Kincraft book cover

In Review

Centering Black Evangelicals and Their Stories

An Interview with Todne Thomas

Todne Thomas is Associate Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School. She conducts ethnographic research on the racial, spatial, and familial dynamics of Black Christian communities in the United States. Her work integrates critical race and kinship theories to understand the racial and moral scripts of evangelicalism and neoliberalism. She edited with Asiya Malik and Rose Wellman New Directions in Spiritual Kinship: Sacred Ties across the Abrahamic Religions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Her latest book, Kincraft, draws on fieldwork in an Afro-Caribbean and African American church association in Atlanta to explore the internal dynamics of community life among Black evangelicals, presenting their determined spiritual relatedness as a form of insurgency. Adam McNeil sat down with Thomas to discuss the book.

Adam McNeil: Pun intended, what is the Genesis story behind Kincraft?

Todne Thomas: Nice pun and a great question! The origin story for Kincraft takes place on a ship carrying persons enslaved by white supremacist imperialists and proto-capitalists. The genocidal people called slavers were engaged in a number of material and symbolic practices that tried to convert human beings with full lives and life potential, a plethora of social statuses, and given and recognized social relationships into “cargo.” When I speak of the Middle Passage, I do not intend to romanticize the suffering of millions of enslaved persons and the horrors that were wrought upon them. And historian Stephanie Smallwood cautions against an overemphasis of the solidarities produced by enslaved persons during the Middle Passage. Smallwood characterizes the populations of enslaved people on board as a “mutilated assemblage that was not a functioning whole but rather an arbitrary collective of isolated and alienated persons.”1 To be sure, there was a great deal of ethnolinguistic variation, as well as challenges presented by intelligibility, illness, trauma, and violence. Yet, I consider the shipmate relationship constituted vis-à-vis the Middle Passage as an origin story of African diaspora kinship, and of a New World Blackness itself. It is an analogy to the kinship of Blackness as a collective identification borne of slavery, suffering, and disenfranchisement. It is a story of transformation: of the dehumanizing meta-imposition of kinlessness onto captives and their own responses of making kin in violent circumstances. Because making kin is a survival strategy, it is an etching of an ethical orientation and a move toward the coproduction of collective personhood.

In my own ethnographic work with Afro-Caribbean and African American Black evangelicals set in the twenty-first century, I identify this human potentiality replicated in contexts of marginalization and mobility that comprise the African diaspora, this creation of kinship through the sutures offered by religious imaginaries, spaces, and rituals. In the case of Black evangelicals located in the two churches, Corinthian Bible Chapel (CBC) and Dixon Bible Chapel (DBC), kinship was also informed by the lexicons of Christian siblingship, spiritual motherhood and fatherhood, and the more recent vernacular term of prayer partnership. The DBC and CBC evangelicals believed that Christians were a universal family of God and that their relationships with one another should be demonstrated in terms of the language they used to address one another, but also how they related to one another in terms of religious mentorship and intimate confiding, emotional and material support, feeding, visiting, and talking, praying, and studying the Bible. The members of CBC and DBC, many of whom hailed from the Caribbean or were African Americans who had migrated domestically, also held the sensibility that “a person should have people.” I both witnessed and experienced these lexicons, practices, and sensibilities during my time with them.

AM: What is “kincraft”?

BOOKS

Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality, by Todne Thomas. Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People. Duke University Press, 2021, 264 pages, $26.95.

Todne Thomas

HDS Photograph/Justin Knight

TT: By kincraft, I refer to discourses, practices, and worldviews by which they constructed each other as spiritual kin. Specifically, I note that this kincraft emerges from Christian cultural sources like the transcendent ecclesial notions of Plymouth Brethrenism that write Christian believers into a “family of God.” I also note that this kincraft emerges from the adaptive kinship practices that rise out of diasporic histories and experiences, as well as lived experiences of immigration, racialization, and spatial and social mobility. But Black evangelical community life also holds an aesthetic story. Kincraft is not just a study of form and function. By denoting Black evangelical spiritual kinship as kincraft, I acknowledge the craftsmanship and collective labor that undergird Black evangelical sociality. In the words of poet Elizabeth Alexander, I write out of a “veneration of the sweat of the craft.”2 My work is grounded in a profound appreciation of the dynamic tapestry of relationships patterned by ideological designs and collective intentions in contexts of teaching and learning, confiding correction and giving, a warp and weft fashioned by hands, starts, repetitions, do-overs, and repairs—a tapestry that I was able to see in sections during my time with the DBC and CBC communities.

AM: What were the biggest challenges you encountered while conducting fieldwork?

TT: The biggest challenge I encountered was the decentralized landscape of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Finding a place to do research proved really hard at first. Being grounded in the institutionalized spaces of Black churches was immensely helpful.

AM: How does Kincraft provide your readers a different and, dare I say, more complicated picture of evangelicalism when Black people are placed at the center of analysis?

TT: This is a good question and a timely one. I’d like to start by responding that there has been an increased attention to the dynamics of contemporary evangelicalism in the United States and race. This is good. In particular, the support of the group dubbed Trumpvangelicals for President Donald Trump in 2016 raised questions about the demographics and faith orientations of this constituency. And these are important questions. Nonetheless, as I teach students, “hegemony does not actually preclude alternatives; it just creates well-traveled associations.” White evangelicals do not own evangelicalism, even if they are a numeric majority, even if their worldviews feed white supremacist, imperialist, and cisheteropatriarchal forms of dominance.

