How the Black Church Embraces Tragic History and the Fervor of Faith
In a new book and related PBS documentary, the author explores how the Black church is the space where cultural ties to Africa come to life in mutated but still recognizable form.
“It was out in the country, far from home, far from my foster home, on a dark Sunday night. The road wandered from our rambling log‑house up the stony bed of a creek, past wheat and corn, until we could hear dimly across the fields a rhythmic cadence of song,—soft, thrilling, powerful, that swelled and died sorrowfully in our ears. I was a country schoolteacher then, fresh from the East, and had never seen a Southern Negro revival. To be sure, we in Berkshire were not perhaps as stiff and formal as they in Suffolk of olden time; yet we were very quiet and subdued, and I know not what would have happened those clear Sabbath mornings had some one punctuated the sermon with a wild scream, or interrupted the long prayer with a loud Amen! And so most striking to me, as I approached the village and the little plain church perched aloft, was the air of intense excitement that possessed that mass of black folk. A sort of suppressed terror hung in the air and seemed to seize us,—a pythian madness, a demoniac possession, that lent terrible reality to song and word. The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence. The people moaned and fluttered, and then the gaunt‑cheeked brown woman beside me suddenly leaped straight into the air and shrieked like a lost soul, while round about came wail and groan and outcry, and a scene of human passion such as I had never conceived before.
“Those who have not thus witnessed the frenzy of a Negro revival in the untouched backwoods of the South can but dimly realize the religious feeling of the slave; as described, such scenes appear grotesque and funny, but as seen they are awful. Three things characterize this religion of the slave,—the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy
— W. E. B. DU BOIS, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
Some folks get happy, they run
Others speak in an unknown tongue
Some cry out in a spiritual trance;
I get happy and do the Holy Dance!
— SANCTIFIED CHURCH FOLK SAYING
On January 13, 1972, Aretha Franklin performed a concert that would soon be released as the best‑selling record of her career, Amazing Grace. At the request of the Reverend James Cleveland, the legendary Reverend C. L. Franklin took the stage to introduce his legendary daughter and recounted a story of an encounter with a neighborhood woman in Detroit that testified to his feelings about Aretha’s decision to embark on a career recording secular music. It goes like this:
“I went in the cleaners one day in Detroit, to pick up some clothes.
“And Aretha had appeared on a recent television show, and she told me, ‘I saw your daughter, Aretha, last night.’
“She said, ‘It was all right.’
“Said, ‘But I’ll be glad when she comes back to the church.’
How did her wise father respond? Let’s let him tell it:
“I said, ‘Listen, baby, let me tell you something. If you want to know the truth, Aretha has never left the church! All you have to do is have... the ability to hear and the ability to feel, and you will know that Aretha is still a gospel singer! And the way she sings in this church she sings anywhere she sings.’”
Aretha’s father was right. The distance between the structures of Black sacred and secular music was often the distance between the juke joint and the choir behind the pulpit, the few hours between late Saturday night and eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. We can think of these two forms of Black music, which were mutually exclusive for the person C. L. Franklin met in the dry cleaners, as symbolic of the nature of African American culture itself: Janus‑faced; flip sides of a musical form; joined together and inseparable, “in one black body,” as W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk. In other words, Aretha had never left the church, because the church had never left her.
I suppose no one who was raised in the church ever fully leaves it. But I can safely say that after so many years of watching it from a distance, not as a member but as an avid spectator—especially in summers at Union Chapel on Martha’s Vineyard or at the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard—making our PBS series and writing this book have allowed me to understand more fully, both intellectually and emotionally, the meaning and the magic of the Black Church, its centrality to the history of the African American people, and the seminal role it continues to play some five hundred years after our captors violently uprooted and forcibly relocated our African ancestors to these shores.
