Ethnography and Crafting the Story of Community

November 4, 2021
A painted sign on a building reads "Welcome to Mechanicsville"
A photo from the Mechanicsville neighborhood in Knoxville, TN, home to the College Hill Seventh-Day Adventist church that was burned in 2015.

From kincraft to Black Church burnings, Professor Todne Thomas teaches about the multidimensional character of human experience

Todne Thomas, Associate Professor of African American Religious Studies, is an esteemed ethno-grapher and an expert on kinship studies. But when it comes to titles, Thomas prefers something more personal: “My favorite titles are daughter and mother,” she shares. Her preferred honorifics point to who Thomas is at her core—a person who understands the eminence of connection.

The acknowledgments at the beginning of her first book, Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Society, reveal the depths of appreciation Thomas feels for community. After a heartfelt dedication to her family, and thanks to God for endowing her with life, Thomas recognizes the many folks who helped bring the book to fruition—from fellow church members, to friends and colleagues, to the crew at her favorite local coffee shop. Thomas writes about kinship from a place of knowing, and it shows.

An Act of Will: Kincraft, Community, and Ethical Constructions of Love
Thomas describes Kincraft as “an ethnographic exploration of the community created by the members of a Black evangelical church association in the Atlanta metropolitan area.” Set in two Afro-Caribbean and African American evangelical congregations (Dixon Bible Chapel and Corinthian Bible Chapel), the book examines spiritual enactments of family among church members. (Thomas mentions “brothers and sisters in Christ” and “spiritual mothers/fathers” as examples of faith-based kinship.) While these spiritual relationships are grounded in shared religious aspirations, they also speak to shared experiences of racialization and social mobility.

“One of the things I say in my Religion and Family class,” Thomas remarks, “is that kinship is about how people create solidarities, but it’s also about conflict and power.”

From our most intimate relationships to international social structures, conflict and power emerge at nearly every scale of existence. But just as imbalances in power can beget inequality and hate, solidarity and community can beget ethical constructions of love.

Thomas clarifies that she does not talk about love in a lightweight way. We’re not evoking the overly romanticized version seen in the movies, nor the spiritual bypassing seen all too often online. Thomas talks of the tender-yet-fierce form required to love your neighbor as you love yourself. “Love is an act of the will,” one church sister reflects in Kincraft. This steadfast, intentional commitment to care breathes life into our personal connections, our sacred spaces, our communities, and our understanding of true justice.

Behind the Seams: The Craft of Ethnography
As with any field of study, ethnographers must consider their own positionality and potential biases. Where should an ethnographer stand in relation to their craft? It’s a question Thomas continues to explore with her fieldwork and her teaching, noting that ethnography involves a lot of different voices: “You have the voices of your research collaborators, the voices of your theorists, and your own author voice. Trying to triangulate those perspectives is a continual work in progress.”

Thomas’s care for honoring multiple perspectives while telling communal stories was quite literally illustrated in her first book. The cover of Kincraft is a quilt—an apt metaphor, she explains: “Ethnography is also about, to use a craft metaphor, letting some of the seams show. When you have a quilt, the top looks pristine. But if you turn a quilt top over, you see all the work. You see the mistakes and the mess of threads, but that constructedness helps demystify the process. It shows the different contributions and stories that were all stitched into one piece.”

Black Church Burnings: A Portal to Look at America
In 2015, an unknown arsonist burned down a Black church, College Hill Seventh-Day Adventist, in Thomas’s hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. This hate crime launched a wave of confusion and fear in the community. Thomas went home to listen, learn, and help the community navigate the horrific attack on their sacred space.

Her conversations with church members, clergy, and community leaders garnered more questions and grew into the premise for her next book. “No one was apprehended,” she explains. “The project I’m working on in Knoxville asks, ‘who or what is responsible?’ So, it becomes a way to look at Black church arson, but it also becomes a portal to look at America.”

In addition to her fieldwork in Knoxville, Thomas is also researching Black church burnings in Springfield, Massachusetts (one in 2008 and another in December 2020). Racially motivated arson is “not just a Southern thing,” Thomas reminds us. While she has yet to conduct in-person fieldwork in Springfield, she has been interviewing community members remotely. Citing overlapping crises, she explains: “Even as the pandemic prevented ethnography as I know it, it’s important to note that white supremacy didn’t take a break.”

Thomas also notes that the volume of calls and eagerness to process she has seen this year are like nothing she’s experienced before—perhaps in response to Covid-related isolation. In the wake of the December 2020 church burning, Thomas found herself with even more parishioners wanting to process the lived experience of losing their sacred space. She recounts: “I’m grateful that I got support from the dean’s office to make connections in Springfield. The urgency of that work—and the timing—was understood.”

To share her teachings and learnings with students, Thomas is creating a new course for the 2021–22 academic year (tentatively titled “The Burning Black Church”).

The Balance of Both/And
Ethnography can be both a burden and a blessing. On any given day, Thomas may be listening to someone who has found unparalleled kinship through their place of worship or someone who has suffered immeasurable grief when their place of worship was burned to the ground. Reflecting on this duality, she shares: “Even as you’re doing this work, you have moments, speaking of love, that really break your heart...and I still struggle with trying to depict the beauty. I’m not interested in the resilience frame; that’s overdone. Because replying on the Black resilience narrative, to me, exonerates anti-Black violence. The Black community doesn’t need to be tested to be beautiful.”

She goes on to describe moments of beauty she has witnessed while conducting interviews in Knoxville: a little girl doing a cartwheel outside the sanctuary and tears welling up in the eyes of a man talking about how much church means to him. “Balancing those things means figuring out multilayered complexity. So, a ‘both/and’ approach (as opposed to ‘either/or’) might be showing the violence and showing the beauty in a way that doesn’t move towards quick frames of resilience.”

And that balance, Thomas affirms, is what we need to hold together—and revel in—the multidimensional character of human experience.

—by Amie Montemurro

Cover of Kincraft 
Praise for Kincraft
“Anthropology as a discipline had no love for the objects of study. But what if love is a theoretical and methodological component? What does that look like? It looks like moving into spaces without hubris. It looks like moving through spaces without knowing and being okay with that. And what does love as a theoretical, methodological component yield? It yields counterintuitive findings, it yields ‘both/and’ analysis, it yields seeming contradictions, and it yields beautifully layered complexity, which is exactly where [Todne Thomas] is sitting with this text.” Professor Judith Casselberry, renowned anthropologist