An excerpt from a reflection on the life of Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon by Angela D. Sims. Re-posted from Religion and Politics, February 2019.
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…
…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.
Angela D. Sims is a Professor in Church and Society, and Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology.