Todne Thomas, an associate professor at the Harvard Divinity School, examined the 2015 burning of a predominantly African American church as part of a wider discussion about the phenomenon of Black church arson at a virtual lecture Friday.
The lecture, titled “From Sacred Ground to ‘Ground Work’: Black Church Arson and Intramural Self-Representation,” was part of an anthropology speaker series hosted by the University of Notre Dame. In her lecture, Thomas outlined four possible explanations for the unsolved arson of the College-Hill Seventh-Day Adventist Church, or CHSDAC, a predominantly Black church in Knoxville, Tenn.
While three of the explanations suggest religious and social factors, such as the rise of white supremacist terrorism and gentrification, Thomas elucidated a fourth explanation — “the idea of a Black arsonist.”
Thomas recounted ethnographic interviews with residents in the area surrounding the CHSDAC, which were used to connect the cultural notion of a Black arsonist to intraracial tensions.
“I demonstrate that local speculations about a Black arsonist reference broader intraracial schisms in the Black community — that is, anti-Adventist bias, the polarization of wealth and socioeconomic class, and the presumed antipathy between Black churches and Black activists,” Thomas said.
Thomas pushed back on what she considers to be a form of “epistemic violence” — political and social narratives that overemphasize Black urban violence. She noted that her ethnographic techniques aim to prevent the perpetuation of traditional and potentially harmful narratives that leave out certain Black perspectives.
“I collect and join other narratives that explore Black community dynamics in ways that are not beholden to essentialized narratives of Black criminality, culture of poverty theses, instead guided by the ethical imperative to center Black voices and accounts of arson, and the belief that such a reframing yields new perspectives,” Thomas said.
Thomas said she initially worried her work might be appropriated by white supremacists to advance narratives that are harmful to Black people, but was encouraged by a colleague to continue the project.
“We can't be so concerned with the white gaze that we don't have the conversations we need to have as a community,” Thomas said.
Thomas concluded her lecture by expressing frustration with the treatment of Black individuals by “white social science,” which she contends fails to capture the nuance of individual experiences.
“It loves to explain and attribute. It doesn't ask enough questions. It doesn't leave irresolution — the messiness of human experience,” she said. “Black people don't get that. We get very hard, concretized meta-narratives. And we deserve more.”