Black church history is Black history is American history

Photo courtesy of PBS

The Black church has played an indelible role in the lives of its members and in the evolution of the nation as a whole, says a producer-director of a recent PBS series.

For Shayla Harris, working as a producer and director on “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” offered the opportunity to go beneath the surface of a topic many think they know and to discover rich pockets of new information.

The four-hour documentary series(link is external) provides a lens for reconsidering how faith has formed and guided members of this nation’s Black population from the time of enslavement to the recent protests for racial justice.

“I really think that the biggest takeaway is that the history of the Black church is the history of America -- that even within that very specific lens, there are a lot of universal themes that continue to emerge throughout the history of America about hope and healing, resistance and resilience,” Harris said.

She spoke recently with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You have quite the breadth of work. I’m wondering what drew you to “The Black Church” as a project.

Shayla Harris

Photo by Stefania Rousselle

Shayla Harris: I think one of the biggest themes about my career is that I’ve always sort of felt like an insider-outsider, somebody who is able to go into spaces that maybe people who normally look like me would not necessarily be able to get access to.

The story of the Black church, for me, as someone who grew up Catholic, was an intriguing opportunity, largely because the Catholicism that I experienced was not what most people would think of as a typical Black church experience.

I had done a lot of work around African American history and had always had this fascination with religion and its role in the Black community. And certainly, the chance to be reunited with Dr. [Henry Louis] Gates, who had been an executive producer on “Who Killed Malcolm X?” [on which I also worked], was just incredible.

He’s one of the preeminent scholars and storytellers around the African American experience, and so I thought this would be an incredible opportunity, to have four hours on a platform like PBS to really dig into this iconic institution that has touched every heart of the Black experience in America.

F&L: One of the themes running throughout the series is that Black church history is Black history is American history. Could you speak to that, particularly for people who may not have seen the series yet?

SH: I think that was also one of my biggest takeaways -- that even though the series sounds like it’s about something really specific, when we talk about “the Black church” or even Black churches, and people who grew up [outside the church] or don’t consider themselves Black may not think that this is a story for them, what we dig into is really the experience of the first Africans who arrived in this country and who brought their faith practices with them. [They] adopted and adapted the Christianity that they encountered during their enslavement.

The adaptation that they take really pushes back on the experience of slavery, which is about oppression, which is about subjugation. The Christianity that those early Africans embraced and continued to put forth is this one of redemption, of triumph over oppression, and really pushing this country to reflect the ideals that it says it believes in.

At every turn, we see the Black church at the forefront of that conversation, whether that’s under slavery, whether that’s during reconstruction, whether that’s during this moment of the civil rights movement. Even today, a lot of the legacies of that are still pretty present in the social justice events that we see.

At every moment of American history over the last 400 years, the Black church has been at some piece of it, pushing it to be the best that this nation could be.

This is not just a story about the Black church and the African American community, but it’s really a story about America and the people who have experienced the worst of what this country has offered but who have, through their faith, helped transform it.

F&L: You all do not frame this as a neat narrative. It’s not, “The Black church was a wonderful thing, and everybody got along, and they moved forward together.” You get into the messiness.

SH: It was really important for this series to not feel like this was just a love letter to the church. Certainly, there are aspects of the church in its role and the support that it provides to this community that should be celebrated. When you look at instances like the civil rights movement and the changes that came out from that -- certainly, that should be celebrated.

At the same time, from the very beginning, there are lots of questions about people feeling marginalized or not fully given access to power within the church -- when you talk about women, when you talk about issues of sexuality.

There still remains a very strong thread of conservatism in the Black church that we saw emerge in the civil rights movement, when not every Black church was marching at the forefront.

It was important for us to show that the Black community is not a monolith. There’s a lot of complexity; there’s a lot of diversity within the community. This seemed like a really important opportunity to reflect that.

F&L: What are some of the pieces that you carry with you, that resonate with you?

SH: There’s a lot. It was a really emotional series to work on, and it was certainly for Dr. Gates. The scene at the end where he goes back to his home church in West Virginia, the church where he was raised, where his mother prayed and worshipped -- [he] has a really powerful return to that community.

