How Black poets and writers gave a voice to ‘Affrilachia’

How Black poets and writers gave a voice to ‘Affrilachia’

‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Imaging/Imagining.’
Photo by Raymond Thompson, Jr.

Appalachia, in the popular imagination, stubbornly remains poor and white.

Open a dictionary and you’ll see Appalachian described as a “native or inhabitant of Appalachia, especially one of predominantly Scotch-Irish, English, or German ancestry.”

Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and you’ll enter a world that’s white, poor and uncultured, with few, if any, people of color.

But as Black poets and scholars living in Appalachia, we know that this simplified portrayal obscures a world that is far more complex. It has always been a place filled with diverse inhabitants and endowed with a lush literary history. Black writers like Effie Waller Smith have been part of this cultural landscape as far back as the 19th century. Today, Black writers and poets continue to explore what it means to be Black and from Appalachia.

Swimming against cultural currents, they have long struggled to be heard. But a turning point took place 30 years ago, when Black Appalachian culture experienced a renaissance centered around a single word: “Affrilachia.”

Upending a ‘single story’ of Appalachia

In the 1960s, the Appalachian Regional Commission officially defined the Appalachian region as an area encompassing counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and the entirety of West Virginia. The designation brought national attention – and calls for economic equity – to an impoverished region that had largely been ignored.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “war on poverty” in 1964, it was with Appalachia in mind. However, as pernicious as the effects of poverty have been for white rural Appalachians, they’ve been worse for Black Appalachians, thanks to the long-term repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial terrorism and a dearth of regional welfare programs.

Black Appalachians have long been, as poet and historian Edward J. Cabbell put it, “a neglected minority within a neglected minority.”

Five Black children stand in the foreground while a white boy stands in the background.
A 1935 Farm Security Administration photograph of kids in Omar, West Virginia.
Library of Congress

Nonetheless, throughout the 20th century, Black Appalachian writers like Nikki Giovanni and Norman Jordan continued to write and wrestle with what it meant to be both Black and Appalachian.

In 1991, after a poetry reading that included Black poets from the Appalachian region, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker decided to give a name to his experience as a Black Appalachian: “Affrilachian.” It subsequently became the title of a poetry collection he released in 2000.

By coining the terms “Affrilachia” and “Affrilachian,” Walker sought to upend assumptions about who is part of Appalachia. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of the danger of the single story. When “one story becomes the only story,” she said in a 2009 TED Talk, “it robs people of dignity.”

Rather than accepting the single story of Appalachia as white and poor, Walker wrote a new one, forging a path for Black Appalachian artists.

It caught on.

In 2001, a number of Affrilachian poets – including Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Gerald Coleman, Paul C. Taylor and Shanna Smith – were the subjects of the documentary “Coal Black Voices.” In 2007, the journal Pluck! was founded out of University of Kentucky with the goal of promoting a diverse range of Affrilachian writers at the national level. In 2016, the anthology “Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poetry” was published.

A unique style emerges

Roughly 9% of Appalachian residents are Black, and this renders many of the region’s Black people “hypervisible,” meaning they stick out in primarily white spaces.

Many Affrilachian poems explore this dynamic, along with the tension of participating in activities, such as hunting, that are stereotyped as being of interest only to white Americans. Food traditions, family and the Appalachian landscape are also central themes of the work.

Affrilachian poet Chanda Feldman’s poem “Rabbit” touches on all of these elements.

Her poem shifts from the speaker hunting for rabbits with their father to the hunt as a larger metaphor for being Black in Appalachia – and thus seen as both predator and prey:

        He told me
  of my great uncle who, Depression era,
  loaned white townspeople venison
  and preserves. Later stood off
  the same ones with a gun
  when they wanted his property.

An Affrilachian future

We reached out to Walker and asked him to reflect on the term, 30 years after he coined it.

