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.