Throughout our childhood, from as early as I can remember, my brother, Paul, and I attended the church that my mother’s family attended, the Waldon Methodist Church on Water Street in Piedmont, West Virginia. We never missed church on Sunday mornings, we sang in the choir, but we were not saved. That is, we had not joined the church, that moment when a person stands before the congregation and answers set questions posed by the minister, effectively giving their life to Christ, which means obeying the rules set by the church for Christlike behavior. Within my mother’s family, the Coleman family, only my grandmother, Big Mom, was saved. The rest of us were voyeurs, of a sort.
Everything changed for me on one very sad Sunday evening. (This is a story that has stayed with me and shaped me in more ways than I can count. I’ve explored this incident before, in my 1994 memoir, Colored People.)
I was twelve years old. My brother and I were watching TV. My mother hadn’t been herself lately, and out of the blue, my father solemnly informed us that he was taking her to the hospital. She bent over and hugged me. Then she kneeled down and, crying, told me she was going to die. I should be a “good boy” to my father after she was gone, she said, and I should “listen to him.” And then they left. I was inconsolable. I have never felt more alone.
I went upstairs to my bedroom. I kneeled by my bed and prayed to Jesus. I told him that if he let my mother live, I would give my life to Christ; I would join the church. I prayed that prayer over and over, begging Jesus to let my mother come home alive. Exhausted with grief, I eventually fell asleep.
Judging from the expression on my father’s face when we had breakfast early the next morning, the odds didn’t look good. I didn’t tell anybody what I had done.
But about three days later, I was told that Mom had gotten better, and she was coming home that evening. I went up to my bedroom and looked in the mirror and thought, Uh‑oh. I had made a deal with Jesus. You can’t make a deal with Jesus and then go back on your word. You can mess with a lot of people, but you can’t mess with God.
Because the size of the Black population in our county in West Virginia was so small, one minister serviced the two local Black Methodist churches, one in our hometown of Piedmont, the other five miles away in the county seat, Keyser. Service in Keyser took place on Saturday afternoon, around five o’clock; service in Piedmont was at eleven o’clock the following Sunday morning. I’m not sure why, but I came to the decision that I would join the church, as we still call it, at the Saturday service in Keyser, away from the gaze and the complications of my family and friends. That’s where I would publicly commit my life to Christ. I got dressed, left the house without telling anyone where I was going, and hitchhiked to Keyser.
At the end of the service, the minister made his usual call to the altar, the invitation for anyone who has been sufficiently moved to join the church. Every person in that church knew this part of the service by heart, because it meant that church was almost over, since in my recollection, hardly anyone ever responded to the call. At the appointed time, trembling, I rose from my seat in the pew. The minister assumed that I had to go to the bathroom and simply said, “Skippy, the toilet is behind the door to the right of the pulpit.” I was so surprised that, for a second, I didn’t know what to say. Then I blurted out, “I want to join the church!” The minister and the few people in attendance were just as shocked as I was to hear those words come tumbling out of my mouth. I walked up to the altar. All gathered around me in a semicircle. The minister read the questions of commitment, I whispered the correct answers, and when it was over, everyone there hugged me, and they and I burst into tears. I hitchhiked back home to Piedmont.
That night, as we sat around our little black‑and‑white TV following dinner, I told my parents what I had done. “You did what?” my father, a devout Episcopalian, sputtered in frustration and disappointment. He thought such emotional rituals as joining the church were unseemly. My mother just looked at me strangely. “Why did you do that and not tell us?” Not only did I not tell them then why I had done what I did, I never, ever told them. We all sat around that night in stunned silence. The last thing I remember my father telling me before I went to bed was now that I had made this crazy decision, it was my duty to keep my word. He had no idea that no one was more keenly aware of that than I was.
So, for the next two years, I didn’t play cards, I didn’t attend basketball games, I didn’t go to movies or dances (I loved movies and I loved to dance as much as I loved to play cards), and I did my best not to lust in my heart. I sang in the choir, I attended prayer meetings, I took Communion, and I never missed church. Everyone said that I would be a minister one day, and though I’d been raised to be a doctor, I wondered if the ministry might be my true calling. Maybe I could combine medicine with missionary work in Africa, like my hero of the moment, Albert Schweitzer.
