Join the PBS Books Readers Club as we sit down with author, scholar, and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for a deeper look at the stories and inspirations behind his bestselling book The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. Prof. Gates guides us through the roots of the Black church and its importance as a foundation of American identity. Prof. Gates also explores over a century of Black spirituality through sermon & song in his newest PBS series Gospel, discusses the long-buried secrets that are brought to life in his hit PBS series Finding Your Roots, and teases his soon-to-be-released book The Black Box: Writing The Race.
For the young Henry Louis Gates, Jr., growing up in a small, residentially segregated West Virginia town, the church was a center of gravity—an intimate place where voices rose up in song and neighbors gathered to celebrate life’s blessings and offer comfort amid its trials and tribulations. In this tender and expansive reckoning with the meaning of the Black Church in America, Gates takes us on a journey spanning more than five centuries, from the intersection of Christianity and the transatlantic slave trade to today’s political landscape. At road’s end, and after Gates’s distinctive meditation on the churches of his childhood, we emerge with a new understanding of the importance of African American religion to the larger national narrative—as a center of resistance to slavery and white supremacy, as a magnet for political mobilization, as an incubator of musical and oratorical talent that would transform the culture, and as a crucible for working through the Black community’s most critical personal and social issues.
In a country that has historically afforded its citizens from the African diaspora tragically few safe spaces, the Black Church has always been more than a sanctuary. This fact was never lost on white supremacists: from the earliest days of slavery, when enslaved people were allowed to worship at all, their meetinghouses were subject to surveillance and destruction. Long after slavery’s formal eradication, church burnings and bombings by anti-Black racists continued, a hallmark of the violent effort to suppress the African American struggle for equality. The past often isn’t even past—Dylann Roof committed his slaughter in the Mother Emanuel AME Church 193 years after it was first burned down by white citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, following a thwarted slave rebellion.
But as Gates brilliantly shows, the Black church has never been only one thing. Its story lies at the heart of the Black political struggle, and it has produced many of the Black community’s most notable leaders. At the same time, some churches and denominations have eschewed political engagement and exemplified practices of exclusion and intolerance that have caused polarization and pain. Those tensions remain today, as a rising generation demands freedom and dignity for all within and beyond their communities, regardless of race, sex, or gender. Still, as a source of faith and refuge, spiritual sustenance and struggle against society’s darkest forces, the Black Church has been central, as this enthralling history makes vividly clear.
Distilled over many years from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s legendary Harvard introductory course in African American Studies, THE BLACK BOX: Writing the Race, is the story of Black self-definition in America through the prism of the writers who have led the way. From Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, to Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison—these writers used words to create a livable world—a “home” —for Black people destined to live out their lives in a bitterly racist society.
It is a book grounded in the beautiful irony that a community formed legally and conceptually by its oppressors to justify brutal sub-human bondage, transformed itself through the word into a community whose foundational definition was based on overcoming one of history’s most pernicious lies. This collective act of resistance and transcendence is at the heart of its self-definition as a “community.” Out of that contested ground has flowered a resilient, creative, powerful, diverse culture formed by people who have often disagreed markedly about what it means to be “Black,” and about how best to shape a usable past out of the materials at hand to call into being a more just and equitable future.
This is the epic story of how, through essays and speeches, novels, plays, and poems, a long line of creative thinkers has unveiled the contours of—and resisted confinement in—the “black box” inside which this “nation within a nation” has been assigned, willy nilly, from the nation’s founding through to today. This is a book that records the compelling saga of the creation of a people.
FINDING YOUR ROOTS with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. returns for its 10th season on PBS. Over the course of ten new episodes, Gates and his team use genealogical detective work and cutting-edge DNA analysis to trace the family trees of well-known personalities, telling stories that illuminate America’s shared past and fundamental diversity. With each turn of the page in their “book of life”, Gates reveals to his guests the long-buried secrets, hidden identities, and lost ancestors who have laid the groundwork for their success. In learning the emotional and sometimes complex narratives of their ancestry, each guest achieves a deeper understanding of history, family, and belonging. What’s more, this new season features some special guests— drawn from the audience. Following a nation-wide casting call, three viewers were selected to join the line-up of celebrities and sit down with Gates to solve a family mystery and discover what lies hidden in their own roots.
