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PBS Series Explores The Rich And Sometimes Little-Known History Of The Black Church

A man stands silhouetted against a stained glass window in a church. Light filters through the stained glass window and bathes the floor beneath him.
Courtesy of McGee Media
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Henry Louis Gates Jr., the host of the PBS series "The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song", stands in front of stained glass at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The series examines the history of the Black church through its music and traditions.

The two-part PBS documentary "The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song" is a sweeping look at 400 years of American history. KERA's Gabrielle Jones talked with Stacey Holman, producer/director of the series, about the range of history covered in the film, the role of music in the church and even how Oprah had a hand in the title of the series.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Full Conversation With Stacey Holman
KERA's Gabrielle Jones talks with Producer/Director Stacey Holman about the making of the PBS documentary "The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song."
Illustration that imitates stained glass with Black figures standing outside a small church.

GABRIELLE JONES: Why do you think it was important to document American history through the lens of the Black church?

STACEY HOLMAN: When you look at]so much that has happened in this country, whether it's dealing with the Civil War, whether it's dealing with civil rights movements, whether it's dealing with just basic civil, just rights of amendments for African Americans and just people in general — the church is at the center of all of it.

It is the first institution that we owned. The first institution that just gave us agency that did not have the influence nor really the power of white influence. So it's so much is bottled into this institution and really, it's multilayered too.

It's not monolithic either. There's so many religions, denominations that are even outside of the Christian faith that speak to just what made this country and what continues to inform this country.

JONES: Of course you cannot talk about the church without talking about music and the title of the film is an allusion to one of my favorite hymns, “Blessed Assurance.”

HOLMAN: Dr. Gates [series host, Henry Louis Gates Jr.] and I had a very healthy debate about the title. I personally wanted, “How I Got Over”, which Aretha (Franklin) and Mahalia Jackson both totally sang amazingly. However, he was stuck on “Blessed Assurance.”

So he just called up Oprah [Winfrey], told her, you know, the two songs that we were debating. She had a whole playlist of other songs and she called Dr. Gates up and started singing, “This is our story. This is our song.” So, Oprah decided the title for the series. But we definitely wanted to have something that people would resonate with and, you know, it's, it's a hymn, it's a spiritual.

And we also people want to start singing after the series. So, if you're humming it now, Gabrielle, we've done our job.

Watch Part 1 Of The Series

JONES: I know that you worked with Robert Darden at Baylor here in Texas, and some other musical experts. How did you decide exactly what were the right songs for the right moments?

HOLMAN: It was a really hard decision and I'm so glad you mentioned, Robert Darden. The work that they're doing with music is just incredible, and it was such a blessing and a gift to have, just not only his voice in the series, but also his suggestions to songs.

We worked with a music supervisor, and also we worked with another person who had done, had a really deep archive of music of the church we just scoured through hours and hours. We had four editors, for each of the hours and they would listen to different tracks.

You know, one of the biggest factors is what we could afford. I mean, there's a lot of dollar signs attached to most of the songs.

We had a composer, Matt Head, who just did some incredible arrangements that kind of added and I felt just really, just expanded the mood and emotion of what we were trying to convey with whatever it was — whether it was Rosetta Tharpe or whether it was Aretha Franklin or Kirk Franklin.

It was tough. There's so much music in the Black church. And even if we did a music series on it, we still wouldn't be able to capture all the incredible musical traditions that have come out of the institution.

Covering 400 Years Of History

JONES: The series really starts both with the musical and spiritual traditions that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Americas.

I remember this moment in the film where a scholar, Melissa Cooper talks about Christianity for Black Americans and how she feels like we adopted that faith really as a merging of our two worlds, a way to make sense of where enslaved Africans came from in the world they were with today.

It kind of stuck me stuck that the church really has been playing this role throughout its history, helping Black people to make sense and sort out the racism and injustice that they face in concert with the American ideals of freedom and equality.

Why did you choose to start the film with traditions that were so far back?

There's definitely a huge myth that enslaved Africans did not know God.
Stacey Holman

HOLMAN: A lot of people aren't aware and there's definitely a huge myth that enslaved Africans did not know God. You hear that, you know, the term of being referred to as savages, of godless, but that was so not the case.

Enslaved Africans knew God, they worshiped a God. He or she came in different forms, but that they had a knowing and a knowledge of a higher being. We really wanted to let people know.

Also, this was also the biggest surprise for me, was that there was a Muslim footprint. You mentioned Melissa Cooper. We end up in Sapelo Island, right at the cemetery of Bilali Muhammad's descendants (Cooper is a descendant of Muhammad). And to know that a religion that is still heavily practiced today was first brought here through the Middle Passage and that people like Bilali Muhammad were worshiping God — and they had memories of that God through writing.

I feel that, you know, [so much] was taken away, there was also much that was protected. And you see so much of it, whether it's the ring shout, whether it's drumming, whether it's even call and response, that is from the continent. So we wanted to know that there's a root to all of this and it just didn't happen.

Illustration that imitates stained glass with Black figures standing outside a small church.
KERA is exploring the impact and legacy of Black churches on life in North Texas. Immerse yourself in stories, history and memories from across the region.

JONES: How did you wrap your mind around covering so much and how did you choose what made it into the film and what didn't?

