May 30 2024

Katie Geneva Cannon (1950–2018): Scholar, Teacher, and Minister

Emilie M. Townes

Katie G. Cannon

When I turned specifically to readings in theological ethics, I discovered that the assumptions of the dominant ethical systems implied that the doing of Christian ethics in the Black community was either immoral or amoral. The cherished ethical ideas predicated upon the existence of freedom and a wide range of choices proved null and void in situations of oppression. The real-lived texture of Black life requires moral agency that may run contrary to the ethical boundaries of mainline Protestantism. Blacks may use action guides which have never been considered within the scope of traditional codes of faithful living. Racism, gender discrimination and economic exploitation, as inherited, age-long complexes, require the Black community to create and cultivate vales and virtues in their own terms so that they can prevail against the odds with moral integrity.

For example, dominant ethics makes a virtue of qualities that lead to economic success—self-reliance, frugality and industry. These qualities are based on an assumption that success is possible for anyone who tries…

Dominant ethics also assumes that a moral agent is to a considerable degree free and self-directing. Each person possesses self-determining power. For instance, one is free to choose whether or not she/he wants to suffer and make sacrifices as a principle of action or as a voluntary vocational pledge of crossbearing. In dominant ethics a person is free to make suffering a desirable moral norm. This is not so for Blacks. For the masses of Black people, suffering is the normal state of affairs. Mental anguish, physical abuse and emotional agony are all part of the lived truth of Black people’s straitened circumstances. Due to the extraneous forces and the entrench bulwark of white supremacy and male superiority which pervade this society, Blacks and whites, women and men are forced to live with very different ranges of freedom. As long as the white-male experience continues to be established as the ethical norm, Black women, black men and others will suffer unequivocal oppression. The range of freedom has been restricted by those who cannot hear and will not hear voices expressing pleasure and pain, joy and rage as others experience them.

Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta GA, OR: Scholars Press, 1988), 2–3

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With these paragraphs from the introduction in her first book, Katie Geneva Cannon set the assumptions of traditional Christian ethics on their heads and forged a new path for Black women and men scholars to expose the epistemological norms in Christian ethics that often relegated the souls and minds of Black folk into categories of emotion and folklore. Neither of these categories, on face value, are lesser values. But when they’re employed as the sole markers for Black intellectual thought or Black ecclesiology, they are more like a sophisticated pat on the head rather than serious consideration that there is more than one norm under the sun that helps people organize their moral lives and the healthy communities they seek to build and maintain.

Cannon was and remains one of the most incisive, creative, and rigorous minds we have in contemporary Christian ethics. She was the first person in the religious disciplines to use the term “womanist” in print in her 1985 article, “The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness.”1 In this essay, she explored the shift from the use of “Black feminist consciousness” to “Black womanist consciousness” as an interpretive principle that addresses oppression. In Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (1995), she gathered a collection of her essays to offer womanist norms for emancipatory praxis—a systemic analysis of race, sex, and class from the perspective of Black women in the academy and the church. Her Teaching Preaching: Isaac Rufus Clark and Black Sacred Rhetoric (2007) explored Black homiletics professor Issac Rufus Clark’s pedagogical strategies, providing a resource for those who seek to give sound, biblically informed, and socially relevant sermons. Her co-edited books are landmark texts: God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education (1985); Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective (1988); Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (2011); and Oxford Handbook of African American Theology (2014).

As a teacher, her ability to turn her classrooms into living laboratories of learning both challenged and inspired students to think through who they are in relation to the world around them and the ways in which they must continue to grow into the mysteries of God’s ongoing revelation. She created generations of more thoughtful scholars and more adept pastors. Cannon was also one of the best pedagogical minds we had in theological education and religious studies. In 2011, the American Academy of Religion honored Dr. Cannon with its Excellence in Teaching Award in recognition of her pedagogical acumen. Her ability to think through the ways that students learn and what they must be exposed to in order to learn with depth was simply amazing—and produced classroom designs that were transformatory.

As a mentor, Cannon paid attention to the whole person and encouraged her students—masters-level and doctoral-level alike—to attend to the important work of their personal moral architecture as they integrated the classroom into the academy, their religious communities, and the world. As one who was mentored by Dr. Cannon when she pushed me into the academy—kicking and screaming—I can attest to her willingness to listen, probe, encourage, chastise, and celebrate the major and minor moves we make in the educational journey. And when it became time for her mentees to spread their wings and begin mentoring others, she gracefully transitioned from being mentor to being colleague, a colleague who was the consummate cheerleader for one’s academic success and/or ministerial excellence.

In short, she was an exemplar of the scholar, teacher, and minister. Her mind was always open to listening and dialoguing with others in a way that kept the conversation going—even through the rough and tough waters of moral reflection and analysis. As a founder of womanist theology and ethics while still a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, she was like the icebreaker ships designed to move and navigate through the ice-covered water of ethical orthodoxies that have left the lived worlds of far too many people—female and male—absent from moral discourses and pastoral concerns. It is her work—bringing the moral voices of Black women into the academy and into Christian communities as full and robust participants—that is her legacy, a legacy for which we are all the better as we go about the work our souls must have.

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As the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary from 2001 to 2018, Cannon also served on the faculties of New York Theological Seminary, the Episcopal Divinity School, and Temple University. She was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, and Wellesley College. She also served as pastor of Ascension Presbyterian Church. Cannon was a riveting lecturer who was in demand in the academy, in religious communities, and in society at large. Her ability to shift her lectures to address the context in which they were given is peerless.

Cannon was a woman of many firsts which include being the first Black woman to receive a PhD from Union Theological Seminary (1983) and the first Black woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (USA) (1974). She was a steady rock for countless people—across the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, geographic origin, theological viewpoint, and more. Like so many, I thought she would always be there to talk with, laugh with, and continue to learn from; to shake my head with at the events of our day, and to grow old together as we cheered on the generations behind us and sought to live into the legacy the generations before gifted to us. Now, we are left to do this work in memory of her and to celebrate a magnificent scholar and witness to the diversity and richness of God’s creation. Gone too soon…gone too soon.

Emilie M. Townes is dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School where she is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society.

1 Katie Geneva Cannon, “The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness,” Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 30–40.