I was saved, but I never underwent the deeply emotional experience of possession by the Holy Ghost (also known, of course, as the Holy Spirit), which, though rare in our small Methodist church, did occasionally occur. Miss Sarah Russell, a leader of our church, frequently emoted during services, not in a loud or dramatically demonstrative way, but with enough outward expression that we nicknamed her Sister Holy Ghost. But this was not the norm among our congregants, like it was for those who had been saved in the Church of God in Christ across the street.
In my heart of hearts, I was relieved and thankful that I did not receive the Holy Ghost. You see, it was one thing to give my life to Christ by pledging various forms of abstinence; it was quite another to be entirely swept away in an emotional outpouring with several manifestations that took oneself not only out of one’s body, but out of one’s senses as well. This at least was how my classmate, Woody Green, described his own experience receiving the Holy Ghost during a summer church service at a revival meeting sponsored by the Church of God in Christ. (By the way, some people say the Holy Ghost, others the Holy Ghost. I’m not sure why, but when I hear the name spoken in the former way, God’s third and most dynamic and mysterious manifestation is somehow more powerful, more full of awe and terror.)
At the age of fourteen I migrated my faith to the Episcopal Church, my father’s church, the church of his parents, his grandparents, and his great‑grandmother, who had been enslaved. But before that, I had basically spent two years gripped by the fear that what had happened to Woody would happen to me.
To tell the truth, to say I was terrified of being possessed by the Holy Ghost wasn’t too strong a word. It may not even be strong enough. Here’s how bad it was: There were two churches on Water Street, so named because it ran parallel to the barrier that protected the flat section of Piedmont from the mighty Potomac River, which had a tendency to flood. It didn’t happen frequently, but frequently enough so that major floods, such as the devastating one from Hurricane Hazel in 1954, were used as occasions to mark significant historic events, like Armistice Day or VJ Day. Since this wasn’t exactly prime real estate and flood insurance was expensive and hard to come by, and since it marked the border between “downtown” and the river, people nicknamed it Back Street, which was quickly rebranded Black Street. Mostly Black people lived on Water Street, and also on the street that ran parallel to it, Paxton Street. One of my mother’s sisters and one of her brothers lived on Paxton Street, and we all attended the Methodist church on Back Street.
The vigorously animated Church of God in Christ occupied a large multistory building in the middle of the right side of Water Street. (We called it Holiness and Pentecostal interchangeably, even though by that time in church history it would have been part of the Pentecostal denomination. I’m going to refer to it as the Holiness Church in my retelling, simply because in my memory, that was our usual description of it.) Sleepy Waldon Methodist Church—Big Mom’s church, the church in which my brother and I and all of our many cousins had been christened—sat about a hundred yards farther down from the Holiness Church, on the left side of Water Street. On Sundays and at prayer meetings on Wednesday nights, the Holiness Church rocked. That was the only word for it. First of all, Mr. Les Clifford held court there with his saxophone. He was a master of that thing, and he was legendary throughout the Potomac valley. He and his band had played every Saturday night in the area juke joints—before he got saved, anyway, people said; before the devil himself came up out of the floor of the smoke‑filled room in which he and his band were jamming and chased him by foot all the way back to his house, about twenty miles or so away. After outracing the devil himself, Mr. Les continued to jam, but only in the Holiness Church. No more juke joints for him.
Second, that church rocked because you could hear every amen and hallelujah and “Thank you, Jesus” from its small but determined congregation halfway to Keyser. And third, well, over the blare of Mr. Les’s holy saxophone and the thundering chorus of amens, sometimes you heard the strangest sounds, people doing the Holy Dance, shouting or whooping or moaning the oddest phrases and sentences, unfathomable to the unconverted and untranslatable even to the faithful. People called it speaking in tongues, which, to our ears, only added to its strangeness.