Walker wrote back that it created a “solid foundation” that “encouraged a more diverse view of the region and its history” while increasing “opportunities for others to carve out their own space” – including other poets, musicians and visual artists of color throughout the region.

In her book “Sister Citizen,” journalist and academic Melissa Harris-Perry writes, “Citizens want and need more than a fair distribution of resources: they also desire meaningful recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.”

Affrilachian artistry and identity allows Appalachia to be fully seen as the diverse and culturally rich region that it is, bringing to the forefront those who have historically been pushed to the margins, out of mind and out of sight.

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Amy M. Alvarez, Assistant Teaching Professor, English, West Virginia University and Jameka Hartley, Instructor of Gender & Race Studies, University of Alabama

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How civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker revived hope after MLK’s death

How civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker revived hope after MLK’s death

Civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker addresses a crowd at St. Phillips AME Church in Atlanta.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the novelist James Baldwin would write on the pages of Esquire magazine, “Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away.”

Baldwin wrote about how “the act of faith” – that is, his belief that the movement would change white Americans and ultimately America – maintained him through the years of the black freedom movement, through marches and petitions and torturous setbacks.

After King’s death, Baldwin found it hard to keep that faith.

Nearly two weeks after King’s funeral, in April of 1968, King’s confidant and former strategist Wyatt Tee Walker tried to renew this faith. Drawing on a tradition of black faith, Walker encouraged a grieving community to embrace hope even in the face of despair.

As a scholar of religion and American public life, I recognize the important lessons Walker offers for current times when America is deeply divided.

Faith in action

Black public faith has a storied place in American life.

The black church has been a place of fellowship and affirmation from colonial America to modern day, empowering individuals to undertake public acts to transform politics and society.

The 19th-century National Negro Convention movement, which ran from 1831 to 1864, demonstrated this black faith in action. Its leaders advocated for the abolition of slavery and full citizenship for African Americans. One activist reflected years later that the “colored conventions” were “almost as frequent as church meetings.”

The civil rights movement carried this faith in action forward. Theologian Dwight Hopkins has written how the sermons and songs of black faith empowered and sustained African Americans, even in bleak times.

These practices on Sunday morning, he noted served to “recharge the worshipers’ energy” so they could deal with the “rigors and racism of ‘a cruel, cruel world’ from Monday though Saturday.”

Civil rights and Union leaders sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images

It was this faith that empowered many African Americans to maintain their faith in the possibilities of democracy while facing entrenched white opposition to their civil rights. Marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and mass meetings were all public displays of black faith.

The risk of faith

In the wake of King’s assassination, the words of his last published book, “Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community,” reverberated throughout the nation.

Urban rebellions erupted in the wake of King’s death. With parts of over 100 cities smoldering or in ruins, chaos seemed a more likely future in 1968 America than community.

In a sermon called “Faith as Taking the Risk,” delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary, Walker sought to address a question posed by a young theologian James H. Cone after King’s death: “Without King, where was the hope?”

Deftly navigating the tension between hope and despair, Walker based his message on the response of the Hebrew prophet Elisha in the Book of Kings who faced crisis and despair with an invading Syrian army, widespread famine and people ready to give up.

Drawing inspiration from the faith of the community, Elisha encouraged the community to keep faith in their nation.

Horizon of hope

Elisha’s example powered Walker’s message. At Princeton, Walker encouraged the black seminarians not to countenance a nostalgia for the past. In moments of deep discouragement, Walker said, distressed people tend to retreat into a romanticized past.

“In the jargon of the street,” Walker said, “it sounds like this: ‘Child, don’t you wish it was like it was back in the good old days… .”

“And yet,” he declared, “not by any wishing or hoping or praying or anything else can we find any day when things were better. There was no such day!”

Walker proceeded to caution his audience against maintaining the status quo. Walker proclaimed, “Whatever dream of life it is we envision for our children, ourselves, our community, our church, we will never bring it to our fingertips unless it begins first with some initial risk.”

