Henry Louis Gates Jr. on African-American Religion

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Gates himself is working within a biblical tradition. Remembrance lies at the heart of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In Deuteronomy, Moses says, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations.” At the Last Supper, Jesus said, simply, “Do this in remembrance of me” — a command, the Anglican monk Dom Gregory Dix once wrote, that’s arguably the most obeyed exhortation in history. To remember is orienting and illuminating, and we should always bear in mind that faith is an essential element of the nation’s story, for good and for ill. “It is … clear that the study of Negro religion is not only a vital part of the history of the Negro in America,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), “but no uninteresting part of American history.”

Relying heavily on the voices of myriad scholars and clergy members (often combined in the same person, like Kelly Brown Douglas or Jonathan L. Walton), Gates traces the story back even before Jamestown. “The foundation of the African-American spiritual journey,” he writes, “was formed out of fragments of faith that our ancestors brought with them to this continent starting 500 years ago” — not 400. He chronicles the Spanish New World and describes the strands of belief and practice — from Roman Catholicism to African religions to Islam — that created the basis for the Black church.

The stories of deliverance from the pharaoh and from sin held out that rarest of things for the enslaved: hope. “We have to give the church its due as a source of our ancestors’ unfathomable resiliency and perhaps the first formalized site for the collective fashioning and development of so many African-American aesthetic forms,” Gates argues. “Although Black people made spaces for secular expression, only the church afforded room for all of it to be practiced at the same time.”

At its best, biblical religion is about reversal and transformation — the most resonant of messages for Black people in a white-supremacist America. “Never confuse position with power,” the Rev. Otis Moss III, a Chicago pastor born in 1970, says in Gates’s epigraph. “Pharaoh had a position, but Moses had the power. Herod had a position, but John had the power. The cross had a position, but Jesus had the power. Lincoln had a position, but Douglass had the power. Woodrow Wilson had a position, but Ida B. Wells had the power. George Wallace had a position, but Rosa Parks had the power. Lyndon Baines Johnson had a position, but Martin Luther King had the power. We have the power. Don’t you ever forget.” Moss’s homiletic riff is rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus, too, used antithesis to urge listeners to build a new and better world.

The summons to close the gap between profession and practice, between love and hate, between freedom and slavery, lies at the heart of the troubled American journey. Framing the challenge to white Americans with fearlessness and clarity, Frederick Douglass said: “You profess to believe ‘that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth’ and hath commanded all men, everywhere, to love one another; yet you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred) all men whose skins are not colored like your own.” As Gates puts it, religious appeals, then, “gave them the moral authority to turn the mirror of religion back on their masters and to indict the nation for its original sin of allowing their enslavement to build up that ‘city upon a hill.’”

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