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Photo by Roundabout Theatre Company.

Historical Context

"The Black church was more than just the spiritual home. It was the epicenter of Black life."

I Gotta Home:

Historical Context

The Black Church

Shirley Graham Du Bois, the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) pastor, used her childhood experiences in the Black church as inspiration for the story of I Gotta Home. The historical relationship between enslaved Africans in the New World and Christianity is complex. White missionaries sought to convert enslaved Africans in the American colonies, and in doing so introduced enslaved people to Judeo-Christian stories of a God committed to the liberation of the oppressed and a Messiah who suffered and was unjustly persecuted—ideas which undermined existing justifications for slavery. In response, white slave owners sought to control Black religious experience by outlawing literacy and preventing enslaved people from worshipping independently. The Black church grew in secret, and members combined worship styles from their African traditions with Christianity, yielding rich musical and liturgical traditions, including spirituals.

After the Civil War, the Black church—the one institution over which formerly enslaved people had complete control—became the primary organizing institution of Black life in the South and followed Black communities North during the Great Migration. As Representative Charles Rangel explained in Dr. Henry Louis Gates’s “The Black Church” documentary series, “The Black church was more than just the spiritual home. It was the epicenter of Black life. Out of it came our Black businesses, our Black educational institutions.” Black political power also grew out of the church.

An AME Church in Wayne County, Indiana; Photo Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey; Library of Congress 

African Methodist Episcopal Church

By the end of Reconstruction, some Black churches were organized into Christian denominations, while other congregations remained independent. I Gotta Home’s characters reflect Graham Du Bois’s upbringing in A.M.E. parsonages across the country, particularly in the ubiquity of church hierarchy among the characters. The first A.M.E. Church was founded in Philadelphia in 1794 by Black congregants of a Methodist church who opposed their church’s segregationist practices. By 1816, there were five African Methodist congregations that came together to form the denomination. Because the argument was over the practice of segregation and not religious doctrine, A.M.E. churches adhere to standard Methodist beliefs. The term “episcopal” in their name reflects the church’s hierarchy: “episcopus” is a Latin noun for “bishop,” and A.M.E. churches are governed by elected bishops, each assigned a geographic area, who serve from the time of their election until their 75th birthday. Bishops appoint Presiding Elders, who supervise portions of the Bishops’ districts and appoint local pastors to one-year assignments. The church’s mission is to “minister to the social, spiritual, and physical development of all people.”

Elijah Fed by Ravens, 1880-81, wood engraving on paper from Dalziels' Bible Gallery, after original by Francis Sylvester Walker. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Elijah's Ravens

In I Gotta Home, Reverend Elijah Cobb, the family patriarch, repeatedly references a bible story that holds great meaning for him, the story of Elijah and the ravens, found in chapter 17 of the first Book of Kings of the Hebrew Bible, included in the Christian Old Testament. In the story, Elijah prophecies a devastating drought to the king. Elijah, who has angered the king, then follows God’s instructions to hide east of the Jordan River, where ravens will bring him food so that he may survive. God later directs Elijah to seek food from a poor widow. Ravens, according to other Old Testament books, are “unclean” animals, unfit for human consumption, and widows considered weak and powerless. By following God’s puzzling instructions, Elijah is demonstrating his trust in the Lord; by using ravens and widows to feed Elijah, God is proving that God’s ways are not the ways of the world.

Mass Media in the Late 1930s

Graham Du Bois wrote I Gotta Home in 1939 while studying at Yale University. She matriculated to Yale using money from the Rosenwald Fund, an award given to her as a result of her successful time working at the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in Chicago. At Yale, Graham Du Bois studied, made, and wrote prolifically—including straight plays, radio plays, and a pilot for a radio soap opera—but her race and gender stymied her efforts at writing a non-musical commercial success.

By 1939, only five plays with Black authors, all men, had appeared on Broadway. But commercial radio, as scholar Chris Vials points out in Realism for the Masses: Aesthetics, Popular Front Pluralism, and U.S. Culture, 1935-1947 (2009), had become a more influential part of American life than the theatre. Networks had begun airing popular, serialized daytime “soap operas” aimed at women in 1930. While much of the radio establishment was male, women created defining soap operas in which female protagonists were at the center of the story and were depicted with agency and humanity.

Painted Dreams - Credited as the first soap opera, Irna Phillips’s series, which originated on WGN in Chicago in 1930, featured the older, widowed Mother Moynihan navigating life during the Great Depression and helping her grown children do the same.

Ma Perkins - This story followed the titular Ma, owner and manager of a lumber yard in a small Southern town, and her children. The show, created by the husband-and-wife team Anne and Frank Hummert, first aired in 1933 and did not go off the air until 1960.

Gertrude Berge in character as Molly Goldberg

The Goldbergs - Created by Gertrude Berg and broadcast live on radio from 1929 until 1947, this story follows the Jewish Goldberg family and matriarch Molly as they navigate immigrant life first in the Bronx and later in the suburbs.

In I Gotta Home, Graham Du Bois used everything she’d learned about audiences while at the FTP to write what she hoped would be a commercial success with broad appeal, a play that would be financially successful, employ Black actors, and open the door to multi-faceted and realistic mass media portrayals of Black Americans in the same way that pioneering radio writers had done for women in soap operas. ♦

Read More:

History of the Play

Read More:

Shirley Graham Du Bois: Brief Life Story

Read more: Timeline of Black American Theatre

Read more: Literary Ancestry Essay Series

Read more: Recommended Plays and Further Reading

REFERENCES
AME Church. (2021, April 08). Home.

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy. “Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16.” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.

Fuller, Dan. “The Goldbergs.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2019.

Gates, H. L. (2021, March 03). The Black Church.

“Ma Perkins.” Old Time Radio.

Powell, Jessie Bishop. “Radio Broadcasting Industry.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2019.

Tisby, Jemar. "Raphael Warnock's win in Georgia is a testament to the power of the Black church." Washington Post, 10 Jan. 2021.

Ungvarsky, Janine. “African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2020.

Vials, Chris. Realism for the Masses: Aesthetics, Popular Front Pluralism, and U.S. Culture, 1935-1947. University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

Wargo, Rob. “October 20, 1930: The Soap Opera Was Born.” We Love Soaps.