For Walker, challenging the status quo was a fundamental aspect of existence.

“The elemental character of life is one that is moving and dynamic,” he said.

Walker closed his sermon by urging the audience to embrace hope-filled struggle. But he did not deny the desperate reality.

Instead, in the face of despair, he urged the young seminarians to take a risk of faith and build a future that has not been. For Walker, that meant “doing, trying, moving toward things which have never been tried before.”

Hope in democracy

Wyatt Tee Walker in Montgomery, Alabama on April 3, 1962.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

The lasting testament of black public faith is its affirmation of new possibilities during moments of deep doubt. Rather than relying on a myth of the past or upholding the status quo, Walker offered the seminarians at Princeton a new vision of a political community.

“What I’m saying to you,” Walker declared, “is that I have the ultimate faith that we are going to find a tranquility with justice in this nation, in this world. We must! And it is conceivable it could happen in our time.”

Many Americans are angry with the state of the political system. And acts of racial bigotry and religious intolerance have become far too ordinary.

In such times, Wyatt Tee Walker’s words can remind people to muster hope and keep faith with the possibilities of American democracy while continuing the struggle for a just society.

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Corey D. B. Walker, Visiting Professor, University of Richmond

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Black sororities have stood at the forefront of Black achievement for more than a century

Black sororities have stood at the forefront of Black achievement for more than a century

Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority members at a get-out-the-vote event in 2020.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

In her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention Kamala Harris saluted seven women who “inspired us to pick up the torch and fight on.”

All but two of them, one of whom was her mother, belonged to Black sororities. Harris also mentioned her own Black sorority, saying: “Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha.”

Many Americans may have wondered why Harris would invoke sororities on such an occasion. But not me. Like her, I am a proud member of a Black sorority: Delta Sigma Theta, which I joined as a student at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. If I were in Harris’ shoes, accepting such an unprecedented leadership role, I, too, would have paid homage to my sorority as a way to thank those on whose shoulders I stand.

This shoutout also resonated with me because I have researched the history of Black sororities and fraternities, including their dedication to combat discrimination and the lifelong family-like bonds they create.

Kamala Harris speaks at the 2020 Democratic Convention.

The forerunners of Black sororities

The nation’s four Black sororities have always differed from white sororities in several ways, in part because of their historical roots.

Their origins are tied to the Black women’s clubs and mutual aid societies that first emerged with the Colored Women’s Progressive Association, established in 1880.

In 1892, after the author and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett distributed her historic anti-lynching speech as a pamphlet, Black women’s clubs sprang up throughout the U.S. in major metropolitan areas and small cities.

These clubs focused on issues of interest to all American women at the time, including education, health and voting rights. But they also sought to combat racism and discrimination.

A call toward service

Young Black women who liked the groups’ insistence on equality and racial justice responded by creating Black sororities at their colleges. Students at Howard University in Washington, D.C. – Harris’ alma mater – created the first one, Alpha Kappa Alpha, in 1908. Female white students by then had begun to form similar groups on other campuses, many of which barred Black members.

Five of the “Divine Nine” Greek organizations Kamala Harris mentioned in her speech are fraternities, created in response to Black men not being included in traditionally white fraternities.

I believe that African American women created their own sororities as communities of resistance that would allow them to survive and achieve in an oppressive society, refute stereotypes, celebrate their own cultures and fight sexism and racism – including gendered racism.

A group of young African American women hold a sign that reads #StandWithBennet
Members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images

The 6 women Harris saluted

The historically significant Black women, aside from her mother, whom Harris thanked in her speech were:

Continuing a tradition

Even today, the core mission of Black sororities remains civic engagement and racial justice.

All members of sororities and fraternities may donate to social causes or volunteer as part of satisfying school community service requirements. A few make it their main focus.

But across the board, Black sororities emphasize consequential and sustained community service, while their members are students and also once they’ve graduated from college. This is also true of the few white women who have joined Black sororities over the years.

