. Amen.

African traditions were never far from our people even if they didn’t understand it. This documentary reveals how we have worshipped, found ourselves through this spiritual journey, improvising ways to bring our faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while shaping them (secretly) into a form of Christianity that was not only truly our own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage. Amen.

African Americans are magicians able to transform nothing into something powerful. The Black church is proof of this alchemy turning a house of worship (for some) into an engine for social justice for others and leaving enough space to create cultural gifts that the entire world has embraced including gospel music.

There is a lovely verse in the Bible that’s mentioned in this series, that says [God says] “your gifts will make room for you.” That’s certainly true about our very existence in this hostile country. 

For the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., going to church in America also was “the most segregated hour” of the week. See what I mean, about telling the truth? THE BLACK CHURCH: THIS IS OUR STORY, THIS IS OUR SONG is telling it the way it is, not the way we want it to be.

Smashing the “stained glass ceiling” is addressed as well. Challenging the needed change so women can stand in the pulpit as well.

The churches are also a world within a world, you only have to step one foot inside to know this to be true. Inside these walls, the seeds of freedom were planted and nurtured against the harsh realities of slavery and abolition, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration, the civil rights movement, women's rights, and LGBTQ discrimination.

“Our series is a riveting and systematic exploration of the myriad ways in which African Americans have worshipped God in their images, and continue to do so today, from the plantation and prayer houses to camp meetings and store-front structures, to mosques and mega-churches," says Dr. Gates. "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.”

Renowned participants in the series include media executive and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey; singer, songwriter, producer, and philanthropist John Legend; singer and actress Jennifer Hudson; Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of The Episcopal Church; gospel legends Yolanda Adams, Pastor Shirley Caesar, and BeBe Winans; civil rights leaders Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. William Barber II; scholar Cornel West; and many more. Through their interviews, viewers will be transported by the songs that speak to one’s soul, by preaching styles that have moved congregations and a nation, and my beliefs and actions that drew African Americans from the violent margins of society to the front lines of change.

The Black church has taken people from the valley to “the mountaintop” and most recently four years of incompetence wielded by Impeached President Donald Trump. 

The series contemplates where the “promised land” is for this generation and the next.

PART ONE – Tuesday, February 16, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings)

Host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the roots of African American religion, beginning with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the extraordinary ways enslaved Africans preserved and adapted their faith practices under the brutal realities of human bondage. As an awakening of Protestant Christianity spread in the 18th century, Black Americans embraced a vision of a liberating God and Black churches that would become bedrock institutions in the long struggle to dismantle slavery, culminating in the Civil War. With Emancipation and Reconstruction, independent Black churches flourished and helped the formerly enslaved navigate perilous freedom by fulfilling the social, educational, financial, cultural, and political needs of African Americans. Dr. Gates speaks with noted scholars, public figures, and religious leaders about faith and the struggle for rights in the midst of growing racial violence that would continue well into the 20th century. Key figures include founder Richard Allen and preacher Jarena Lee of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; abolitionist Frederick Douglass; influential religious figure Henry McNeal Turner; and pioneers Virginia Broughton and Nannie Helen Burroughs of the National Baptist Convention.

PART TWO – Wednesday, February 17, 2021, at 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings)

The series continues with the Black church expanding its reach to address social inequality and minister to those in need, from the exodus out of the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration to the heroic phase of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. After the violent loss of leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many Black churches found themselves at a crossroads — struggling to remain relevant in an era of increasing secularization while reckoning with urgent social and cultural issues within their congregations and broader communities.


The series brings the story of the Black Church up to the present — a time of renewed struggle for racial justice in America. Host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. interviews prominent figures across African American society, including celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and John Legend; Bishops Michael Curry, Yvette Flunder, and Vashti Murphy McKenzie; Rev. William Barber, and more.

More information about PBS is available at www.pbs.org.

Category: Arts & Culture