Everyone knew that what made the Holiness Church special, even fearsome, was what the scholar Gastón Espinosa calls “the outpouring and leading of the Holy Ghost,” a “release and longing for hope, though perhaps just out of reach,” and “not due to speaking in tongues per se.” While I can see that now, try telling that to a bunch of adolescents. Quite honestly, there was no question that the most dramatic aspect of this experience for us was exactly that moment when people started to exhort in that elusive language that only God could understand, signifying that they had been possessed by the Holy Ghost. A phenomenon also known as glossolalia, or “the unknown tongue,” it is practiced today by Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.
In chapter 2, where I discuss “the Frenzy,” the most mysterious of Du Bois’s triad of the three key elements that constitute the Black Church (the Music and the Preacher are the other two), he seems to be including speaking in tongues in his description—“the stamping, shrieking, and shouting, the rushing to and fro and wild waving of arms, the weeping and laughing, the vision and the trance”—yet he doesn’t mention it by name. He wrote of the frenzy in 1903. In terms of doctrine, speaking in tongues wasn’t “officially” part of the history of the Pentecostal Church until 1906, when the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles—what today we would call a diverse, multicultural event—introduced the denomination to the world.
The practice of speaking in tongues was decidedly controversial at the beginning of the century, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes tells me. In fact, when William Joseph Seymour, the African American man who ultimately oversaw the Azusa Street Revival, preached in a Holiness church in California that full holiness required speaking in tongues, the pastor padlocked the door to keep him out. But, Gilkes says, Seymour captured the attention of some congregants, and as their numbers grew wildly, so, too, did their fervor. By spring, in Los Angeles, “a small group followed Seymour to a house on Bonnie Brae Street, where they proceeded to have a good old‑fashioned Black Church worship—‘the frenzy’—until the house collapsed,” she explains. “They counted it as a miracle that no one was hurt and moved into a former AME church that was also a former horse stable at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles.” It was here, she says, in this event that attracted both Black and white people and that captivated the press, that the Pentecostal movement got started, when speaking in tongues went from being a feature of ecstatic worship to a central part, even a doctrinal requirement, of sanctification.
This was in 1906, three years after Du Bois had written about “the faith of our fathers.” Why does it concern me whether he included speaking in tongues on his list of elements that defined the frenzy? He certainly marveled at the ring shout in his masterwork of sociological analysis, The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899. Although his take on the singing he heard was not particularly flattering—he referred to “the weird witchery of those hymns sung rudely”—he possessed a scholar’s interest in the ring shout’s link to the past, noting its connection to “the methods of worship in Africa and the West Indies.” I possess the same sort of fascination regarding the historical origins of speaking in tongues within African American experience.
Were those ancestors coming out of slavery and their descendants speaking in tongues as well? Perhaps not in so many words—there was no formalization or routinization of the practice prior to 1906—but Cheryl J. Sanders believes so. “My short answer is yes,” she wrote to me. “I am not certain that Du Bois witnessed glossolalia in the backwoods of Tennessee, but the ‘wail and groan and outcry’ he notes could signify speaking in tongues. He clearly states that Negroes in the southern revivals experienced spirit possession, and he readily relates ‘The Frenzy’ to the unmistakable manifestation of the presence of God.”
After speaking with these scholars, I can only conclude that speaking in tongues was implicit in Du Bois’s notion of the frenzy based on his own observations of the religious culture in the rural African American South.
But Du Bois, like me, intuited something much more ancient than what he was observing in his own times. He ends his description of the frenzy with two stunning declarations, the first about the relation of possession by the Holy Ghost to other forms of possession: “All this is nothing new in the world, but old as religion, as Delphi and Endor.” We know quite a lot about the mysteries of the oracle at Delphi, but Endor is a more obscure reference. In our modern era, Star Wars fans may recognize Endor as the home of the Ewoks. Clearly not what Du Bois was referring to! Bible scholars know that the Witch of Endor is summoned by King Saul in the first book of Samuel. Du Bois’s point is that spirit possession is as old as the Greeks and the Hebrews, as old as civilization itself. One way to think about the Holy Ghost, to extend Du Bois’s analogy, is to think of it, in broad metaphorical terms, as the messenger of God, much as Hermes was in Greek mythology, as Esu‑Elegbara is today in Yoruba religion. Possession is the “language” through which God expresses God’s self to the faithful, and “unknown tongues” or “speaking in tongues” is the “language” in which the faithful respond to and communicate with God, and God alone, since no one else can translate.