For me, the biggest takeaways are just the idea that no matter how far away you’ve been from this church home, when you need it, you can go back to that place, and that the community that raised you will embrace you. It’s this sanctuary for the community to come and feel loved and feel supported so that they can go back out into the world and fight the good fight.

There are a lot of examples that we saw over the four episodes. One of the most intriguing things to me in terms of the complexity that I spoke earlier about is the footprint of the earliest Africans who came to this country. We see that a lot of those folks when they came over actually had their own faith practices, including Islam, which I think has this resurgence in the 20th century, but I don’t think a lot of people knew about that footprint from those early days.

Some of those early practices reemerged during the Pentecostal movement, reemerged when you think about gospel music and how that has evolved. Those legacies are all still there and still carry from the past and into the future.

For me, what was really profound about the series is with every episode, we noticed that there were a lot of echoes of all of those themes throughout the ages, and it was just really beautiful to see that arc.

F&L: There is such breadth to this -- the people and the music and the places and all of those things. It is difficult to imagine capturing all of that. I don’t know how many hours of tape you ended up with, but could you speak to just the challenge of that?

SH: There’s so much that we couldn’t include. But one thing that was incredibly helpful for us is that we had a team of scholars and academic advisers who gave us some [historical insights]. You have to have these things in your series; otherwise, nobody is going to take you seriously. We had those to start with.

We also wanted to not just talk to scholars about their understanding of that history, but we also wanted to talk to religious folk and clergy to get some insights into their process and their approach to their faith.

[We also interviewed] notables who people may know about their backstory, like Oprah and John Legend, who grew up very raised in the church, to make those connections that it’s not just people who are a part of the church every single day or who go there on Sundays, but it’s really part and parcel of a lot of people’s experiences in the Black community.

It was important for us to try to get a sense of that breadth in the series and talk to many different people about their experiences and, as I said, paint this portrait of the fact that this community is not a monolith and they don’t all want the same things. It was important for us to also keep that at the forefront with this inspiration as well.

I should just note that we worked on this series for over a year, and we interviewed, I would say, more than 60 folks on camera and visited as many different kinds of churches as we could -- everything from a tiny praise house to a megachurch -- just to give the diversity of the Black church: North, South, East, West, big, small, rural, urban.

F&L: A good portion of the last hour focused on young people, on young Black people, and what the church is and is not to them. One of my favorite moments is when the Rev. Traci Blackmon says, “The Ferguson uprising was church.” Could you speak about the role of the Black church as it is emerging for young Black people?

SH: I don’t know that I have a full answer, because I think that history is still being played out at this moment. It was really important for us to reflect that there is a generational shift within the Black church. A lot of younger people are incredibly progressive.

A lot of them, if they’re younger Black people -- that may not be their primary identification. They may identify more strongly with their gender or their sexuality or their geographic location. The fracturing, I think, of those identities, which reflects the diversity of the African American community, has led to this moment where the church is trying to figure out how to service people and to meet people where they are.

What I also really loved about Rev. Blackmon’s statement is that sometimes church doesn’t exist within those four walls, and so maybe there’s an expansion of that definition that needs to happen in terms of the church’s role going forward.

Maybe a protest is church, and maybe some of these other moments that certainly folks have experienced in the last year are church or reflective of where the church is, and meeting people where they need to meet them.

That’s going to be an evolving question for the church, and how it reflects the desires and needs in this new generation, and also how this new generation takes up that mantle and creates their own version of church, which is what we are starting to see happen.

F&L: Is there something you would want to make sure people knew about your work in this, about the project itself?

SH: I feel really honored and humbled to have worked on this series. We started it in 2019, which seems like an incredibly different world than we are in right now. I feel really grateful that this series is coming out right now, because I feel like this is the moment where people are most open to this conversation, especially after this year of loss and grief and anxiety and despair.

I think the themes that we explored in this series have more resonance today than maybe if we had come out a year ago or before any of this had happened.

As my mom said to me when this came out -- this was supposed to come out sometime in 2020 -- “It came out in God’s time. It came out when it was supposed to. It came out when people were ready and open to hearing this information.”

I hope that it encourages [viewers] to go and read more, make their own stories, fill in the gaps with some of the stuff that we weren’t able to get into and keep the conversation going.