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Henry Louis Gates Jr. On 'The Black Church' Docuseries, Book

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The idea of the Black church is often discussed in the context of politics, and that's really important. But for a new book and documentary, historian Henry Louis Gates wanted to go a bit deeper. He wanted to understand the Black embrace of Christianity.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR: Why did they do it? Did they do it to get into heaven? No. Is that why they embraced religion? Well, I think that that was one distant motivation, and that's part of, you know, their belief in Christianity. But I think that they did so that they could believe in another kind of future here on Earth.

CORNISH: The churches built by freedmen in the North in the 1800s and the Black Protestant traditions that thrived after the Civil War in the South served as the backbone to Black communities in the U.S., including the National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church of God in Christ, among others. Gates chronicles their rise along with the social and cultural shifts brought about by the Great Migration.

GATES: My favorite story illustrating the culture clash - Bishop Daniel Payne, who had been made a bishop in the AME Church, he goes South. He was born in Charleston. He goes South to proselytize, and he's in a Southern Black church, obviously informal (ph). And the Black people are - have formed themselves into what was probably a ring shout. And they were shuffling their feet and being very emotional. And Bishop Payne jumps out of the pulpit (laughter) and into the congregation and said, stop. Stop. No. Stop. You're worshipping the devil. This is heathenism (laughter). This is religions you have brought from Africa. This is not Christian. Du Bois said that the - W. E. B. Du Bois said that the Black church had three components - the preacher, the music and the frenzy. And it's the frenzy that was controversial.

CORNISH: But can I come back to this for a second? This idea that you said, "the frenzy," quoting - the frenzy versus this - should I be calling it buttoned-up approach? - because I'm wondering if this is also the roots of respectability politics.

GATES: The Black community is under assault because of the rollback of Reconstruction. And one form that assault took was the broad caricaturing of Black people. Middle-class and upper-class Black people knew that we were fighting a war of imagery, that the war against the rollback of Reconstruction, the war against Jim Crow had to be fought on many fronts - through the courts, yes, but also in how we comported ourselves, how we dressed.

CORNISH: So there are some young people, especially today - young Black people who aren't embracing the church in the same way. They don't see it as a place that is leading, especially on some social issues - say, LGBT rights. Is this a continuation of a shift in politics that has kind of left the church behind?

GATES: We have four themes in the series, and one of them is internal church politics. And that's when we talk about the history of sexism and homophobia within the church. The church - the backbone of the church clearly is that of African American women, without a doubt. But it took a long time. I mean, it wasn't until the year 2000 in the AME Church that Bishop Vashti McKenzie was made a bishop. She was the first female bishop in the church.

So then there was "don't ask, don't tell." Many - when the - I remember with the outbreak of - the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, many initially dismissed the disease as a plague that only affected gay white men. That, of course, changed. Eventually, in part with a younger generation assuming leadership positions in the church, with these attitudes being widely critiqued throughout the society, the church became more active.

CORNISH: Now, here, Gates points to a theological statement signed onto by some 400 churches last year during the mass protests over the death of George Floyd. Published on Juneteenth, the letter condemned racism but also named misogyny, homophobia and class fragmentation by Black churches as a moral failure. I asked Henry Louis Gates if he thinks the church is positioned to reclaim its role at the forefront of Black politics.

GATES: The Black church has been the heart and soul of the Black experience generally but of Black politics, from the abolitionist movement to Reconstruction politics to the civil rights movement. In fact, if you think about it, without the church, there wouldn't have been a civil rights movement. And the church is still relevant to politics today, as we've just seen with the critical role played in the nomination and election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and Senator Ralph Warnock, himself a pastor at Martin Luther King's former church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.

CORNISH: After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., did people look to the Black church to produce Black political leaders in the same way? What changed, and what do you see now?

GATES: After the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the church was being challenged by the Black power movement, particularly the Black Panthers, who thought that, to quote Marx, the embrace of Christianity was the opiate of the people. But more and more secular African Americans ran for public office. And why was that possible? Well, at one time, the way to emerge as a leader in the Black community was through the church. It was like going to the role at the Harvard Business School to Wall Street.

But that - all that started to change in the late 1960s with affirmative action. The church was the funnel to broader roles of leadership within the Black community. But those institutions that enabled leadership diversified because the larger society opened up in the late '60s and the 1970s. Why - out of goodwill? No, because of the demands made by Black people right after the murder of Martin Luther King.

CORNISH: We didn't get to talk a lot about music. I think a lot has been said and written about the music that has come along with Black spirituality. But I'm wondering if we can end on a hymn that you've always loved, if you could tell us what that is and why.

GATES: Oh, my, man. Now, see; my absolute favorite is a hymn that was written by Miss Toot (ph), whose last name is Taylor. Her nickname was Toots, and I don't know why she got that name. And she would play the piano on Saturday night at the Black VFW and then come in early in the morning, wash up and then play the piano at Waller (ph) Methodist Church. But the refrain goes, (singing) well, I believe, I believe, I will go back home. Well, I believe, I believe I will go back home. I believe, I believe I will go back home and be a servant for the Lord.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELIEVE I'LL GO BACK HOME")

THE FAMOUS DAVIS SISTERS: (Singing) Said I believe, I believe...

CORNISH: Henry Louis Gates Jr., thank you so much for speaking with us, for sharing this story.

GATES: Thank you.

CORNISH: "The Black Church" - it's both a documentary series on PBS and a new book by Henry Louis Gates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.