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TV Review: Series tracks spiritual path that sustained black Americans

Monday, June 23, 2003

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A one-room white clapboard structure, the praise house sat in the backwoods of South Carolina. The houses dotted the Low Country. When enslaved Africans couldn't worship with their "holders," or masters, they retreated to them to release their troubles to the Lord.

The concluding episode of "This Far by Faith" chronicles a two-year pilgrimage from Massachusetts to Africa undertaken to heal the wounds of slavery. Among those discussing the pilgrimage are Sister Claire Carter and Ingrid Askew. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

"This Far by Faith"

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow through Thursday on WQED.

Narrator: Lorraine Toussaint.

In the swamps, the praise house became both a sanctuary and a symbol for how black religion shaped the heart and soul of black cultural, political and social life.

When there was no way, black Americans -- using the force of faith -- made a way.

This pilgrimage of the past three centuries of black religious life is told in "This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys," a six-hour PBS series that airs over three nights beginning tomorrow on WQED.

Using archival photography and compelling re-creations, the series follows the arrival of enslaved Africans to America, travels through the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights era to reveal the origins and connections between black faith and cultural values. It ends where faith began -- in Africa.

The final episode chronicles an interfaith, multiracial pilgrimage as it journeys from Massachusetts to the slave forts at Goree Island, Senegal, on the coast of West Africa.

Producing the series became a test of faith. It was conceived by "Eyes on the Prize" filmmaker Henry Hampton, who raised the money for the project. Hampton died in 1998 before production began.

Dante James, who had been mentored by Hampton and worked with him on several projects, was named as executive producer to finish the work.

"I felt a strong commitment to Henry, both personally and professionally," said James. "It was a great opportunity for me. It's not every day a fully funded effort comes to you."

The filming of the series began in July 1999 and took 18 months to complete.

For James, speaking on the phone from his second-floor efficiency in Harlem, the series was a reminder that religion, whether organized or individual, is a part of being human.

For black Americans, he said, it's been a constant, an "integral part of the quest for justice and equality."

The film's first hour, "There Is a River," shares the story of Isabel Baumfree. In 1843, guided by a vision she had in the woods of New York, Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth.

Unable to read or write, she became known for her fiery orations against slavery.

Hour two, "God is a Negro," tells of pastor Henry McNeal Turner. In the late 1880s, Turner, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, was one of the first black preachers to espouse the notion that God is black. Turner also used his pulpit to push for political change.

The series also paints a broader picture of black spirituality than just the Christian church, said James.

Episode five, "Inheritors of the Faith," shows the growth of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad in the 1960s. Much of this hour was filmed while current leader Louis Farrakhan was ill. The series was unable to speak with any current Nation of Islam worshippers.

While producing the series, James had to grapple with his own faith.

Hampton's death left him confused. How could God take away "this brilliant humanitarian" and friend who gave so much to so many people and "leave people here who are walking around contributing nothing to humanity or the cause of African people?"

After seeing the finished product, James is sure strength and faith is what brought black Americans through.

While reflecting on his friend and mentor, James came to the conclusion that through the spirit "there is so much that one individual can give."

Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.

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