Speaking in tongues has many sources in the Bible, among them “And these signs shall follow them that believe... they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17); “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4); and “And when Paul had laid [his] hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). The Christian Bible portrays speaking in tongues as a gift bestowed upon believers, and it is this sense that defines the Holy Spirit in the Black Church, especially in Pentecostal denominations, Gilkes notes, “such as the Church of God in Christ and the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, sometimes lovingly referred to as ‘cool Jay Cee,’ to name two of many.”
And it is this gift that is the greatest gift of all, as Du Bois makes clear in his second point about the frenzy: that the visible, audible manifestation represents the degree of authenticity within the larger Black Church of one’s genuine religious conversion and direct relation to God; indeed, that one has been and is “saved.” “And so firm a hold did it have on the Negro,” Du Bois continues, “that many generations firmly believed that without this visible manifestation of the God there could be no true communion with the Invisible” (emphasis mine).
After two years of filming in every sort of Black house of worship and denomination conceivable, I would say unequivocally that Du Bois’s observation about possession by the Holy Ghost remains just as true to Protestant believers in the second decade of the twenty‑first century as it was at the turn of the century when he published his stunningly perceptive analysis of the church, the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk titled “Of the Faith of the Fathers.”
When Du Bois writes of the frenzy, his language conveys both awe and condescension. I like to think that awe won out in the end, but I’m not so sure. We certainly saw the latter in Bishop Daniel Payne’s proud recollection of his intervention in a southern rural church service’s rites that, for him, bordered dangerously close to the satanic. It is evident in the writing of both that possession by the Holy Ghost has been to some a distasteful, and at times controversial, subject in the history of the Black Church, certainly since the end of the Civil War. (Remember that William Joseph Seymour’s arrival in Los Angeles was inspiring to some but alienating to others.)
In Black Gods of the Metropolis, Arthur Huff Fauset reported on the “Holiness cult,” in which “it is not sufficient for one that he be converted. After conversion one must be sanctified, and besides, he must be filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is akin to a “graduate church,” where, “like the university it may be said to offer a master’s and a doctor’s degree in addition to the bachelor’s degree. To become one of the elect you must have experienced all three.”
Barbara Savage writes in the foreword to Fauset’s brilliant exploration of the diversity of African American religion, “The construct that Fauset could not escape and that framed his entire book [was] the debate about the presence of African retentions in African‑American religious practices, and the related notion that black people were by nature overly and primitively religious.”
Alexander Crummell—the first Black graduate of the University of Cambridge, an ordained Episcopal priest, a missionary for twenty years in Liberia, the co‑founder of the American Negro Academy, and Du Bois’s hero—said that the Black Church far too often “substituted rhapsody and hallucinations for spiritual service and moral obligation.” Crummell traced this tendency in African American congregations to their African origins: African religion, he wrote, could be characterized by a certain “race peculiarity,” by which he meant what he called its “warm, emotional, and impulsive energy, which was both its failing and its virtue.” This “failing,” he lamented, far exceeded its virtues, requiring “a strong corrective, or, otherwise, the flame of religious life, however intense for a time [would] blaze with unhealthy violence, or else soon burn itself out.” The ultimate danger—Crummell confessed what others deeply feared but merely whispered—was “a reversion to heathenism.”
A reversion to heathenism.
This was the barely repressed fear at the heart of debates about being saved by the Holy Ghost, performing the Holy Dance under the spirit, and speaking in tongues. This so‑called heathenism, of course, would trace back to the pre‑Christian origins of our people, straight to our ancestral African cultural origins. It was this relationship to the African past that, by any means necessary, for the Black middle class, both during Reconstruction and following its collapse, must be repressed. In this sense, the Holy Ghost—for well over a century and a half—was a pawn in a complicated class war over culture in the Black community.
