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Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his new documentary and the role of the Black church in social justice

Henry Louis Gates Jr., shown inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, hosts "The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song," premiering Feb. 16 on PBS.Courtesy of McGee Media

Critic and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has spent his career writing and teaching about African-American literature and the lives of Black Americans. His film work has included producing and hosting “Finding Your Roots,” a PBS show on genealogy currently in its seventh season, and the Emmy award-winning docuseries “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”

In his latest work for PBS, entitled “The Black Church,” the Harvard professor explores the resiliency of Black beliefs and the church’s power as the center of Black life. The four-hour documentary features interviews with church leaders, scholars, celebrities and political figures including Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Senator Raphael Warnock, and others.


The Globe conducted a phone interview with Gates, who spoke from his home in Cambridge, to discuss his new documentary and the role of the church in today’s social justice movements.

Q. Before we dive into this discussion of “The Black Church” more broadly, I’m curious: What is the role of the Black church in your life?

A. Well, because of COVID, I’ve been going to church on Zoom at Trinity United Church in Chicago — that was Barack and Michelle’s church and was formerly pastored by Jeremiah Wright.

But I didn’t go to church for a long time. I went to church when Reverend Peter Gomes was the campus minister at the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. And I loved his sermons. He was a good friend. I will tell you that I’m not usually a churchgoer, but COVID and President Trump would drive anyone to church — I was praying for two miracles.

To me, we go because of the sense of cultural warmth... I go because it’s a celebration of Black culture. I love the singing, I love the preaching, I love the call and response between the people and the preacher when the preacher makes their heart sing.


It also makes you remember your childhood — I went to church every Sunday. That’s where I learned public speaking.

Q. In the first episode of “The Black Church,” you discuss the ways African Americans “adopted and adapted” Christianity. Can you speak to the role the Black church in the formation of African-American culture?

A. The church is where our African ancestors became African American.

It’s where they learned to read and write. They learned to riff on passages from the King James Bible, and turn them into poetry and psalms and spirituals. They learned to worship a liberating God — a God that would liberate us here on earth, not a high in the sky God. They learned to develop a future here on earth, when their children and grandchildren would one day be free. That kept them from killing themselves or killing other people. It takes a lot to believe in the future. The people who came here in 1750 had no idea there would be an Emancipation Proclamation or a Civil War, or a 13th Amendment.

What did they do? They had families, they formed churches, they figured out ways to educate (because the white man made it illegal for them to read and write) and they shaped their oratorical skills in church by preaching. Most importantly perhaps, the church is where they develop their music. The only original music to come out of America is Black music. The spiritual, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, and even hip-hop all come out of the spirituals. That’s my favorite music of all — in fact, when you and I are finished I’m going to turn on my Spotify gospel playlist.


Host Henry Louis Gates Jr. speaks to recording artist John Legend for the new documentary "The Black Church." Courtesy of McGee Media

So the Black church is the heart and the soul of the Black experience. From the abolitionist movement to the civil rights movement, the Black church has been political. In fact, without the church, there wouldn’t even be a civil rights movement. And the church still has a role in politics today, just ask Donald Trump. Joe Biden seemed to be dead when he came out of New Hampshire. Then the Black church of South Carolina showed up, and now Joe and Kamala are sitting in the White House... As my friend Jeffrey Stewart says, the Black church is the sleeping giant of American politics and its members played a key role in the defeat of Donald Trump.

Q. 2020 was a year for racial revolution. Because the Black church has played such a constant and consequential role in so many civil rights movements, in what ways do you think the role of the church evolved as the fight for Black rights evolved?

A. That’s a great question. Some of our greatest public officials have been ministers, harkening back to reconstruction. Of the 16 Black men elected to Congress during Reconstruction, three were ministers. Of the 2,000 Black men elected or appointed to all government offices during Reconstruction, 243 were ministers.


Andy Young, former mayor of Atlanta, was a minister. John Lewis, congressman, he was an ordained minister. And Ralph Warnock is the first Black senator from Georgia, and he is a minister. We have activists, political ministers, and social justice ministers like Reverend William J. Barber II or Reverend Leah Daughtry.

In the old days, all of us in public office would have come through the church. Today it’s through college, law school, or business school just like everybody else.

Q. At the beginning of “The Black Church,” you mention that you haven’t focused on the impact of the church in your broad body of work. Why did you want to tell the story of the Black church now?

A. This is a time when our country urgently needs stories of grace and resilience, stories of struggle and redemption, stories of hope and healing, given all that we’ve lost and endured with the twin pandemics. Now COVID hadn’t broken out when we started, but there was a rise of white supremacy which most certainly manifested itself during Barack Obama’s presidency. This came to a head with the election of Donald Trump, who manipulated the tropes of white supremacy in ways with which we’re all so uncomfortably familiar. I wanted to do a series about the sheer transcendent power of belief. The belief that we were better than this. That we could end social inequality, that we could end people living in the streets, that we can become compassionate toward each other and realize that we have more in common with each other than we have differences.


Black people — our ancestors — have made a way out of no way. And in this time of despair, I wanted this model of self preservation and culture creation and the aspiration for higher ideals. I wanted to remind the country of this great tradition that is founded and rooted in the Black church.

But we didn’t create this documentary without being critical of the Black church. The sexism, the homophobia. These have been basic parts of the church for a long time, and obviously are getting better, but still the church has a long way to go. The church’s slow response to HIV and AIDS was unforgivable. It’s very important for the church to be involved in social justice activity, because the church always was involved in social justice activities. It was just called abolition and civil rights and now it’s much more diverse.

“The Black Church: This is our story, this is our song” premieres on PBS, Feb. 16. and 23, at 9 p.m.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at natachi.onwuamaegbu@globe.com.