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.
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.