As a practicing Christian, I’ve been trying over the past couple years to add more voices into my understanding of my faith, both theology and history, and this book, the companion to PBS’s recent documentary miniseries of the same title, was part of that slow ongoing project. It paired interestingly with Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, another recent read that focused on the white Christianity’s long history of complicity with racism; Gates, however, focuses on the agency of Black Christians in articulating their faith and turning it toward justice (while also looking at the ways in which injustice lingers within its own ranks, such as sexism and homophobia).
It’s an engaging, really thoughtful exploration that I found really valuable. I think many white Christians only have a sense of the Black church starting with the civil rights struggle, but Gates helpfully elaborates on the longer historical reach of the Black Christians that developed the ground for the civil rights movement and the church’s involvement in it.
I’ve yet to see the documentary series, so I can’t speak to whether this book addresses shortcomings that I saw some Black writers mentioned in relation to the show. I do think Gates gave a really valuable historical perspective showing how African religious traditions helped shape Black expressions of Christianity; like Tisby, he also showed how other narratives of American Christianity have effaced the contributions or influence of the Black church.
Gates’s style is also engaging and matter-of-fact; this is not a read that I think people would get bogged down in, though I know I come in with more background knowledge than average. Even so, this was never a chore to get through, and I really value knowing more about the many different threads that make up the current and historical fabric of Black Christianity.