Espinosa makes an ingenious connection between the mission of the group of Black intellectuals and leaders that Du Bois famously dubbed “the Talented Tenth”—those who objected most strenuously to the practice of charismatic religion—and William Joseph Seymour’s mission for his followers, pointing out with stunning insight that both the theory of the Talented Tenth and the manifestation of glossolalia at the Azusa Street Revival occurred virtually simultaneously. “Du Bois,” Espinosa argues, “writes that this ‘Talented Tenth’ were called on to be the ‘missionaries of culture’ who exercise the ‘vision of seers.’ He believed they would ‘leaven the lump’ of Black society and ‘inspire the masses.’” Seymour “turned this reference to the Black lump of masses bottom side up and instead saw the lump of Spirit‑filled Black masses—rather than the Talented Tenth—as providing leaven for the Black community and American society.” Espinosa concludes, “Seymour—though never a part of the Talented Tenth—nonetheless was and ended up being a ‘missionary of culture’ that had the ‘vision of seers.’”
Espinosa also argues that it’s clear that Seymour’s language sometimes echoes Du Bois’s. Both Du Bois and Seymour saw elite groups within the Black community as having true “saving power” to redeem America from its original sins, be they those of slavery or those of the flesh, though their definitions of “elite” were surely not aligned. Could Du Bois’s and Seymour’s theories have been flip sides of the same coin?
Espinosa believes that “from Seymour’s perspective, the Holy Spirit baptism enables marginalized people to reimagine their debilitating identities and frees them up to express their hitherto unrealized hopes, expectations, and dreams,” precisely when Jim Crow racism had robbed the freedmen and freedwomen and their descendants of those very things. To Sanders, too, that timing is critical. She concludes that the interracial outbreak of speaking in tongues at the Azusa Street Revival in 1906, and its massive spread thereafter, is evidence that the phenomenon “may signify the move of God to rescue us at ‘The Nadir,’” the lowest point in American race relations since the fall of Reconstruction and the rise of the ex‑Confederacy’s Redemption, the period of the Lost Cause and the legislation of Jim Crow segregation.
When Du Bois was writing of the Talented Tenth in 1903 and organizing, first, in 1905, the African American civil rights group the Niagara Movement, followed by, in 1909, the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it is doubtful that he would have seen his mission and Seymour’s as similar in the least. But their seemingly contrary ideas were both formulations of deliverance from the devils that were torturing our people, and both emerged within the same decade.
During my months of filming for this PBS series, in Black churches large and small, North, South, East, and West, Sunday after Sunday, having watched as carefully as I could people falling out in the aisles of churches or collapsing in their pews or at the altar, and hearing and recording a legion of believers just as spontaneously speaking an ocean of mutually unintelligible tongues, I have arrived at a different theory about the role and function of the Holy Ghost and its dazzling linguistic multiplicity.
Possession by the Holy Ghost, which I so feared as a boy, is perhaps the most vibrant, complex, and mysterious vestige of the African cultural past retained by African Americans—even as it is to some observers, such as Bishop Payne and the Reverend Crummell and Dr. Du Bois, the most “embarrassing.” Other retentions and reinventions of the African cultural past include myriad sacred and secular forms of dance; call‑and‑response in music and oratory; polyrhythms (the interplay of primary and secondary beats, reflecting a generating principle of cross‑rhythms); and structures of sermonizing that the scholar Gerald Davis calls “the circular mode” in his study I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know, and Otis Moss III calls “blue note preaching,” which he defines as “a unique cultural narrative and theological enterprise where African motifs meet diverse Western influences of North America.”
These are celebrated as seminal examples of the magic of cultural continuity between the Old World of Africa and the New World of Black America that survived the horrors and ravages of the Middle Passage and the scattering and fragmentation of ethnic cultures during the slave regime. I think it’s fair to say that, in general, speaking in tongues and the spontaneous eruptions of the Holy Dance are not proudly celebrated as African retentions, despite their having survived the same horrific journey as the cultural crossovers. In fact, Black Christian spirit possession as practiced in the Black Church seems to be one of the most obvious examples of how the symbolic practices of the fifty or so most commonly represented African ethnic groups in the cultural and genetic DNA of the African American people blended together into peculiarly African American forms.