HOLMES: Took a deep breath, number one, take a step back. And they were like, OK, we have 400 years. And how are you going to, as the phrase says, how do you eat an elephant, you know, one bite at a time.

We broke it down in terms of just there's key moments that people are going to expect to hear, you know, they want to know about the Civil Rights Movement. I mean, you cannot talk about the Black church without talking about the civil rights movement. LGBTQ [rights], the relationship with members of that community and the Black church — that has to be discussed. And we did not want to shy away, number one, from any of the controversy involved in the church, as well as we wanted to just celebrate the church as well.

So, you know, as we looked at each era, we had an incredible group of advisors that were really instrumental in just guiding us as we're reading tons and tons of books, because there's not just one book that speaks about this institution. There are many scholars of color who have written about specific moments. So they were really helpful, these advisors, to kind of direct us.

From there, we looked at certain stories or we can kind of find threads, obviously the “stained glass ceiling.” You know, Jarena Lee fast forward all the way to Bishop Vashti McKenzie. So we knew that, OK, obviously women are going to be a key theme and how can we talk about other key women throughout each of the hours?

As you brought up, even with music, how is music evolving as we were talking about how this institution is growing and is expanding.

One story that unfortunately, and I know a lot of people are asking about it, that we were unable due to time to cover was Black Catholicism. Shayla, who is the other director, we have this joke, like she's our resident Catholic. She grew up as a Black Catholic, Grew up in that faith in Michigan. So, you know, we tried, but the time of four hours was really all we had. And we wanted to tell a full story. We had even planned to go to the Oblates Sisters, which is outside of Baltimore. It's monastery of Black nuns, which I was so looking forward to. But that's why Skip [Gates] has a companion book. We're thankful for that. He definitely is able to really talk about that story.

However, the series could have been six hours and eight hours. We kept saying, "this could be longer, this can be longer." However, four hours was our lot.

BC_P_43572_WIKI_M.jpg
Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
President Barack Obama delivers the eulogy at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney at the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., June 26, 2015.

JONES: The arc of the film starts before enslavement and with Dr. Gates visiting his family's home church, and then ends with Barack Obama and Dr. Gates again in that church reflecting. Can you speak to the significance of that arc?

HOLMAN: I think first of all, politics and the church, especially the Black church are hand in hand. As I said before, it's a place of agency, a lot of [politicians], like over 200 during a turn of Reconstruction were Black preachers. So it was important that we see how tied-in the church is into politics. And just even that Barack Obama was president, Obama's journey and faith is really instrumental in telling the story. So, we could not shy away from that, and it was part of the narrative.

With Dr. Gates, I mean, it was almost like a prodigal son going back home. When we started the series, he always talked to us about Piedmont. He talked about how important it was to him. It was a personal story, like most people's faith walk is very personal, and we wanted to definitely be where it started for him.

We made a conscious choice of making sure that we went there on a Sunday and everybody knew that we were actually going to be there, and they just welcomed him as if he was there last Sunday. But it was intentional to really just kind of show that the Black church still has relevance, and that the Black church is always going to be a center of something — bringing community, bringing people together and just bringing hope.

Impact & Legacy

JONES: What moment when you were putting the film together was most impactful to you?

HOLMAN: That's a great question. I'm going to say returning to Piedmont with Skip [Gates]. That was just a very, just tender moment.

He had not been there for a while, and I think just there's natural nerves when you go back home. And when he was telling his story, about just how he dedicated himself to God, I mean, crew members were crying. It was just like he was that little kid again in the mirror, asking God, "please, if you let my mother live, I will dedicate myself."

That was one of the earliest shoots that we had with him. So it really does set the tone, I feel, moving forward as we went through each interview and we talk to individuals about their faith walk and what the institution of the Black church meant to them.

JONES: What is the number one thing you hope people will take away from watching this series?

HOLMAN: I've been saying hope, and I say that because we're coming up the hill, and still in the midst of a pandemic, and social unrest and just fill in the blank. I feel that if we look at just this institution, that's been around in many shapes and forms for the course of 400 years, and our enslaved ancestors — their faith, their hope. What drove them to keep persevering, to keep pressing? It was hope.

Hope for a better day. Hope for a better space to raise their children. Hoping for safety. Hoping for encouragement. I really just feel that just wherever people stand in their religious faith, that just seeing just the perseverance and the endurance of a people and the hope that drove them for 400 years, I feel can speak to our moments now. [It] is what I really, really look forward to people taking away.

Watch Part 2 Of The Series

JONES: You've been involved with a number of films that speak to important moments in Black history and thus American history. Why are you so passionate about telling these stories?

HOLMAN: Well, there's nothing like telling our story by us and not necessarily for us, but for everybody.

We look at the lens of this country, and if you look at every turn, every moment in history, big or small, there are African Americans there. There are so many stories that do not get told for various reasons, and I feel it's, I don't want to say it's my duty, but it's a privilege. It's a privilege to inform people of just how rich the African American journey is, how important African Americans are to just the fabric of this country and to really just provide an extra sense of just understanding of why the story needs, in various forms and various ways, needs to be told, big and small.

Got a tip? Email Gabrielle Jones at gjones@kera.org. You can follow Gabrielle on Twitter @gabrielleNjones.

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