“Each person’s life must be defined, nurtured and transformed, wherein the self is actualized, affirming the inward authority which arouses greater meaning and potential with each mystical experience.” – Katie Geneva Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics
In every generation, a “remnant” of scholars emerges that challenges status quo perspectives. Their critiques of normative constructs serve as models for subsequent scholars who learn how to work not only to eat but also to work in a manner that enables others to eat. The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon was indeed such a person. She loved life, loved people, loved laughter, loved food, loved imagining the not yet, loved calling things into existence. The progenitor of womanist theological ethics, Cannon was a brilliant scholar, a mentor extraordinaire who possessed an ability to discern what was most needed, and generous (almost to a fault) in the sharing of her time and resources.
In 2016, she invited me to be one of the seven persons to serve on the design team for the Center for Womanist Leadership, an initiative she founded at Union Presbyterian Seminary. I was excited to witness her joy two years later when hundreds gathered in Richmond, Virginia, in April of 2018, to celebrate and participate in the center’s sold-out inaugural conference. It was a weekend that not only highlighted the depth and breadth of womanist scholarship, arts, and community activism, but also a moment to acknowledge Cannon’s commitment to curate spaces that welcome and value the diverse ways in which people contribute to fashioning a world where all have the potential to survive and thrive.
When I received a call two months later to inform me of her leukemia diagnosis and hospitalization, my immediate reaction was that of disbelief followed by a litany of questions. After all, we had dined together and chatted about everything from family to work during the conference. In addition, I had not observed a decrease in her energy as she interacted with almost everyone in attendance. When I received news of her death on August 8 of last year, my immediate response was to stifle a scream as I walked out of a faculty meeting. In that moment, my feeble attempt to rationalize the magnitude of this loss left me speechless as I realized there would be no more texts, emails, phone calls, or public encounters that began with a simple request, “Dr. C, do you have a minute?”
Born January 3, 1950, in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Cannon became the first black woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, a precursor to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). After earning her doctorate at Union Theological Seminary in New York City—the first African American woman to do so—Cannon laid the foundation for womanist ethics in her 1985 essay, “The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness.” Many black women in theological disciplines, including Cannon, have gravitated to the use of author Alice Walker’s term “womanist” as both a challenge to and a confessional statement for our own work. Womanist, as defined in Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, contains elements of tradition, community, self, and a critique of white feminist thought and provides a fertile ground for religious reflection and practical application.
Cannon expanded on Walker’s term and applied it theologically to “examine the expressive products of oral culture that deal with a perennial quest for liberation, as well as written literature that invites African Americans to recognize ‘the distinction between nature in its inevitability and culture in its changeability.’” As she later wrote in the Introduction to Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community:
Womanism requires that we stress the urgency of Black women’s movement from death to life. In order to do this, we recount in a logical manner the historical consequences of what precedes us. We investigate contestable issues according to official records. In other words, womanist religious scholars insist that individuals look back at race, sex, and class constructions before it is too late and put forth critical analysis in such a way that errors of the past will not be repeated.
Womanist ethics center the experience and worldviews of Black women as primary sources for moral reflection. Recognizing that Black women contend not just with sexism but with racism and classism, Cannon offered a succinct overview of the United States’ enterprise of Black human commodification from an era of chattel slavery through the latter twentieth century as a framework in which to discuss Black women’s agency and response to racialize gendered patriarchy. As one who self-identified as a Christian ethicist, Cannon affirmed and valued Black women’s lived experiences as indispensable to how the Bible is read. Any subsequent interpretation must take seriously the lived reality of Black women and any systems that thwart an ability to be fully human.
Her groundbreaking essay is as relevant now as it was 34 years ago. In a time when a large percentage of white Christian women voted for a presidential candidate whose message advocates misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, Cannon’s words remind us that womanist ethics demands a deep critique and analysis of systemic evil. As she wrote, “Often compelled to act or to refrain from acting in accordance with the powers and principalities of the external world, Black womanists search the Scriptures to learn how to dispel the threat of death in order to seize the present life.” She followed up with her 1988 book Black Womanist Ethics, which emphasized the significance of Black women’s literary tradition as a repository of Black women’s moral wisdom.
