Baptized by Fire: Collected Memories of Little Zion Baptist Church
O'Foran, Shelly Ann
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This dissertation explores oral narratives collected at Little Zion Baptist Church after the small, rural African American church's destruction by probable arson in 1996, and its subsequent rebuilding. As a construction volunteer, I realized the church could not be contained by its building. Rather, Little Zion lives in its people's inherited traditions, which they practice and teach to their children today to ensure the church's continued vitality tomorrow. I conceived of this folklore studies project to trace the outlines of a structure that exists beyond the building, built solid of another kind of material vulnerable perhaps to the passage of time and process of forgetting, but not to fire. This dissertation also examines Little Zion's place in a pattern of African American church burnings in the late 1990s, and documents efforts to make sense of the violence. But the focus moves immediately inward, constructing a history of more than a century of activity at Little Zion told primarily through the voices of church members. As a white outsider, I examine my own biases and subordinate my opinions to those of church members throughout the project. Finally, this dissertation joins a debate among folklife scholars about the politics of collection and uses a self-reflexive method of presentation that allows an outsider such as me to move toward an insider's view of the Little Zion culture. Chapter II considers memories of the church's role in Greene County, Alabama, from the Depression, through the Civil Rights Movement, to a largely segregated present. Chapter IV looks at church practices and events such as services, weddings and funerals. Chapter V documents personal religious beliefs and experiences, from conversion to baptism to the call to preach. Chapters III and VI present uninterrupted narratives by two church members, attempting to remove as much as possible the filter of my perspective. The Little Zion community generously embraced this project, and I conducted fieldwork from 1996-2003 to record the approximately 75 hours of interviews and church events that shape this dissertation.