Speaking in tongues and spirit possession might be considered, for some African Americans, the troublesome African retention. Somehow these elements slipped through that mysterious portal through which other Pan‑African cultural legacies (along with other “Africanisms”) were transmitted and took root solidly in Black American cultural soil, mutating under Christianity into the possession by the Holy Ghost that manifests in evangelical services. Jean Toomer coined a name for this portal in 1923, in his novel Cane: “the Dixie Pike,” which “has grown from a goat path in Africa.” He also said quite perceptively that in the Black tradition at its best, a “body is a song,” a principle that we witness in the greatest of Black preaching and Black Church singing. Du Bois somewhat demeaned sacred spirit possession by describing it with the term “trance.” And it was my own fear of succumbing to it, or more accurately being captivated or taken over by it, that led me to walk down Water Street on the left side of the road, to Waldon Methodist, rather than on the right side, by the Church of God in Christ, where, I was convinced, the Holy Ghost lived.
Why was I so afraid of the Holy Ghost as a boy? Well, maybe because Victor Clay, my brother’s friend, was leaving a revival meeting, walking up the aisle and heading out the door, when all of a sudden, he told us, something grabbed him, turned him around, and drove him straight back down the aisle to the altar, in the grip of the Holy Ghost and speaking in tongues. Even in Waldon Methodist, the Holy Spirit made its shadowy way from the Holiness Church down the street a couple hundred feet and grabbed my father’s friend, Mr. Stanley Fisher, who dropped to all fours, began barking like a dog, and in that posture made his way to the altar to confess, join the church, and speak in tongues. The man was on all fours. Maybe that’s why I was terrified of the Holy Ghost.
Why did African spirit possession translate itself into the Black Church in these ways? I think it’s because the church is a concentrated, consecrated theater where the Word and the Song can combine as a site of conjuration, the space where the Spirit (Du Bois’s “Frenzy”) can be conjured each Sunday, recapitulating the journey that our ancestors’ spiritual practices undertook as they trod that Dixie Pike out of Africa. Throughout this project, I watched a plethora of individuals get the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I felt the experience seemed forced, but not often. Mostly, in fact, I felt that I was witnessing a miracle of soul transformation, something full of wonder and mystery and terror—and realness—that I didn’t have the language to explain. During interviews, I routinely asked preachers, soloists, musicians, and congregants if they had experienced the Holy Ghost. John Legend, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania after turning Harvard down, answered matter‑of‑factly: “I spoke in tongues. It’s a rite of passage in the Pentecostal Church. Folks shout, dance in the aisles. I was raised in that tradition, and I wouldn’t be an artist today if I hadn’t grown up in that tradition.”
For me, part of the magic, part of the irresistible fascination of the Black Church is that it is Black culture’s site of the beautiful and the sublime. Today, we think of the sublime, according to the dictionary, as “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.” Certainly Black sacred music and classical Black preaching fall into that category. But the sublime, in eighteenth‑century aesthetic thought, as put forth by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, connoted something terrifying. The Yale University professor David Bromwich argues, however, that “once you see the strange enactment of passion as a usual thing and taken for granted in churches, your experience of it turns habitual. Then the surprise or shock is removed and the sense of sublimity diminished. As Burke notes, ‘Custom reconciles us to every thing.’” In other words, Holy Ghost possession retains its enormous power but has lost its capacity to terrify, as it did a twelve‑year‑old Black boy in Piedmont, West Virginia.
The Holy Ghost is the Black sublime, beyond the control of our will, in an experience equally astonishing, strange, and beautiful at once. It is the most haunting, unsettling, mystical, fascinating, terrifying—indeed, the most sublime—remnant of our African past, and it comes alive at a large portion of churches in the Black community each and every Sunday. For many of us, its manifestation remains novel, despite infinite repetitions, retaining its characteristics of shock and, to some extent, fear at this visible, miraculous manifestation of the Spirit of God.
