The Black Church: A Tree with Many Branches


  • Johari Jabir Temple University Press



“The Black Church” is a popular phrase, often uttered with little consideration of the historical dissonances that make up Black Christianity. Despite the ways Black Christianity has shared in the common aim of dignity, humanity, and freedom asserted throughout the broader history of Black religion, there has never been one monolithic Black Church. However, when viewed as a “tree with many branches,” to borrow Christopher Small’s terminology for describing the tradition of Black music making, the Black Church represents a tradition with multiple performance practices and politics that have changed throughout history. 

Today, many young Black activists have turned to the Black church for political support only to find most clergy unwilling to make the kind of bold gestures of resistance seen in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Also, younger Black activists have found the current church particularly hostile toward queer identities. The church they face, however, is not the sum total of the Black Church as a tradition. This essay is a mediation in and meditation on the Black Church’s interaction with contemporary Black activism and the tradition of Black working-class church activism as a “usable past,” a spiritual resource for the current crossroads in Black citizenship. I speak of Black working-class churches as a descriptive frame rather than in the exclusively demographic sense. Black working-class communities brought Black labor activism into churches, but further investigation is needed to adequately describe the membership of congregations discussed here. As an alternative to traditional Black Church historiography, viewing some of the connections among class, culture, and queerness can reveal how Black spirituality thrives beyond the view of the church from the top down, but it also demonstrates how and why this version of the Black church had to be sacrificed in the onslaught of neoliberalism.