Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a literary critic and academic who’s become well known as the host of the popular Finding Your Roots series, in which public figures and big names explore their ancestral histories — often to surprising results. Now he’s turned his attention to a new documentary for PBS called The Black Church, which explores the “deep history of the Black church and culture of African American faith communities.” Part one aired Tuesday, February 16. The next part will air tonight, Wednesday, at 9 PM EST. The docus-series tells a “story of grace and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing” and features interviews with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, Bishop Michael Curry, Cornel West, Pastor Shirley Caesar and Rev. Al Sharpton.
RELEVANT spoke with the series’ director Stacey Holman, the Emmy-nominated mind behind movies like Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and 6 Things I Never Told You. She told us about her involvement with the series, the biggest surprises she came across and why the series matters now.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me a little bit about the origin story of it and how you got involved?
The idea was germinated by Professor Henry Louis Gates, who I will probably call Skip. He has many ideas of films that he wants to do, and this was in that lineup. I was actually one of the directors on Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. I heard that this film on the Black church was the next one up, so I was like, “I’ve got to figure out how I can get on board.” I expressed my interest and they brought me on. I started the project in January of 2020, that’s when the whole team was assembled.
What was your interest in this particular story?
I grew up in Northern Ohio, in a predominantly White church. But when it comes to the Black Church, it was truly my grandparents’ church, my mother’s parents, in Southern Ohio. As a kid, it was torture because you’re sitting through two hours services. As an adult with a little bit more wisdom, looking back, I see just what my grandparents were planting. Every time that we would go down, my mother would do this introduction. They’d always welcome people back and introduce new guests. It was just a big homecoming welcome. It was instrumental in why I wanted to be a part, and just plant a seed for my continued faith-walk as well.
As you and Dr. Gates started brainstorming, what were some of the big themes that you wanted to make sure came through in the series?
We wanted to stress that the Black Church is not a monolith. It is not just one thing. It’s not just African Methodist Episcopal. It’s not just COGIC. It’s Islam, it’s Catholic, it’s a lot.
We also wanted to make sure that we didn’t just start with enslavement. We wanted to really go back to when Africans were brought here. They came knowing of a God, worshiping spirits. They had a relationship with a higher being. Though they were stripped of material and freedom, they weren’t stripped of the memories of their faith, memory of their belief, memory of a God. They brought that with them. We wanted to let people know that we knew God. The idea of spirituality, of Christianity, wasn’t anything really new to us.
Then summer of 2020 comes around and there’s an enormous reckoning with the Black experience in America and it spreads across the whole world. How does that impact the sort of story that you’re telling?
It’s a perfect intersection. The challenges may have a different name, and may have different technology in terms of getting that information out. But the Black church has been, and continues to be, the center of so much.
The idea of faith and endurance of what those who were before us went through during turbulent times. It really speaks to this moment in history. The fact that many of us are in shelter-and-stay speaks to our need for community. This documentary shows the importance of that. It shows the hope that they had despite, fill-in-the-blank, they had hope they persevered. So I feel it’s a reminder and just an encourager of a film.
Do you think people will be surprised by this docu-series? Will it fly in the face of some pre-conceived ideas about the Black Church?
When we look at the enslavement period, a lot of people say, “Christianity is a White man’s religion and Black people just fell prey to it.” I’m like, “No, not the case.” Those who were enslaved understood. They looked at this Book and they’re like, “OK, there’s something more to this. There’s something that we need to understand.”
The Bible has been used to push other agendas. In this case, it was slavery, how it was manipulated. But also, how many men and women looked at the Word, learned how to read, found agency and said, “You know what? This says more. This is how we understand and we interpret the Bible.” I feel getting a context of why some people think the way they do in terms of how the Bible was used, and how Christianity is viewed. I hope that will really clear up some of it as well.
For a lot of people, when they think of the Black Church, they think mostly of the music. How do you address the whole idea of music within this series?
We used music as a thread. As we were talking about how the Church, the physical structure came to be as well as just how different denominations came, we’re also talking about the musical influence. You start with a lot of spirituals and hymns, and then you make your way to gospel. Then you make your way to hip hop, then you fill-in-the-blank to this whole mishmash of just music, and rhythm that speaks to and about God. So for us, we just really felt that it was just important that we stayed consistent when we’re talking about particular periods.
One of my favorite stories was Rosette Tharpe. I think it was important for us to highlight individuals, particularly women, that do not get their due in the music world of the church, and she is one of them. As we were telling the story about the music, we also wanted to bring in those unsung heroines and heroes that really made an incredible impact in the music industry. Not just in gospel, but also spilling out.
From your first concept to now with the finished product, how different is it?
It definitely evolved. You have your vision and God laughs. But there weren’t really too many of those laughters. I think we tried different ideas. One thing that we stumbled onto the process is really having individuals give their testimony. You have Jennifer Hudson talking about how she came to know the Lord. You have Oprah Winfrey sharing her story. We have Reverend Moss Jr., and so on and so forth. We felt that to really make this a personal story, and understand the Black churches is to understand humanity, and what it meant for people that were brought up and raised in it.
Dr. King said that “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” Based on the conversations you’ve had, do you think that is still the case?
I think until we really deal with the racism that we have in this country, it’s going to be that place. I’m currently a member of an integrated church. However, before that and then even growing up, I’ve always been drawn to churches that are predominantly Black. That’s because I don’t have to explain myself. That’s because you can just be. I know a lot of my other people who attend Black churches feel the same way. You feel at home, you feel like it’s a safe space. You can praise like you want to praise, you can worship the way you want to worship. You can have two and a half, four hour services, and no one will blink an eye.
What do you want people to walk away with when they see this documentary?
I want people to feel hopeful. I think in just 400 years there’s a lot that happened, but one thing that remained was hope. I want people to see that despite the circumstances, despite the situations that African-Americans throughout time stripped of everything, their belief continued to hold that mustard seed of faith and hope throughout time. I want people to have a curiosity. Obviously we cannot put the entire history into four hours. What we can do though, is we can get people curious and looking and searching for more clarity and understanding. Know that it’s not just the Black church. It’s not just about gospel, it comes from somewhere, it’s intentional and it’s powerful.
Part two of PBS’ docu-series The Black Church will air on Wednesday, February 17, at 9 PM EST.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.