And so that’s where we are with Kincraft. When Black people are placed at the center of analysis, evangelicalism becomes a religion of connection and critique; it makes family but also hosts intimate spaces with questions about family ideologies. What does family mean for people of African descent? Are ancestors displaced as they enter a universal family of God, and what is the place of heteronormative kinship ideologies in Black and mainstream neo-evangelical subcultures? Why is it so heavily prized? Is it a form of idolatry? So, the narrative of a normatized white heteropatriarchal traditionalism is not simplistically replicated; it receives questioning and critique.

Moreover, theologies of Christian kinship are challenged by Black evangelical experiences with racial exclusion. In some instances, this is a matter of commentary, the sharing of experience, and observation of racial distances rather than intervention. In some instances, their insistence on the realization of authentic Christian familial connection and fellowship across racial boundaries emerges in contexts in which evangelists engage in interracial revivalism and parachurch collaborations, as was the case with founding evangelist T. Michael Flowers and the regional interracial gospel missionary organization of which he was a part.

Nonetheless, the project does not only excavate a Black-white binary of U.S. evangelicalism. CBC and DBC members’ take on Biblicism generated intraracial religious distinctions between an authenticated Christianity they understand to be grounded in biblical literalism and an authentic, performative Christianity they understand to be rooted in ecstatic worship practices and charismatic pastoral authority. Bible study also becomes a central venue for the production of meaning and consensus, as well as the ritualization of male biblical exegesis and fraternalism. Centering Black evangelicals and their story of Black evangelicalism, then, illuminates some of the binaries of the U.S. Christian landscape, as well as some of the bridges created by members, and also intraracial religious and moral distinctions that are often obscured by the presumed stability of Blackness as a signifier of a presumable religious homogeneity. They provide us more

AM: Church attendance and Christian adherence have both waned in recent decades among Black millennials. What did you learn in your fieldwork about intergenerational religious dynamics among Black millennials and their parents within DBC and CBC?

TT: DBC and CBC members worry about their ability to reproduce religious identity across generations. To be sure, there is no way to truly ensure that your children will stay in the faith. But there are also a number of interrelated social phenomena feeding Black evangelical concerns about Black millennial religious designations: an uptick in millennials’ self-identifications as spiritual but not religious; the association of higher education with secularization and a loosening of faith; concerns about the replication of middle-class identities across generations, amid ongoing processes of racialization, downward mobility, and economic recession. For Black evangelical parents and grandparents, the religious fate of their children is situated between spiritual and material fears about doubt and debt, about the various kinds of distractions and discouragements that can contribute to young people walking away from the faith. Since my fieldwork, some of the young adults, who were peers to me in terms of age (mid-20s) during the time of fieldwork, have left the church, citing concerns with the church’s emphasis on orthodoxy to the detriment of new programming that can sustain young adult interest, worship practices, and topics of interest to younger adults.

AM: You delicately detail how diaspora and ethnicity play important roles in the creation of and differences between DBC, CBC, and the “Black Church.” Why are diaspora and ethnicity important characteristics that shape each church you focus on in Kincraft?

TT: Diaspora and ethnicity remind us of the mobilities and cultural variations that exist within Black communities in the United States. The Black in evangelical is not singular and is not an exclusive reference to African American identity, as might be assumed. In fact, the origins of the CBC and DBC communities trace back to an evangelical Plymouth Brethrenism transplanted in the Caribbean by missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And, it was mostly Afro-Caribbean evangelists who founded this religious movement from the 1950s and then a successive wave in the 1980s, when more Afro-Caribbean immigrants began migrating to Atlanta. Black evangelicalism is worked out around ethnic lines, between Caribbean progenitors and African American converts and between notions of religious difference that get mapped onto different Black ethnic groups. There are also shared experiences of mobility that African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans share. But Black evangelicalism is not singular, and making Black evangelical communities requires negotiations across intraracial differences and culturally differentiated contexts of origin and religious practice to create congregations based on shared notions of kinship. This requires work; they are not innate to Blackness.

AM: Recently, the world lost Black feminist theorist and thinker bell hooks, whose analysis plays a major methodological role in your fifth chapter, “Churchwomen and the Incorporation of Church and Home.” Can you describe how hooks helps you explain the “qualities and contexts of churchwomen’s everyday spiritual relationships and their impact on the community as a whole”?3

TT: There is a beautiful line, from Remembered Rapture, where hooks writes of Emily Dickinson’s work and mentions how Dickinson made “a sacrament of the everyday.”4 This helped me conceptualize the work of Black evangelical women as sisters, mothers, and prayer partners beautifully—to see how this institutional work was done within a patriarchal context of leadership, to visualize its ritual and mundane and even aesthetic quality. I’m still grateful to hooks for this context, for its origins within her own contemplation of a creative interlocutor, and that the concept came out of hooks’s appreciation for Dickinson’s rendition of the mundane. This concept of the sacrament of the everyday nicely captures the qualities and significance of Black evangelical churchwomen’s communion as well as the significance of the mundane in the study of lived religion.

AM: Before we close our conversation, what are you working on now?

TT: I am currently working on an ethnography about contemporary Black church arson, tentatively titled “From Hate to Hallows: Reframing Black Church Arson.” It has been challenging, but I’m grateful to what research collaborators have taught me. This is very new ground for me. I argue that Black church arson is not only a material event of anti-Black violence but also an interpretive event. While I spend a great deal of the text plumbing the depths of local interpretations, religion, race, and kinship (a tripartite way of thinking for me) are also part of this story as well.

Notes:

  1. Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Harvard University Press, 2008), 121.
  2. Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2004), 52.
  3. Thomas, Kincraft, 135.
  4. bell hooks, Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work (Henry Holt, 1999), 193.

Adam Xavier Mcneil is a PhD candidate in early African American women’s history at Rutgers University, where he researches Black women’s lives in Tidewater Virginia during the Revolutionary War Era. McNeil also regularly interviews scholars for the “New Books in African American Studies” podcast.

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