Following the blockbuster success of THE BLACK CHURCH: THIS IS OUR STORY, THIS IS OUR SONG, a new. series, GOSPEL, from acclaimed scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores Black spirituality through sermon and song. From the blues to hip-hop, African Americans have been the driving force of sonic innovation for over a century. But, while musical styles come and go, there is one sound that has been a constant source of strength, courage, and wisdom. It is a message that resounds from the pulpit to the choir lofts on any given Sunday — one of good news in bad times: gospel.
Over the course of four episodes, GOSPEL digs deep into the origin story of Black gospel music that blended the sacred spirituals with the blues tradition and soared to new heights during the Great Migration. Since the time of the sorrow songs, Black sacred music was a cathartic and confidential way to communicate the anger and frustration of living as a Black person in America. Even in the 21st century, gospel continues to evolve and remains a source of cultural affirmation and sustenance, bringing an enduring tradition into the future. The series also traces how preaching styles evolved from the musical “whoopers,” to the slick TV-ready lectures of megachurch pastors. In addition, the documentary explores how class, gender, cultural innovations and consumer technologies — such as records, radio, television and the internet — shaped the development of Black preaching and gospel over the centuries.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or coauthored more than twenty books, including Stony the Road, The Black Church, and The Black Box, and created more than twenty documentary films, including his groundbreaking genealogy series Finding Your Roots.
His six-part PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, earned an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and an NAACP Image Award. This series and his PBS documentary series Reconstruction: America after the Civil War were both honored with the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.
Heather-Marie Montilla, a dynamic integrative leader, is an educator and nonprofit manager. She has worked in the nonprofit sector and libraries for over two decades, making a positive impact in arts, cultural, educational, and community-building arenas.
Having joined the PBS Books team as their Library Bureau Chief in Fall 2018, Montilla is now the National Director of PBS Books and has interviewed more than 150 writers. In addition, she is a faculty member at Michigan State University and Eastern Michigan University for their Arts and Cultural/Entertainment Management Programs. Having been an Executive Director for 8 years, Heather has a wide range of experience in management, finance, strategic planning, marketing, and fundraising. Heather holds a MPA From Columbia University, a MLIS from Wayne State University, and a bachelor’s from Duke University. She lives in Chicagoland, and is married with four children, a dog, and a bird.
Princess Weekes is an award winning writer and video essayist who works at breaking down the intersections between race, gender, and pop culture. Formally an Assistant Editor at The Mary Sue, co-host of Netflix’s The Geeked Podcast, and co-host and co-writer on the PBS Digital Series It’s Lit. On weekends she works as a bookseller at a local bookstore. When not reading or writing she can be found playing TTRPGs of cuddling with her cat, Lola.
Executive Producer and host of national PBS programming at Detroit Public TV, Lauren develops content for PBS and other distributors of public media for broadcast, streaming, and other digital channels and has executive-produced and/or produced over 60 national broadcast and programs. Her passion is to develop inspiring, entertaining, and educational content alongside the best national and international talent, and to engage important content with communities across the country. Lauren loves to read and has worked to develop and produce PBS Books content for nearly ten years!
Fred Nahhat is an Emmy Award-winning producer, host, and presenter for Detroit’s PBS station, where he serves as Sr. VP of Production. A 30-year broadcast veteran, Fred has hosted and produced numerous programs for Public TV – including music specials from Il Volo, Celtic Gold and the New Divas – as well as other series and specials “New Year’s Eve with the DSO”, “The Detroit Dream Cruise,” “The PBS Books Readers Club” and “Get Up, Get Out,” among others.
He is a graduate of Wayne State University and a member of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Michigan Chapter, USA Hockey, and Leadership Detroit.