For the first 24 minutes of “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” I kept thinking what a profound and yet totally accessible TV historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has become.
Within the first 10 minutes of the two-night, four-hour, PBS production, he had built and convinced me of the righteousness of his core narrative for this powerful and sprawling story of 400 years of African America resilience, invention, artistry, political resistance and religious transcendence.
As it is stated in PBS press materials, this is the story in Gates’ telling of Black people who “improvised ways of bringing their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage.”
Forging that focused narrative out of 400 years of history is the work of a great mind. This is the Harvard professor at his intellectual best.
At just over the 24-minute mark of the first hour of the series, Gates is shown standing over a piano played by Patrice E. Turner, of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. I expected him to interview her about religion or religious music, but she suddenly started playing gospel song “In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning” on the keyboard, and Gates just let it rip. He started hand clapping, singing and rocking out, his entire being resonating with the joy of that song. And you could feel the communion between him and Turner as they let the music take them to a place where all the words of all the wise experts on religion and the African American experience couldn’t take them.
Gates and The Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church, had just finished telling us about the power of traditional spirituals to evoke deep emotional responses.
“When somebody starts singing in a certain way,” Curry said, “folk, inside, start reacting and responding. And eventually, there may be shouts and there may be silence, but something is moving inside. And that’s where the Black church is found: in those heartbeats.”
“And that heartbeat comes from Africa,” Gates said.
“Straight from Africa,” Curry concurred. “No doubt about it. And it has been integrated with the Christian story and experience.”
Instead of only telling viewers about the power of that music, Gates was showing us as he sang along with Turner. And in that moment, I put down my critic’s notebook and pen and clapped along even though I was watching on a computer with tinny sound in the middle of the night.
I truly like and deeply respect Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as an intellectual. His ability to take dozens of different strands of information and data and form them into a compelling narrative is unmatched on television, except for perhaps by Ken Burns. But I love the guy who let himself go and joined in on “In That Great Gettin’ Up Morning” with everything he had.
This guy is one of the greatest guides public television has ever known. There is no one today I trust more to tell me about the American experience. Guide is the best word for the onscreen role Gates takes on in productions like this. He is not a narrator, reporter, correspondent or host. He is a guide who invites viewers to join him on a journey.
The imagery of journey is everywhere in this series. After a brief montage of church buildings, Part 1 opens with Gates walking with his cane down a lane toward the front steps of the Waldon United Methodist Church, a modest white structure in Piedmont, W. Va.
“My mother’s family has worshipped here for generations,” he says as he mounts the steps and enters the church. “The lessons I learned here, the power of faith, the importance of community, have remained with me and sustained me in the same way the Black church has sustained the African American people from the days of slavery to this day.”
And then come some of the talking heads, and I mean that in a good way in the case of this series.
“The church gave people a sense of value and belonging and of worthiness,” Oprah Winfrey says. “I don’t know how we could have survived as a people without it.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton says, “The Black church was more than a spiritual home. It was the epicenter of Black life. Out of it came our Black businesses, our Black educational institutions.”
Back to Gates, who says, “It’s been a sanctuary where Black people could interpret The Bible in their own images and praise God in their own voices, creating some of the most sublime music the world has ever heard.”
And on the word “heard” the screen fills with the sound and image of a young Aretha Franklin singing in church.
There is a symmetry to the series as it comes to an end in the final minutes with Gates walking back down the asphalt path leading to the front of Waldon United Methodist Church.
“After so many years distance from it, I’d finally come to understand more fully the meaning and the magic of the Black church,” Gates is heard saying in voice-over.
He’s then shown in the pulpit testifying to the congregation, many of whom have hugged and warmly greeted him as he entered the church.
“This is where my life in the church started,” he tells the congregation. “I was 12 years old. It was Sunday. And mama hugged me and told me she was going to die. So, they took her to the hospital and I went upstairs to my bedroom,” he adds, his voice breaking.
“I didn’t tell anybody. I just prayed. And I told Jesus, ‘If you let my mother live, I’ll give my life to Christ,’” he continues, taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes.
“About three days later, she got better and came home,” he says. “So, I got up, looked in the mirror and said, ‘Uh-oh.”
The congregation shared a laugh at Gates’ punch line, and he laughed, too. But he was serious about the experience even though as he later explained in a PBS virtual press conference last week, it turned out his mother had not been as sick as she thought.
“I had made a deal with Jesus,” he continued in the pulpit. “You don’t mess with God. And I came to this church every Sunday and I joined the choir. And I still sing all the hymns.”
He finished his time in the pulpit leading the congregation in singing the words, “Oh, I believe, I believe I will go back home. Well, I believe, I believe I will go back home and be a servant of the Lord.”
As he was taking his leave of the congregation with more hugs and embraces, there was one last bit of his voice-over saying, “The Black church was the place where our people somehow made a way out of no way. And it’s the place after a long and tiresome journey to which we can always return and call home.”
“The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” airs Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on PBS.