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A group of African American women pose for a photo.
Members of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.
Griffin/Getty Images

Like with biological families where members remain in the family no matter what, for Black women, sorority affiliation usually becomes a permanent part of their identity and an enduring source of pride and support.

Many members of Black sororities remain active and engaged for the rest of their lives. They join local chapters, changing their affiliation whenever they move. Through this practice, their bond of sisterhood remains intact.

When I moved to North Texas, for example, local sorority members reached out to me. They helped me acclimate and make connections so that I immediately felt welcome. I also remain engaged with the sorority chapter I joined at Longwood by mentoring students, donating to scholarship funds and through other means.

Several African American women dressed in blue walk together.
Members of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images

As Harris made clear in her speech, she believes she stands on the shoulders of phenomenal women who, years after they blazed trails, taught today’s Black women how to be persistent in creating change that benefits our communities, and how to teach others to follow in our footsteps.

They taught us to lift as we climb.The Conversation

Tamara L. Brown, Executive Dean and Professor of Psychology, University of North Texas

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Fighting school segregation didn’t take place just in the South

Fighting school segregation didn’t take place just in the South

School boycott picketers march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Board of Education in 1964.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Whether it’s black-and-white photos of Arkansas’ Little Rock Nine or Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of New Orleans schoolgirl Ruby Bridges, images of school desegregation often make it seem as though it was an issue for Black children primarily in the South.

It is true that Bridges, the Little Rock Nine and other brave students in Southern states, including North Carolina and Tennessee, changed the face of American education when they tested the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated the desegregation of public education. But the struggle to desegregate America’s schools in the 1950s and ‘60s did not take place solely in the South. Black students and their parents also boldly challenged segregated schooling in the North.

A group of African American students read books together in a small room.
The Little Rock Nine form a study group together after being prevented from entering Central High School in 1957.
Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Mae Mallory, a Harlem activist and mother, serves as an example. Her name may not be the first one that comes to mind when it comes to 1950s school desegregation battles. Yet Mallory made history – and changed the face of public education – when she filed the first post-Brown suit against the New York City Board of Education in 1957.

Prompted by her children

Mallory got involved in education activism after her children – Patricia and Keefer Jr. – told her about the deplorable conditions of their segregated school, P.S. 10 in Harlem. Mallory joined the Parents Committee for a Better Education and became a vocal advocate of Black children’s right to a safe learning environment.

The turning point came when she indicted the racist school system in her January 1957 testimony before the New York School Board’s Commission on Integration. Mallory embarrassed the board by remarking that P.S. 10 was “just as ‘Jim Crow’” as the Hazel Street School she had attended in Macon, Georgia, in the 1930s. Her testimony was an integral part of the parental complaints that forced the board to construct a new building and hire new teachers.

A larger battle

Encouraged by this victory, Mallory began a fight to end the New York City Board of Education’s segregation practices. Existing zoning maps required her daughter, Patricia, to attend a junior high school in Harlem. Mallory argued that this school was inferior to others in the area and would not adequately prepare her daughter for high school. Instead, she enrolled Patricia in a school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The board blocked Patricia’s enrollment. Mallory took action. With the help of a young Black lawyer, Paul Zuber, she sued, claiming existing zoning policies relegated her daughter – and other Black children – to segregated, inferior schools. Filed three years after Brown, Mallory’s suit forced the Board of Education to face the fact that segregation was a persistent problem in New York City public schools. Eight other mothers joined Mallory’s fight. The press dubbed them the “Harlem 9.”

Making headlines

Once filed, Mallory’s suit became front-page news in The New York Times. A year later, however, the case stalled. In an effort to spur the suit along, the Harlem 9 instituted a boycott of three Harlem junior high schools. Zuber knew that the mothers would face charges of violating compulsory school attendance laws. This, in turn, would force a judge to rule on their suit.

