African church’s TV triumph

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A new TV show tracing the roots of the African-American church back more than 400 years has just been released across the pond – and it tells a powerful and compelling story of hope triumphing over oppression.

The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song is a moving four-hour, two-part series tracing the story all the way down to the Black church’s bedrock role as the site of African-American survival.

It reveals how Black people have worshipped over the centuries and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage.

John Legend, one of the show’s executive producers and one of the people who was interviewed in the documentary, spoke to Sorted magazine (in our April/June 2021 edition) about its importance. Here is what he said…

This series celebrates song. When did you realise there were songs living inside you, songs you had to get out?

‘I realised it in the church, of course. I grew up in a Pentecostal church in Springfield, Ohio. My grandfather was our pastor, and my grandmother was our church organist. My mother was the choir director, and my dad played the drums for the choir and sang in the choir sometimes as well. And I just grew up around a family full of folks who loved to sing and loved to sing about Jesus, and we were together all the time. We were at choir rehearsal together. We were at multiple services during the week and on Sundays, of course. And that was my first extensive exposure to music of any sort during that time, and it was what inspired me to want to sing, because I was around all this singing and I wanted to be part of it.’

How did you get involved as a producer for this?

‘I was first approached to do an interview. So, before I was even involved as an executive producer, I was asked to be a participant. And as I have told you, the church has been so important to who I am as an artist and as a human being, I felt like it was a no-brainer for me to say yes. So, I knew I would be in good hands and that he would tell the story in a way that was really honouring the history of the Black Church in our country. I knew that I would be part of something special.

‘When they asked us to come on as executive producers as well, I think what our role at Get Lifted is, is to help get it out there to the public about this special series, about how important this is, how important that it is coming out during Black History Month, how important it is that it comes out during a time when there’s a lot of turmoil in the country. And I think us learning about the resilience and the community that was built in the Black Church is an essential part of us understanding how Black folks have made it this far in this country when there were so many forces that were conspiring against us doing so. So, I think it’s a great time for this to come out, and at Get Lifted Film Company we are excited to be part of getting the message out to people, so they watch this series because it is such an important part of our history as a country.’

The Black Church stems from the white church: the religion was not something brought over from Africa. It was preached to the people who were brought over from Africa. So is there any problem reconciling the roots of where this comes from with the importance that it became in the lives of Blacks?

‘I think the entire series does help explain how even though this is perceived as a white man’s religion, we made it our own. Just like with every experience of African Americans, we brought some of our own traditions, some of our own practices to the way that we worshipped and the way we experienced it to make something brand new. And any time we got ahold of a custom or a tradition, we made it our own. We remixed it, we flipped it, we did our thing with it. And, so, when you see the differences in the Black Church versus other churches, you’re seeing the result of that remixing, that Creolization, you might say, of what we brought from home and also learned in America.

Why do you think some cultures, especially the Black culture, are more devout than others?

‘I do believe that there’s something about all the struggle and the suffering that Black folks have had to endure. So much of the way we’ve interpreted the Bible and so much of the way we have embraced it has been about the struggle. So, in the Old Testament a lot of the doctrine that we hold on to is that idea of the Exodus, the going to the Promised Land, Moses leading his people to freedom and ‘Let my people go.’ These were the mantras that were part of the freedom movement, both freedom from slavery and freedom from Jim Crow. These messages…  when Dr. King sang ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop,’ he’s referring to Moses being on the mountaintop and not getting to the Promised Land with the Israelites, but seeing it and getting them to the doorstep, basically, of freedom. And, so, I think we’ve taken that on as part of our struggle for freedom here.

‘And then when you look at Jesus, Jesus’ message was so much about helping the poor, helping the least of these people who have been downtrodden, people who have been cast out by society. As members of the lowest caste in American society, we have taken that on as a way of encouraging resilience and seeing a bigger purpose in our struggle and in our suffering. And I think that’s why the message of the Church has been so resonant with Black people.

It is great to hear you talk about how the Black Church inspired and influenced you musically, but this series goes back to before Civil War times, well before your time. What have you learned as an executive producer and participant in this series?

‘Some of the stuff we have already talked about. I had no idea about some of the African remnants. I kind of knew directionally that those things were a part of our history and that we carried them forward but getting detail on how we brought some of our traditions from Africa, I thought was really important. Seeing the level of involvement of so many Black ministers in the freedom movement over the years, all that was really important for me. And talking and seeing the leadership of the church now, I think was really powerful for me as well, seeing what they see their role as now, in a different world where so many Americans are unchurched… Plenty of Black Americans are unchurched, in a way more so than we have been over the past few decades, when we think about the church and its relationship to the LGBTQ community, all these other things. I think it has been interesting to have a series that looks at all these things and honestly and respectfully explores it.’

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