My wife, Marial Iglesias Utset, is a Cuban citizen and a historian of slavery and the slave trade to Cuba. Her parents were deeply committed to the Cuban Revolution and raised their three children not only outside of the Catholic Church, but as staunch atheists. (Marial’s grandmother remained a devout Catholic and spirited the kids away one day to the church just down the street so the priest could baptize them, incurring the wrath of her son.) At least a dozen times, Marial has asked me, out of genuine curiosity, “Why did the Black people get in love with this white Jesus that they inherited from the people who enslaved them?” When we compare the large number of Black people in Cuba and Brazil who practice Santeria and Candomblé with the vastly smaller numbers of practitioners of Obeah or Hoodoo or “Voodoo” in the United States, it is reasonable to ask what “work” Protestant Christianity, and especially evangelical Christianity, was performing for the African American people, both enslaved and free.
I once asked my friend Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and the former head of the Human Genome Project, why he was a devout Christian. He told me that he decided to convert as he observed that believing Christians faced death with more ease than nonbelievers did. Two of my mother’s nine brothers founded their own churches, both evangelical churches, when they turned sixty. Another brother graduated from divinity school at Boston University in 1960 and is a semi‑retired Methodist minister. Big Mom never missed a Sunday. My father loved the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, especially its bells and whistles, its incense and repeated formality, until the day he died, and I found those things quite attractive myself when I left the church of my mother and underwent confirmation in the Episcopal Church of my father at the age of fourteen. To my surprise, my mother was confirmed as well.
The rigidly literal interpretations of the Bible among my fellow Waldon Methodists was clashing with the growth of my studies in biology, physics, and chemistry, fitting me like a girdle, as Zora Neale Hurston put it in another context. Once I knew that the world couldn’t have been created in seven days, and that there couldn’t have been an Adam and Eve, and that so much of the Bible was cast in allegory and analogy, simile and metaphor, that it was a text to be interpreted and not holy writ, I found the openness of the Episcopal Church to my expanding intellect and relentless teenage questioning a relief, and quite refreshing. I could retain my religious beliefs and not have to put my intellect on hold. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about the Holy Ghost taking possession of me at any point in the service. Not a chance!
So why the persistence and growth of the Black Church? Why are so many of my friends, who, truth be told, are at best agnostic and more probably atheist, drawn to the sermons of T. D. Jakes or Otis Moss III or Calvin O. Butts III either in person or online? How is it that these worldly men and women won’t miss Black church on a Sunday? Why is Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, surely one of the most highly educated and economically comfortable Black congregations in the world, literally packed, standing room only, Sunday after Sunday, for the ten o’clock morning service each week in July and August? Of course there are those who are true believers, but for the lot of us who wouldn’t be included in that category, it’s because of what I think of as the racial comfort of this cultural space, the familiarity with the rituals, with all of the elements, as Jennifer Hudson put it in our interview, that contribute to the Black Church as “theater,” where Du Bois’s three key structural elements, the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy, meet.
The Black Church is the space where our direct cultural ties to Africa come to life in new and mutated but still recognizable form. It’s that cultural space in which we can bathe freely in the comfort of our cultural heritage, and where everyone knows their part, and where everyone can judge everyone else’s performance of their part, often out loud with amens, with laughter, with clapping, or with silence. It’s the space that we created to find rest in the gathering storm. It’s the place where we made a way out of no way. It’s the place to which, after a long and wearisome journey, we can return and find rest before we cross the river. It’s the place we call, simply, the Black Church. As Miss Toot Marshall expressed it in the refrain to her rendition of “The Prodigal Son,” the gold standard of hymns sung regularly by the choir at Waldon Methodist and, without doubt, my favorite gospel song:
Oh, I believe, I believe
I will go back home.
Well, I believe, I believe
I will go back home.
I believe, I believe
I will go back home
And be a servant for the Lord.
From THE BLACK CHURCH: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song by Henry Louis Gates Jr., published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2021 by Henry Louis Gates Jr.