In December 1958, Judge Justine Polier sided with the Harlem 9, declaring: “These parents have the constitutionally guaranteed right to elect no education for their children rather than to subject them to discriminatory, inferior education.” The Harlem 9 gained the first legal victory proving that de facto segregation existed in Northern schools. The decision galvanized local Black parents, causing hundreds to request transfers for their children to better schools.

A compromise

The parties reached a settlement in February 1959. The Harlem 9’s children would not enroll in the schools for which they were zoned. Nor would they be able to engage in “open choice” – the parents’ request to send their children to a school of their choosing.

Instead, they would attend a Harlem junior high school that offered more resources, including college prep courses, although it was still largely segregated. The Harlem 9 would be allowed to continue with their ultimately unsuccessful civil suit against the board. The mothers had also filed a million-dollar lawsuit seeking damages for the psychological and emotional toll their children endured in segregated schools. This was a compromise on all fronts. However, Mallory and the other mothers gained a substantial victory in forcing the court and the Board of Education to confront the segregation that existed in New York City public schools. Their boycott also became a unifying strategy for subsequent struggles, most notably for the 1964 New York City school boycott. During this boycott, hundreds of thousands of parents, students and activists engaged in a daylong protest of segregation and inequality in public city schools.

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The Harlem 9’s fight serves as an important reminder that school desegregation protests were popular and successful in the North as well as in the South. It also provides insight into the prominent role Black women had in these struggles and the diverse range of strategies they deployed – from championing “open choice” to school boycotts – to help their children have access to equal education.

Even more importantly, perhaps, their fight demonstrates the importance of appreciating the different ways in which Black women compelled schools to make good on the Brown decision – a fight that, nearly 70 years later, is still being fought. The Supreme Court’s mandate in the Brown decision that public schools desegregate with “all deliberate speed” is unfinished. Nationwide, Black children remain in schools that are segregated, underfunded and overcrowded – much as they were when Mallory began her fight.The Conversation

Ashley Farmer, Assistant Professor of History & African and African Diaspora Studies, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts

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How Black people in the 19th century used photography as a tool for social change

How Black people in the 19th century used photography as a tool for social change

Jubilee singers at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, pose for
promotional photograph, circa 1871.
William L. Clements Library

Frederick Douglass is perhaps best known as an abolitionist and intellectual. But he was also the most photographed American of the 19th century. And he encouraged the use of photography to promote social change for Black equality.

In that spirit, this article – using images from the David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan – examines different ways Black Americans from the 19th century used photography as a tool for self-empowerment and social change.

Black studio portraits

Cabinet card portraits of African Americans
Cabinet card portraits of African Americans from the David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography. Left: Man with Pipe, circa 1887. Right: Woman in Silk Dress, circa 1888.
William L. Clements Library

Speaking about how accessible photography had become during his time, Douglass once stated: “What was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.”

To pose for a photograph became an empowering act for African Americans. It served as a way to counteract racist caricatures that distort facial features and mocked Black society. African Americans in urban and rural settings participated in photography to demonstrate dignity in the Black experience.

The first successful form of photography was the daguerreotype, an image printed on polished silver-plated copper. The invention of carte de visite photographs, followed by cabinet cards, changed the culture of photography because the process allowed photographers to print images on paper. Cartes de visite are portraits the size of a business card with several copies printed on a single sheet. The change from printing images on metal to printing on paper made them more affordable to produce, and anyone could commission a portrait.

Collecting kinship: Arabella Chapman albums

Arabella Chapman
Arabella Chapman poses for a portrait from her public carte de visite album, circa 1878 – 1880s.
William L. Clements Library

During Victorian times, it was fashionable for people to exchange cartes de visite with loved ones and collect them from visitors.
Arabella Chapman, an African American music teacher from Albany, New York, assembled two cartes de visite photo albums. The first was a private album of family pictures, while the other featured friends and political figures for public viewing. The creation of each book allowed Chapman to store and share her photographs as intimate keepsakes.

