Dr. Katie G. Cannon gave an address at the Samuel Dewitt Proctor sponsored event called Legislative Days, Washington, DC, 2008. During her speech, Dr. Katie looked up from her manuscript, and off-the-cuff, briefly recounted the story of having survived severe racist and sexist sabotage by her professors during her doctoral program.
Her professors rejected her groundbreaking scholarly premise, asking, “What do you mean Black women don’t have the same range of freedom and choice as white men of privilege?”
Katie responded, “WE DON’T! If you are working class, poor, and female in the United States you don’t have the same range of freedom and power of a white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant, male of wealth.”
They continued in their condescending and arrogant tone believing they would stump her with this typical scholarly question, “Where is it written?”
With that wry smile on her face and a glint in her eye, she delivered the punch line to the professors then, and to the audience in Washington DC. Dr. Katie said, “So I wrote it.”
The dissertation she penned would become a text entitled Black Womanist Ethics (1988). This book created a new category of inquiry and analysis in the religion academy. Dr. Cannon was a progenitor of the field of womanist theology. In doing the work of “writing it down” she birthed a nation of womanist thinkers. As a groundbreaking intellectual exemplar she created a space where the study of African American women was legitimate scholarship. Had it not been for her work, my work would not be.
My first book, entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality, was published in 2001. The book, my dissertation, is my womanist engagement of the research question, what makes African American women resilient? In the first six months immediately after the book’s release, I had the opportunity to do readings and workshops in local churches. Without exception, at each of the nine or ten events, I was posed a question about the habits and practices for resilience of white people or, specifically, about the resilience of white men. The assumption and inference was that research on African American women must be in comparison to and contrast with white people; as if white people were the baseline for research and only through comparison would information about African American women have merit. Each time I was asked the question I said, “I do not study white people, men nor women. I research the lives and religious experiences of African American women.” Occasionally I would add, “Perhaps in your research – you can ask these questions of resilience about your people.” My ability to stand in my scholarly space, my clarity about the validity of my work, and my tenacity to write down the lives of African American women comes directly from the influence, leadership, tutelage, example and care of Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. Dr. Katie, I am so glad you wrote it down.
Psalm 121 asks the question, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills– from where will my help come? Then, answers saying, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Dr. Katie Cannon, who lived in the highest hills of scholarship and ministry, was the help sent to me by the Creator. Dr. Cannon and I first met while she was on faculty at Temple University. I was a doctoral student at Union Institute, a program without walls. I heard through the Philadelphia grapevine about the brown bag lunches Dr. Cannon would host for women in doctoral programs. At my first lunch, I sheepishly introduced myself to her; I was afraid that because I was not enrolled at Temple, she would not welcome me. Dr. Katie gathered me up, welcomed me in without hesitation and has been my steadfast advisor ever sense.
In 1999, I attended the womanist consultation at AAR. That year and for many years to follow, Dr. Cannon opened the session by recounting her first experience of presenting a paper at AAR. At her first AAR presentation she, with essay in hand, went to the podium. Looking out over the room she saw nothing but a room filled to overflowing with white men. She passed out. When she came-to, she was flat-on-her-back with men standing around her. A man asked her, “Are you pregnant?” She said, “Get me up!” She gave her first AAR paper and lived to tell the story – to us.
In 2001, a cross-disciplinary panel of junior scholars was planned for a womanist section at AAR. Dr. Katie summoned the panel participants before the panel convened. She instructed us in the better and best ways to give a formal paper. She gave us tips and cautions about what not to do and what to do. Most importantly, she told us we could do it. We gave a slammin’ junior panel that year!
A few years ago, several womanist scholars found ourselves at an ATS meeting in Pittsburgh. In the evening, to pass the time, we played bid whist. I was partnered with a colleague against Dr. Katie and another colleague. As the game goes, we were talking across the table. Dr. Katie, however, was not. At a critical time in the game, Dr. Katie’s partner signaled the remaining cards in her hand. Ignoring the flagrant message, Dr. Katie played a card. Her partner scoffed and reiterated her not-so-subtle signal of what was in her hand. Without taking her eyes off her hand of cards and in a low, slow, and humorous tone, Dr. Katie said to her partner, “I ain’t riskin’ heaven for a hand of cards.” We all busted out laughing. Dr. Katie and her partner still won the game.
The depth of Dr. Katie’s convictions did not stop with her scholarship, but were undergirded by her Christian faith. She was the first ordained African American woman in the Presbyterian Church. She was a remarkable preacher – extoling and proclaiming the goodness of the Lord to those who would listen to a smart, accomplished, Black woman. Dr. Katie, proficient in reading both Hebrew and Greek, when asked from which translation of the text she would preach would say, “I read in the original languages and preach from my own translation. So you just have to wait and listen to what I say.” Dr. Katie’s razor-close exegeses provided new and needed insights into the radicality of the gospel message. She was a master at making the biblical text accessible to those with degrees as well as those who have not studied. She understood justice with her heart, her soul and her mind. Before Dr. Cannon preached, she would bow her head and say a prayer like this one:
God – We thank you for life and health and strength. We thank you for all that has transpired – for the testimonies and witnesses to your goodness. We ask you now God, show us the way. Show us the way not to fortune nor fame; nor to laurels or praise for our own name. But show us the way to tell the great story, to LIVE the great story for thine is the power and the glory. Amen.
Dr. Katie’s genius was in her bold living of the great story. Her holy boldness was as a trailblazing warrior, as a Black woman who would not digest the lie of racism and sexism and white nationalism, as a scholar with the tenacity to fight for her own thoughts, as a pioneering spirit who was not afraid to go into uncharted terrain. Living the great story was what Dr. Cannon did every day and was what she taught us to do.
Dr. Katie, thank you for your humor and inspiration. Thank you for your humility. Thank you for your brilliance and fortitude. Thank you for your example of hard work, dedication, and love.
I know Dr. Katie is in heaven, reunited with her loves, her fictive kin and the ancestors and the great cloud of witnesses. I know she is teaching the souls yet-to-be-born so they are prepared for this stony road that we must trod. Dr. Katie, I love you, I miss you – I will see you when I get there. Ashe.