The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon died a year ago, on August 8, 2018. This article honors the life and legacy of this outstanding black woman.
|Katie Geneva Cannon (1950~2018)|
Who Was Katie Cannon?
Katie Cannon was born in 1950 in Kannapolis, North Carolina, the town that grew up around Cannon Manufacturing, the textile mill that began production in 1908 and soon became the world’s largest producer of sheets and towels.
That company, which in 1928 became Cannon Mills, was founded by J.W. Cannon (1852~1921), and Katie was a descendant of slaves who were owned by his family at the time of his birth.
In 1974, Katie Cannon was the first African American woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA. She also was the first black woman to earn both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Through the years, Cannon taught in several universities and seminaries/divinity schools. From 1993~2001 she was a professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University.
June’s and my daughter Karen, who is now a professor at the University of Arizona and head of the Department of Religious Studies and Classics, did her graduate work at Temple. During her Ph.D. studies there, Cannon was one of her main professors and her dissertation advisor.
(I was happy to have had the privilege of meeting and talking with Katie during that time.)
Cannon finished her career as Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond (Va.), where she taught from 2001 until her death last year.
The Womanist Ethics of Katie Cannon
Alice Walker, best known for her award-winning book The Color Purple, coined the term womanist in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose. Katie Cannon soon began popularizing that term in theological circles.
Cannon’s first major book was Black Womanist Ethics (1988), and she became the first theologian to use the term womanist widely. (She accepted Walker’s definition of womanist as a black feminist or feminist of color.)
Early in her book, Cannon states:
Black women are the most vulnerable and the most exploited members of the American society. The structure of the capitalist political economy in which Black people are commodities combined with patriarchal contempt for women has caused the Black woman to experience oppression that knows no ethical or physical bounds (p. 4).
That is a compelling statement of the challenge Katie Cannon spent her lifetime combatting—and her efforts helped to make American society better than it was thirty years ago, although there is still much that needs to be done.
Tributes to Katie Cannon
In April of last year, the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership was inaugurated at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Alice Walker (b. 1944) was the guest speaker at the inaugural ceremonies.
|Katie Cannon and Alice Walker (4/18)|
In January 2020, the first issue of the new Wabash Center Journal on Teaching (formerly Teaching Theology and Religion) will include a special section on Katie Cannon's contributions to the development of womanist pedagogy.
Our daughter Karen was one of Cannon’s former students asked to write a brief article for that special edition. Here is how she began her tribute to her graduate school professor:
Katie Geneva Cannon’s life and legacy stand as a call to grapple with the injustices of the past and present while creatively constructing previously unimaginable futures.
With Karen and many others, I am still sad because of Cannon’s passing last year at the age of 68. Still, there is much to celebrate because of Katie’s active efforts to combat racism and sexism.
American society has been made better because of how Katie Cannon creatively confronted those challenges—and taught her students to do the same.