Innovative entrepreneurs: The Goodridge Brothers

The Goodridge Brothers, Backview of the Washington Street fire,
Children stare at the burned remains from the Washington Street fire, circa 1870s. David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography.
William L. Clements Library

When photography became a viable business, African Americans started their own photography studios in different locations across the country. The Goodridge Brothers established one of the earliest Black photography studios in 1847. The business, opened first in York, Pennsylvania, moved to Saginaw, Michigan in 1863.

The brothers – Glenalvin, Wallace and William – were known for producing studio portraits using a variety of photographic techniques. They also produced documentary photography printed on stereo cards to create 3D images.

Saginaw, Michigan, was an expanding settlement, and the brothers photographed new buildings in the town. They also documented natural disasters in the area. Photographers would capture 3D images of fires, floods and other destructive occurrences to record the impact of the event before the town rebuilt the area.

Documenting communities: Harvey C. Jackson

Burning the mortgage of the Phyllis Wheatley Home

Burning the Mortgage of the Phyllis Wheatley Home in Detroit, Michigan, on Jan. 4, 1915. By Harvey C. Jackson.
David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography.

William L. Clements Library

The development of Black photography studios allowed communities greater control to style images that authentically reflected Black life. Harvey C. Jackson established Detroit’s first Black-owned photography studio in 1915. He collaborated with communities to create cinematic scenes of important events. In one photo, Jackson documents a mortgage-burning celebration at the Phyllis Wheatley Home, established in 1897. Its mission was to improve the status of Black women and the elderly by providing lodging and services.

Mortgage-burning ceremonies are a tradition churches observe to commemorate their last mortgage payment. Harvey Jackson documented this occasion with each person holding a string attached to the mortgage to connect each person in burning the document.

African Americans’ engagement with photography in the 19th century began a tradition for Black photographers’ use of photography today to promote social change. African Americans, whether they are in front or behind the camera, create empowering images that define the beauty and resilience contained within the Black experience.

]Samantha Hill, 2019 – 2021 Joyce Bock Fellow at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan and current graduate student at U-M School of Information, University of Michigan

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Henry Louis Gates’ new book and TV series distills centuries of Black church history

Henry Louis Gates’ new book and TV series distills centuries of Black church history

Video Courtesy of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


The history of Black Christianity in America will come to television screens this month in a documentary series based on a new book by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., a Harvard University historian who is simultaneously an admirer and a critic of its influential role in American society.

Gates’ book, “ The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” will be released Tuesday (Feb. 16), the same day the four-hour documentary will begin a two-day run on PBS stations, airing at 9 p.m. EST. Musicians John Legend and Yolanda Adams are featured in the series.

Gates, who describes himself as a “spiritual person,” said at a virtual news conference Friday (Feb. 5) that while he is a critic of the Black church’s history of male domination and homophobia, he has celebrated its culture and rejoiced in what it has overcome.

Gates said that during his summer visits to Martha’s Vineyard, he attends services at Union Chapel, which features prominent Black preachers. “We all come together to experience that circle of warmth,” he told Religion News Service at the news conference.

When Black people come together for worship, he said, it is “a celebration of our culture, our history, of who we are, of how we got over, how we survived the madness, the claustrophobic madness of hundreds of years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow and then anti-Black racism that we saw manifest itself at the Capitol.”

The series captures the broad sweep of this history in interviews with scholars and well-known Black clergy such as African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti McKenzieBishop T.D. Jakes and the Rev. William J. Barber II.

Stacey Holman, who produced and directed the series, spoke to Religion News Service recently about how she and Gates distilled centuries of history into the four-hour series, her thoughts on the Black church’s future and how Oprah Winfrey made the final call on the name of the documentary.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have worked on films about the Freedom Riders and historically Black colleges and universities. What struck you most about the Black church history you helped present with Henry Louis Gates Jr.?

