“Do the Work Your Soul Must Have”: In Remembrance of Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon by Elise M. Edwards


One of the things I love most about being an educator is introducing my students to the thinkers who have inspired me.  I am especially delighted when I can share things I’ve learned from meeting and hearing these scholars speak.  One of the joys of “coming of age” as a religious scholar in the early 21st century is that I have been able to meet some of my heroes.  I’ve conversed with scholars whose writings about justice, liberation, hope, love, and religion’s potential to be a moral force in a hurting world inspire me.  I’ve been able to hear them speak at conferences and workshops where I’ve felt the truth and power of their words in my body.  One of the most inspiring women I’ve met in my academic journey was Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon.  She passed away on August 8, and although I was not one of her students, I grieve and mourn this recent loss.  I remember her and honor her for her spirit, her scholarship, and her soul’s work.

Katie Cannon was a pioneer.  Her scholarly work was integral for defining the womanism in religion and theology.  She took black women’s lives, their writings, and their struggles seriously.  She challenged the presumed universality of the dominant ethical systems to identify moral resources and Christian teachings that could address the challenges of people oppressed by their race, sex, and class.  Dr. Cannon’s vocational journey demonstrated her willingness to transgress racial, gender, and class boundaries.  She was the first African-American woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).  She grew up in a North Carolina town she described as “a modern-day plantation,” but excelled in elite academic spaces, earning her Ph.D. and then leading many others in their academic pursuits.

Many people have recounted Dr. Cannon’s legacy and hopefully, many more will continue.  You can find reflections on her life and legacy here and here and look at her obituary and CV online. In this forum, I offer a personal reflection, publicly remembering what she passed on to me. I think we honor our ancestors best by sharing what they placed in our hearts.  That’s where their legacy lives.

A little over a decade ago, I first encountered Dr. Cannon’s teaching in Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community, in which she boldly establishes her own canon in religious ethics, centering the experiences of black women marginalized in dominant ethical texts.  I read Dr. Cannon’s book as I began my doctoral education in theology and ethics and I’ve read it countless times since.  My copy is worn, extensively highlighted, and covered in notes because nearly every page was revelatory!  Two essays from the collection, “Moral Wisdom in the Black Women’s Literary Tradition” and “Resources for a Constructive Ethic: The Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston,” together had a profound effect on my own work in Christian ethics.

In “Moral Wisdom in the Black Women’s Literary Tradition,” Dr. Cannon argues that traditional ethical reflection has generally assumed that people are free and self-directing.  Their moral decisions are supposedly made in a free existence that does not constrain their choices.  But she argues that white supremacy and male superiority limit the choices for women and men in the Black community.  Since the essay’s publication in 1984, womanist ethicists and other scholars working for liberation have expanded this analysis to recognize other evil forces that suppress human freedom and dignity.  The implication of Cannon’s argument about moral agency is that the virtues upheld for some people are not really virtues for others.  She argues that black ethical values cannot be the same as those of a white society that demeans black people and considers them immoral or amoral.

In that essay and others, Dr. Cannon identifies moral values that are relevant to the Black community, especially its women.  Her argument really helped me understand the importance of particularity in moral reasoning.  I came to understand that it is not only arrogant but potentially harmful to impose your moral standards on another person or group without knowing and considering the particular realities of their life.  I further came to understand that the best place to discern the standards of living (moral norms, as we refer to them in the classroom) is in communities committed to love and justice.  I’ve been part of churches that are loving and just, but we only need to look at the news headlines to know that many are not.  Since I began to read Dr. Cannon’s work, I’ve been more attentive to finding sources of wisdom that are relevant to the communities my work is for and about.

These ideas about moral norms and the communities where we derive them aren’t merely academic. They apply to real life. They apply to my life.  There are so many times in the course of a day, a week, or a crucial season in my life when I need to ask myself, ”Whose standards am I following? Are they intended for my flourishing or harm?” (There are so many expectations set for me for how to be a good woman, a good Christian, and a good scholar.)  Katie Cannon taught me to find the answers in God, in my own soul, and in the communities that nurture me.

Dr. Cannon also gave me courage to pursue my vocation.  When I was a graduate student, I attended a workshop that she led.  Her teaching that day centered on “doing the work your soul must have,” a womanist principle she articulated often.  With humor and candor, she affirmed the validity of a life and career that doesn’t follow a traditional path.  She emphasized the importance of doing work that is significant for you and your people.  At that time, I was being formed as a scholar and needed that inspiration.  Now in my career, I’m still finding the work my soul must have, but I know it exists.  And yet, I still need her guidance.  We still need her.  There’s more soul work to do.

May the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon rest in peace and power.  May we be blessed by her legacy and the people who carry it on.

 

Elise M. Edwards, Ph.D. is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities.

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Categories: Foremothers, In Remembrance, The Black Church, Womanist Theology, Women's Agency

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13 replies

  1. “Situational ethics” are often mocked, but Katie Cannon’s work demonstrates that ethics cannot be anything other than situated in the lives of diverse people and communities. Thanks for remembering her with us.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Great article, and I have entered her information to the divine feminine app .. thank you. In honor.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post and for sharing the Rev. Dr. Cannon with us. ”Whose standards am I following? Are they intended for my flourishing or harm?” I very much appreciate your articulating these questions each of us should be asking ourselves everyday as we go about — and what an insightful expression — “doing the work our soul must have.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. There are so many standards upheld for each of us that are phrased as moral standards: I will be considered good when I do/become ________. (Insert beauty standard, job expectations, gender roles, model minority myth, etc. there.) Some standards and virtues make us better. But they cannot be applied without discernment. Katie Cannon pointed out that the virtues of self-reliance, frugality, and industry were lifted up as moral standards that lead to economic success in a white society, but were not experienced the same in black communities. Who can be self-reliant when you are oppressed? And while working hard and spending your money responsibly are advisable, they do not ensure economic success for people caught in exploitative economic systems. And yet, the myth is pervasive, so it’s common to hear poverty denounced as a moral failure instead of a systemic one.

      It’s so easy to get caught up in something that doesn’t really honor our highest good, our true self, our being in the presence of the divine. This is why the message of doing the work our souls must have is so important. The phrase may be attributed to Alice Walker, but I encountered it in Katie Cannon’s speech. (Remember, she used the literary tradition of black women as a resource for ethics.) It was a phrase I saw over and over on social media as news of her death spread. I can hear her encouraging me to do the work my soul must do, and so that was a message I wanted to highlight.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What a beautiful, moving remembrance! Thank you for this tribute to The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon and the work her soul required, which will surely live on. I love the blessing/prayer “Rest in Peace and Power!” Many tributes to the late great Aretha Franklin also concluded with those words, another mighty woman who accomplished the work of her soul. May she and The Reverend Doctor Cannon both rest in peace and power. May their work give us courage to do ours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I, too, have been thinking of Aretha Franklin and the tributes she has earned and received. Both women had a way of expressing SOUL in their life and work and should be remembered as such.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Dr. Cannon sounds like the kind of scholar the world needs more than ever today. Thanks for sharing your memories of her and her work with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you Elise. The sentence that spoke loudly to me is: “(There are so many expectations set for me for how to be a good woman, a good Christian, and a good scholar.) Katie Cannon taught me to find the answers in God, in my own soul, and in the communities that nurture me.” So often expectations of others try to hinder the way of our being true to our own soul work.
    May Dr. Cannon’s spirit live on in those who love and follow her.

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