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The story of the Black church, from the spiritual to the political to the personal

From left, the Rev. James Jackson, Barack Obama and Rep. John Lewis sing during a 2007 visit to Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala. (AP Photo/Birmingham News, Linda Stelter)
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Novelist Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” In a volatile era rocked by Trumpism and Black Lives Matter, Henry Louis Gates Jr. helps provides some answers to the weary in his new book “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.” Gates enlightens us by revealing the relevance and resonance of Black church traditions in a country still falling short of its initial promise that all people are created equal.

Gates, director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, has been a pathbreaking literary scholar, professor, public intellectual, raconteur, filmmaker and pop-cultural figure. His academic ingenuity and cultural curation of the Black experience have made him a gatekeeper of African American studies.

Gates’s credentials position him to highlight an often-ignored wealth of information about Black Christianity. His book’s crisp and accessible narrative style moves nimbly from discussions of “hush harbor” services (gatherings where enslaved people secretly engaged in religious practices) to hip-hop to electoral politics. And it occupies a unique niche among nonfiction works about Black religion aimed at the general public, in that it does not frame worship services merely as NAACP rallies with a gospel choir soundtrack.

The book was accompanied by a documentary miniseries produced by Gates that premiered on PBS this month. This multimedia approach brings “The Black Church” to the widest possible audience. Yet the book does a better job of delving into vital yet underappreciated topics such as the role of Black Catholicism, which is missing in its filmed companion.

The book’s subtitle — “This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” — is taken from “Blessed Assurance,” composed by the White songwriter Fanny Crosby in the late 19th century. “Blessed Assurance” is one of the most celebrated Christian hymns and widely popular within the historic Black Church tradition. Its role in the Black church demonstrates how African Americans adopted and adapted a White Christian cultural artifact to their own purposes. In the process, Gates suggests, African Americans have not only reimagined American Christianity but redeemed it. Gates probes the community’s path toward sociopolitical freedom and spiritual salvation through the testimonies of Black religious leaders and ordinary African Americans. His deep, credible interrogation of the Black Church tradition not only benefits our understanding of Black religion but enlightens us about America itself.

Gates’s definition and description of the Black Church tradition relies heavily on W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic 1903 volume, “The Souls of Black Folk,” but it also reflects recent scholarship on Black religion by the likes of Cornel West, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Michael Eric Dyson, Kelly Brown Douglas, Anthony B. Pinn, Barbara Dianne Savage, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Judith Weisenfeld and Raphael G. Warnock, a minister and theologian recently elected to the Senate from Georgia. The book’s attention to cultural diversity and complex identity within Black religion helps dismantle the oversimplification that the Black Church tradition is monolithic and monochromatic. However, Gates could have turned to other scholarly resources, including the canon of womanism in religious studies and other classic texts in the field of Black Church studies that would have truly opened the floodgates of the Black Church tradition.

Gates’s book helps advance Black religious thought and culture by exploring what it means to be Black and Christian in modern America, elevating it as a topic worthy of serious investigation. The visual, literary and liturgical sources he unearths will be invaluable to future readers and researchers.

Having read Gates’s scholarly output for decades, I can attest that the book’s epilogue represents some of the most impassioned and introspective writing of his career. The personal homage he pays to the power of the Holy Ghost reveals his own deep connection to the spiritual tradition.

Fittingly, Gates’s book is dedicated to the late congressman John Lewis, who was an exemplar of courage and character molded by the Black Church tradition at its very best. That tribute encapsulates the book’s greatest strength — showing that Black Christian faith and identity always have been a choice for African Americans rather than simply a matter of chance or circumstance. It demonstrates how this beloved yet besieged tradition has lasted for so long, fueled by the divine hope that the quest for freedom, justice, equality and dignity is still possible on American soil. Gates not only provides some answers but also helps readers understand some of their own questions.

The Black Church

This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Penguin Press.

306 pp. $30