Cannon was adamant that as life-affirming moral agents, “we have a responsibility to study the ideological hegemony of the past so that we do not remain doomed to recurring cyclical patterns of hermeneutical distortions in the present.” With this assertion as a guide, Cannon designed courses to cultivate intellectual curiosity in students. A perusal of her syllabi highlights the emphasis she placed on the “development of critical awareness of the methods of influential ethical representatives in light of their own moral claims and social practices they mediate; comprehension of methodological processes that are pertinent to current controversies and perennial social problems; and development of students’ own procedures for ethical discernment and scholarly research.”
Known for her pedagogical acumen, over the course of her career, Cannon taught at Harvard Divinity School, Episcopal Divinity School, Temple University; and from 2001 until her death, she served as the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. Teaching was a calling, and Cannon’s classrooms were living laboratories in which students were encouraged to understand themselves as mutual-learners.
She was the recipient of many academic honors and awards, including the distinguished professor award from Spelman College and the distinguished alumna designation at both Barber-Scotia College and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center. She also served as the Sterling Brown Visiting Professor in Religion and African American Studies at Williams College, the Lilly Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religion at Davidson College, and the Rockefeller Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Cannon authored and edited several books, including Teaching Preaching: Isaac R. Clark and Black Sacred Rhetoric and The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology (with Anthony B. Pinn). She also edited Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader along with Emilie M. Townes and me. This book grew out of a conversation Cannon convened at Yale Divinity School with several senior womanist scholars. She had invited me, as her then-graduate student, to serve as project editor. Together, we mapped out a concept and framework for the book that could be accessible to a broad spectrum of readers. What the book does not capture is the camaraderie I witnessed as a participant observer as each gathered participant offered constructive feedback to each other in a manner that exemplified womanist embodied mediated knowledge.
When I remember the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, I do so ever mindful to heed her instruction that a “womanist methodology must critically analyze social-cultural conditions and contexts in order to burst asunder the dominant understandings of theodicy and produce new archetypes that release the Afro-Christian mind and spirit from the manacles of patriarchy so that Black women might emerge and discern just what kind of moral agents we really want to be.” For Cannon, this imperative was a daily practice to examine one’s own value system and to resolve to do the work one’s soul must have.
When I enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry program at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University in 2001, I thought Cannon was still on faculty at Temple University. Imagine my surprise when my advisor, Alison P. Gise Johnson, informed me that for my electives I would need to cross-register to take doctoral seminars at Union Presbyterian Seminary with Katie Geneva Cannon. My first class with Cannon was Theological Ethics, and that encounter changed my educational and professional trajectory. As I reflect on wisdom shared and insights gleaned from my initial exchange with Cannon in 2002 through our last exchange during the summer of 2018, I continue to find myself thinking deeply about the manner in which one captures the essence and soul of mentoring in language that enables others to imagine possibilities that might emerge when one is intentional about developing nurturing relationships.
A prophetic truth-teller, Cannon took seriously her commitment to honor the contributions of ancestors and elders whose very lives and work were connected intricately to and informed her own sense of vocation to teach. Always mindful of socio-economic disparities and the manner in which typologies are used to shame and marginalize, Cannon brought her authentic self into the classroom, the pulpit, and public settings. With a keen awareness that “to whom much is given, much is required,” her unique ability to draw on personal and communal narratives models embodied mediated knowledge in ways that demonstrates that effective communication must be conveyed in a manner that can be grasped by anyone, irrespective of an acquired level of formal education. With a remarkable sense of humor, she invited others to gather with her around varied tables to name moral problems and to work collaboratively to imagine ethical possibilities. Because of Cannon’s visionary leadership, I and others are scholars, teachers, and administrators. May we always honor her investment in our professional development and strive, like her, to do our best work without “foreclosing on our souls.”
Angela D. Sims is the Vice President of Institutional Advancement, the Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers Professor in Church and Society, and Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology.