New Perspectives on Integrative Anthropology: Todne Thomas


Location: via Zoom

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Todne Thomas will give a virtual presentation as part of the New Perspectives in Anthropology spring 2022 speaker series.

From Sacred Ground to “Ground Work”: Black Church Arson and Intramural Self-Representation
On June 22, 2015, the College-Hill Seventh-Day Adventist Church (CHSDAC), a predominately African American church in Knoxville, Tennessee, was burned. Bales of hay were left in front of the church and set ablaze. The church building sustained minor damages. Though the CHSDAC arson garnered local and national attention, no suspect was ever apprehended.  Informed by my ethnographic research in Knoxville, Tennessee, my project explores black church arson through what I term narrative attribution—the representational processes by which a predominately black congregation and local community members designate the social actors and forces they think are responsible for the burning of CHSDAC. Within a set of narrative culprits identified by community members is the Black arsonist.  In this paper, I argue that the figure of the Black arsonist is constructed in and against the potentialities of anti-Adventist bias, intra-racial class cleavages, and activist Black church antipathy. Rather than reproducing essentialized notions of Black pathology, I illustrate that local contemplations of the Black arsonist reveal a steep gradient of expectations for Black churches and intramural diagnostics of Black church shortcomings.  More broadly, I also demonstrate that intramural self-representations are done to repair rather than reify Black community breaches.

Thomas is a socio-cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School. In collaboration with Afro-Caribbean and African American congregants, Thomas conducts ethnographic research on the racial, spatial, and familial dynamics of black Christian communities in the U.S. Conceptually, her work integrates critical race and kinship theories to understand the racial and moral scripts of evangelicalism and neoliberalism.

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