By Aaron Terrett,
Black churches are a fundamental element in American history. Some view the church as a place of refuge, some view it as a second home and some view it as an escape. Detailing the 400-year-old story of the black church is Henry Louis Gates Jr., with his four-hour series on PBS; “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.”
The most recent episode of the series aired Tuesday, February 16. The episode includes commentary from a star-studded cast, including: Oprah Winfrey, Kirk Franklin, Al Sharpton, Rev. TD Jakes, John Legend, Rev. WIlliam Barber and more. It details how the black church expanded its reach to confront social inequality and preach to those in need. The episode covers scenarios ranging from the Jim Crow South to present-day issues.
In the early days of the black church, southern churches differed from mainland churches. Blacks felt they could express themselves more freely in the southern churches. The root of the southern church’s appeal was the music. In fact, in the 1920s, live recordings of the music produced by the southern black church became extremely popular. These recordings were referred to as race records, records marketed to African Americans.
The 1920s were not the only time that music played a big role in the black church, however. According to the documentary, church hymns became commonplace during protests in the 1960s. Protestors have stated that the songs were a way to keep them brave and focused. Tensions during this time rose once again after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by members of the local Ku Klux Klan. The bombing left four girls dead and numerous others injured. This came one month after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
The documentary focuses heavily on the formation of the black church, but it also focuses on issues that have the potential to tear the black church apart. The rise of hip hop became a controversial part of black church life. Members of the black church began to feel as if there were a generational shift away from the church.
Amidst these rising tensions, Kirk Franklin released the hit song “Stomp” in 1997. The song was heavily criticized for bringing what was considered “devil music” into the church. Soon, however, “Stomp” would become the first gospel song to ever top the R&B and Hip Hop charts. The fusion of funk, soul, pop and gospel worked to get the younger generation interested in what the church was offering.
The documentary is an extremely in-depth look at the formation of the black church and some of the hardships faced by the church. It covers events that strengthened the church and events that revitalised the church.
Future episodes of “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.” will be available on PBS, and past and future episodes will be available on the PBS website.