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Author Q&A with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Author of The Black Church

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Publisher's Summary

From the New York Times best-selling author of Stony the Road and one of our most important voices on the African-American experience, a powerful new history of the Black church in America as the Black community's abiding rock and its fortress.

The companion book to the upcoming PBS series.

For the young Henry Louis Gates, Jr., growing up in a small, segregated West Virginia town, the church was his family and his community's true center of gravity. Within those walls, voices were lifted up in song to call forth the best in each other, and to comfort each other when times were at their worst. In this book, his tender and magisterial reckoning with the meaning of the Black church in American history, Gates takes us from his own experience onto a journey across more than 400 years and spanning the entire country. At road's end, we emerge with a new understanding of the centrality of the Black church to the American story - as a cultural and political force, as the center of resistance to slavery and White supremacy, as an unparalleled incubator of talent, and as a crucible for working through the community's most important issues, down to today. 

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; it's been a place to nourish the deepest human needs and dreams of the African-American community. This fact was never lost on white supremacists: From the earliest days of slavery, when enslaved people were allowed to worship at all, their meeting houses were subject to surveillance, and often destruction. So it continued, long after slavery's formal eradication; church burnings and church bombings by the Ku Klux Klan and others have always been a hallmark of the violent effort to suppress the struggle for equality for the African-American community. The past often isn't even past - Dylann Roof committed his slaughter in Charleston's Emanuel AME Church 193 years after the church was first burned down by whites following a thwarted slave rebellion. 

But as Gates brilliantly shows, the Black church has never been only one thing. Its story lies at the vital center of the civil rights movement, and produced many of its leaders, from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., on, but at the same time there have always been churches and sects that eschewed a more activist stance, even eschewed worldly political engagement altogether. That tension can be felt all the way to the Black Lives Matter movement and the work of today. Still and all, as a source of strength and a force for change, the Black church is at the center of the action at every stage of the American story, as this enthralling history makes vividly clear.

*This audiobook includes a PDF of the Appendix and Acknowledgments from the book.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.  

©2021 Henry Louis Gates (P)2021 Penguin Audio
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

Critic Reviews

“Sweeping, vivid.... The eminent Harvard historian and connoisseur of American lives [Henry Louis Gates, Jr.] turns his compassionate gaze to the black church, illuminating a pantheon of good shepherds who brought a fierce social conscience to the Lord’s work. Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Barbara Hale, recently-elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock: all spring to life as spiritual visionaries and carpenters of the arc of justice.” (Oprah Magazine)

“Gates combines reflections on his childhood with centuries of history in his thoughtful examination of the Black church in America. Blending research, interviews with scholars and insights from his own life, Gates illuminates the central role of the Black church in the movement for social justice and the support network it has been for a community often in need of safe spaces.... [The Black Church] is as comprehensive as it is celebratory.” (Time)

“A brisk and insightful look at how the Black church has succored generations of African Americans against white supremacy.... Punctuated by trenchant observations from Black historians and theologians, Gates’s crisp account places religious life at the center of the African-American experience.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has once again delved deep into the doings and sufferings of Black people in the USA! This time he gives us a rich story and riveting song of the profound forms of spirituality and musicality that sustained Black sanity and dignity. Although Gates rightly highlights the centrality of the ambiguous legacy of the Black Church, he also explores the crucial realities of Islam and other non-Christian religious practices. And the last powerful and playful chapter on his personal dance with an elusive Holy Ghost lays bare his own signifying genius grounded in a genuine love of Black people and culture!” (Cornel West)

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What listeners say about The Black Church

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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A must read for all Christians

Enlightening hard to listen to. I wanted to take notes and look things up as it went along. Reader’s voice was pleasant. I also wanted some of the spirituals and prayers

2 people found this helpful

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Beautifully written and narrated

In anticipation of the coming series on the black church, I listened to the book on Audible. The depth and breadth of the research, so well woven together with interesting personal stories and recollections of the author and others, was stunning. The narrator’s voice was superb and while I had no particular expectations of this rendering beforehand, I was very reluctant when the Epilogue ended. I must say this is one of the best books I have read/heard in a very long time. I look forward to watching the documentary series.

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Be Advised

While there are some historical tidbits here, the author's progressive agenda becomes clear not even half way through. I don't think I've ever read a work on Church history with almost little to none of the teachings of Jesus mentioned.

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Watch the documentary, skip the book

Books attached to documentaries are very mixed in quality and value. Some are designed to be companions and provide additional context and background and might be worth reading even if you have never seen the documentary (American Conscience about Reinhold Neibuhr). And some are essentially the script of the documentary (I Am Not Your Negro) or literally the audiotrack of the documentary (NT Wright and Micheal Bird's audiobook of their book on the context of the New Testament). The Black Church is more than just a transcript, but there is not much additional value if you have already watched the documentary.

I watched all four documentary episodes live as they were released, and I listened to several podcasts and read articles about the documentary. The original documentary was four hours long. The audiobook was seven hours long. Except for the epilogue, it was hard to remember anything about the audiobook that was not mentioned in the documentary. I am sure there were some additional quotes and context. But it felt like most of that difference in three hours gave context to what was visual in the documentary. For instance, the book has to introduce everyone that is quoted, but in the documentary, their name and affiliations are just a subscript on the screen.

There is value in the information, even if it is introductory and an overview that necessarily skips important issues and history. But if I were to recommend one or the other, I would recommend watching because the visuals are an important feature of the reality of the Black Church in history. It is an embodied reality, which is one of the significant themes of the documentary. I would only recommend the book or audiobook if you have not watched the documentary and are new to the subject of the Black Church. But even then, I would probably recommend a couple of other books instead, like Fortress Intro to Black Church History by Anne and Anthony Pinn, Black Church Empowered: Examining Our History, Securing Our Longevity by Isaiah Robertson, or The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness by Raphael Warnock.

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Good Overview of Black Spirituality in America

A thoughtful and interesting critique of spirituality and the growth and outgrowth of the Black Church in America. Although I come to different conclusions about why the church grew so rapidly, I thoroughly enjoyed listening.

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A SPIRITUAL VOID FILLER

This book filled in more spaces in my journey as an African-American man than highlight in this review ranging from the various ways I’ve learned to worship as child to my pathways of walking out my Christianity as an adult. It’s given me a type of mental and spiritual peace that allows to accept the many approaches to God that we as Black people have in a nonjudgmental way while continually developing my faith walk.
Alfred Harrell More than a Poet

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Must know history

Info not presented logically, average not great, narrator. But the information? Gotta have it, Baby!

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wonderful book

the book was interesting and gave a concise history of the Black Church in the U.S.