If you grew up where I did, you would know that churches are a vibrant part of African American culture. There is a tiny AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church on a sliver of land near my home. It has been expanded over the years and bricked over, but it tenaciously clings to the tiny lot. I’ve always assumed they don’t want to expand because I’m sure the members have the means to if they want to. The African Americans and Whites in my community have similar socio-economic status. But there it sits.
If you give it half a thought, you would realize how many Civil Rights leaders have “Reverend” as their title, most notably Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Now, at least where I live, some African Americans belong to traditionally “White” churches, and I’m sure there are White people who attend the traditional Black churches. But I know that the Black churches aren’t going anywhere, probably ever, because they have their own culture and their own traditions.
As I’m saying, I assume the tiny church near me has a story behind their location that they don’t want to give up. You can still tell where a lot of the former Black and White hamlets and villages are in the “country” around my area because of the churches that remain from the times when people needed to have their church in walking distance.
The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song by Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an interesting read, for me anyway, because it helped me put together the bits that I knew with the bits I didn’t know and created a coherent picture of how religion in African Americans links to social justice.
I also wondered where the names of some religions come from (such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church…and I learned what episcopal means).
The African American Church grew because it was the one place that Enslaved Workers had to meet, and the most difficult for the “establishment” to control, which, after slavery ended, formed an established organization that could help Black citizens get access to the educations and other services that they needed.
Christianity and the Institution of Slavery in the United States
The most eye opening part of this book, that I recommend that you read if you can’t make it through the entire book, are the sections dealing with the years up to the end of the Civil war. Gates effectively portrays the conundrum that white slaveholders felt: If you are a Christian, you are supposed to share the word. Um, yeah, to everyone. And Jesus is supposed to set you free. So how do you solve that problem?
Apparently you deny literacy and then teach the version of Christianity that you want.
Except that went over just as well with antebellum African Americans as it did when the printing press gave the masses access to literacy in Europe. All the Protestant denominations pretty much came from widespread literacy and access to the Bible. And of course the same thing happened here.
Islam and African Americans
I was also surprised by the historical connections between Black enslaved Americans and the Islamic heritage they brought with them. I, like most people (?), thought that Islam is something Black Americans began to follow in the 20th century, but actually, it is a return to earlier traditions. And I, like many Americans, did not realize how much of Africa is primarily Muslim.
Gates shares stories of enslaved people who came from Africa literate in Arabic, which is shared throughout the Muslim world because the Quran is not officially translated. Muslims are expected to learn to read it in Arabic.
Female Leadership in the African American Church
Another aspect of traditionally Black churches is the role that women play in its leadership, which the book goes into as well. Black women have had to fight to be leaders in their churches, they have been able to achieve just as much, if not more than White women…and it seems to me they did it earlier, but of course my point of view is skewed because I live in a predominately Southern Baptist part of the country, and Southern Baptists and many smaller Baptist sects still don’t.
If you want to have a clearer picture of how religion a has driven Civil rights issues in the United States, this book is a must read…and it’s not too long either.