What struck me was that we did not come here empty-handed. There were Africans who were practicing Muslims who were brought here in the transatlantic slave trade. That connection still exists today. A religion that is very actively practiced among Black people was here when this country was first being formed. Also, just how rich the history is and just how there’s so much connective tissue to Africa, to our worship and to our praise.

Mixed in with the interviews with scholars and clergy are the personal stories of Black celebrities about the Black church. Whose stories did you find to be particularly worth telling?

I think Kirk Franklin ’s story was quite moving. He talked about his friend that he lost, who was killed, and someone who was a good kid, and he was not, so — one of those situations where it’s like, wow, God, you spared my life. And I think even John Legend’s story, hearing how the church has really informed his career, but also how he was brought up and raised going to church and then becoming the choir director.

You’ve worked with Gates before. Was this series different because the subject matter related to him personally? At one point he breaks into song with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and tells some of his faith story from the pulpit of the West Virginia Methodist church he joined at age 12. 

Yes, very much so. When he was giving, as we say, his testimony, my crew was crying. It was just beautiful, just seeing him coming back home. When I have traveled to my grandparents’ church in southern Ohio, it was like that welcome home. And to see that with Skip just brought fond memories to me.

John Legend, who was an executive producer, as well as Shirley Caesar and Yolanda Adams talk about the importance of music. How did you address its influence in the Black church?

I think having those voices that you just mentioned were important. These are individuals who have used the music — John is more contemporary and pop and R&B, but there’s definitely elements of the church in what he plays. Even Kirk Franklin, the crossover songs that they’ve had, it just speaks to the richness that music has played over the centuries of the Black church.

The series shows various forms of faithful fervor, from ring shout to speaking in tongues. Why was it important to delve into that aspect of Black American faith?

I think that people think that’s all that the Black church is: We go in and people are hooting and hollering and jumping around. I think even just talking about the Great Awakening says, yeah, there were white folks doing it, too. So this whole idea of this fervor in worship is nothing new, but I think (the documentary is) really breaking it down so that people can understand the history of it. And it’s not an act. It’s a feeling. It’s an emotion that people get.

The show makes a revelation about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiration for the phrase ‘I have a dream.’

(Minister and civil rights activist) Prathia Hall was listed (as an influential preacher) by the pastors we asked — at least a good third or half of them would say Prathia Hall. And I didn’t really know that story until we sat with Reverend Senator (Raphael) Warnock. I was amazed. It just spoke to the testimony of just how influential Black women are in the church and were influencing major iconic speeches. We’re running churches; we are really the staples behind the everyday activity. Our series will really give her the limelight that she’s due.

Franklin and Legend talk about their anger with the Black church for rejecting changes in music and society. Can the Black church survive the rejection of some millennials and some Black Lives Matter activists?

I think it’s a case-by-case situation. It’s a denominational question as well. Certain stories that we left on the cutting room floor were really looking at that question. There are some churches that we spoke to that are really trying to engage that. I know Reverend (Otis) Moss III, his (Chicago) church is engaged in Black Lives Matter. I do believe there are churches that will need to kind of say, hey, we need to kind of catch up with the times and embrace this. But I think the church has always been evolving and will continue to evolve.

How did you distill Henry Louis Gates’ research, and that of so many others, into just a four-show series?

It was a privilege and it was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m telling 400 years in four hours.” Just to work with him was great. He gives you that freedom as a creator (where) you’re able to collaborate and talk with him about your ideas. We did argue about the title of the film. I wanted it to be “How I Got Over,” and he was like, “Oh, ‘Blessed Assurance’ (whose chorus begins ‘This is my story, this is my song’).” And then, who broke the tie but Oprah Winfrey. Skip gave her a list of names and she left a voicemail, singing, “This is our story. This is our song.” And so he’s like, “See? That’s the title.”