(KGET) — Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. knew when the four-hour, two-part series, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Sing,” was being made that it was an important project. He just didn’t foresee just how important it would be.
The production – airing at 9 p.m. Feb. 16 and 17 on Valley PBS – traces the history of the church in America from enslavement through emancipation. It looks at how the church was a source of strength during Jim Crow, the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement.
Issues are examined that are as important today as they have been for centuries.
Gates says, “When we began working on this documentary, never could I imagine that we’d be sharing it with audiences at a time when these stories of race and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing would be so desperately needed, given all that we have lost and all that we have endured in the year 2020.
“We wanted to make the series about this sheer transcendent power of belief, and never has that message been more important than it is today.”
Gates – the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research – serves as an executive producer, host and writer of the series that traces the centuries old story of the Black church in America.
The first night looks at the roots of African American religion, beginning with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the ways enslaved Africans preserved and adapted their faith practices under the brutal realities of human bondage. The series continues on the second night 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 civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Included in the production are interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, Bishops Michael Curry, Rev. William Barber, and John Legend.
The participation by Legend initially was only as an interview subject. Because his roots run so deep in the church, Legend became more involved and eventually signed on as an executive producer.
“The church has been so important to who I am as an artist and as a human being, I felt like it was a no‑brainer for me to say yes, especially because it is Professor Gates asking,” Legend says. “So, I knew I would be in good hands and that he would tell the story in a way that was really honoring the history of the Black church in our country. So, I knew that I would be part of something special.
“And then when they asked us to come on as executive producers as well, I think what our role at Get Lifted (Film Company) is, is to help get it out there to the public about this special series, about how important this is, how important that it is coming out during Black History Month, how important it is that it comes out during a time when there’s a lot of turmoil in the country.
Legend is convinced learning about the resilience and the community that was built in the Black church is an essential part of understanding how a much persecuted race could survive when there were so many forces conspiring against them. The production is also designed to clarify some misconceptions about religion and race.
Legend says, “What I think Professor Gates and the entire series does is help explain how even though this is perceived as a white man’s religion, we made it our own. Just like with every experience of African Americans, we brought some of our own traditions, some of our own practices to the way that we worshipped and the way we experienced it to make something brand new.
“And any time we got a hold of a custom or a tradition, we made it our own. We remixed it, we flipped it, we did our thing with it. And, so, when you see the differences in the Black church versus other churches, you’re seeing the result of that remixing, that Creolization, you might say, of what we brought from home and also learned in America.”
Those involved with the project had a clear idea of what should be the focus. They were not as united as to what to call the project. It came down to whether it should be called “How I Got Over” or “This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.”
It was Oprah Winfrey who cast the deciding vote. Gates sent her an email asking her to decide which title best describes the series.
Gates says, “One morning I wake up and I turn my cell phone on. There is a message. It is Oprah. And I played it, and it was, ‘This is our story, this is our song,’ and that was it. The vote had been cast.”