A Tribute to Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon 

The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary and a foremost scholar of the womanist movement, died Wednesday, August 8th.

I imagine that I am only one of many, many people who greatly loved and admired her strength of spirit, genius, and the profound impact of her contributions to the academy. She touched many lives through her work, and her influence will continue as a living legacy for scholars such as myself whom she mentored, encouraged, and cared. I sought every opportunity possible to be in the same room as Katie, and on these remembered occasions I learned much about myself as a scholar, womanist, preacher, sister, daughter, aunt, church woman, and clergyperson.

Katie received many awards for her work. She was the Lilly Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religion at Davidson College and the Sterling Brown Visiting Professor in Religion and African American Studies at Williams College. She received the distinguished professor award from Spelman College, the Lucy Craft Laney award at the Black Presbyterian Bicentennial Celebration, and was a Professor-Scholar honoree at the National Black Church Summit at Emory University. In 2011, she received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the American Academy of Religion. The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference bestowed its Beautiful Are the Feet Award to her in February. She was the founder of the Center for Womanist Leadership and pioneer in the study and work of womanist theology and ethics. She lectured nationally and internationally on womanist theology and social ethics and was the author and editor of numerous articles and books, among them Black Womanist Ethics; Katie’s Canon; Teaching Preaching; and God’s Fierce Whimsy.

Katie was the first African-American woman ordained as a minister in the then United Presbyterian Church (now PC(USA)). She was ordained April 24, 1974, in Shelby, NC, by the Catawba Presbytery in the Synod of Catawba, the earliest of the all-black governing bodies formed under the Enabling Acts of the General Assembly on October 6, 1866.

Katie was a brilliant teacher and inspired scholar. Yet, what I remember most is the way she made me believe in myself and my own scholarship. I remember her patience, clarity and sense of humor. Katie was rigorous about scholarship and the craft of research and study. Yet in her presence I felt free to allow my passion for teaching and research and ministry to soar and take flight. Katie’s wisdom and spirit revealed the light of learning, the love of teaching and responsibility to be a radical scholar within the academy. Katie’s grit to challenge dominate forms of knowledge acquisition and religious power pulses though the veins of those of us she mentored, and spreads throughout the world. Because of the Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon, I am where I am and have the rigor and the scholarship of hope, courage and grit.

I interviewed with Katie at length about her journey, womanist scholarship, and mentoring. The following is an excerpt of our time together:

“By the time I got to ITC, I realized I had a call to ministry. We were reading James Cone, Albert Cleage… anything black that we could get our hands on. It was wonderful. And I realized in that first week of orientation that we’ve got to declare war on the black church that preaches slave religion because Cone said it’s a sin to allow anybody to tamper with the Imago Dei that is in you. It’s a sin to preach and talk about a pie in the sky when we die. Well, as a nation-time revolutionary black woman this was my language. I was in the right place.

I knew I had to get a PhD because I knew I had to teach this stuff. I just knew I need to go further. I loved the Old Testament. I love Bible because my grandmother and I used to read the Bible all the time. I applied for Hebrew Bible not realizing the politics of a PhD. I had no clue. I thought if you were just smart you could get a PhD. I didn’t know there’s more to it. Seventy-five percent of it is political and that’s what I had to learn. In order to go to school, I was a supply pastor at a church in East Harlem.

As I’m doing my course work in Hebrew Bible, I’m working in East Harlem and the second I finished all my course work my advisor said, ‘I cannot sign for you to get the Ford Foundation Grant renewed.’ And I asked, ‘why?’ And basically he said ‘I’m throwing pearls to the swine.’ That’s the politics I didn’t understand. This was on a Maundy Thursday. I knew without the Ford Foundation Grant I was out of school. I wouldn’t be able to go. I had learned at ITC to have the sermon ready, at least in the spiritual incubator, a week before you have preach. When I got to church I didn’t have anything. As Samson would say, the spirit had left me. That day, over 50% of my congregation had gotten pink slips from the City of New York saying they no longer had jobs as teachers aids. And they started singing ‘There’s a Balm In Gilead.’ So yeah, I can do this. We had a wonderful Maundy Thursday service. They did not know how they healed and helped me that Maundy Thursday.

I started over in ethics, working with Beverley Harrison. Bev Harrison said to me when I switched over to ethics that she was surprised I lasted those two years because they had already decided within the first six weeks I was never going to get a PhD in Hebrew Bible. At that point in 1974, no woman of African descent had ever gotten a PhD in Hebrew Bible. That is the holy of holies in Theological Academy. I just didn’t know it, I didn’t know it. So I worked with either Bev Harrison in feminist ethics or James Cone in black theology.

So one of the gifts of moving to Ethics and working with Beverley Harrison are these moments and divine providence – Howard Thurman would say ‘the yeses in life line up.’ She said, ‘Katie Cannon you can’t be a better white man than a white man. You can’t be a better white woman than a white woman. You can’t be a better black man than a black man. You’re a black woman. You bring something to the Academy we’ve never had before and that’s what we want.’ Her commitment to anti-racism was already in place because she had taught in San Francisco Theological Seminary. She was maybe a chaplain because they wouldn’t let women on the faculty when she was there. But her commitment was deeper than I could comprehend. So when she said that, I said ‘this white woman is trying to sabotage me.’ I would write about these dead white men and she said, ‘no, we know that already,’ and give it back. I said, ‘you want me to write about what my mama and my grandma and my aunts talk about?’ She said, ‘yes.’

No one ever told me that was gold. Nobody told me that was the stuff. So of course I wasn’t going to write that. About the third try I said, ‘you really want me to write about what the black women in my life talk about?’ She said, ‘yeah, that’s the stuff we need.’ That’s how womanist was created. Once I got going and trusting that she wasn’t trying to destroy me, that this was the gold, this was the stuff — I realized this was my mother lode that I needed to mine. I’ve been doing it ever since.

And mentoring is my love because it connects so much with my teaching. It’s in my skill set. The other thing about mentoring that I love so much is saying back to people what they don’t hear themselves saying. And when I say it back they go, ‘doc that’s smart.’ I said, ‘no, I just said what you said.’ They’re like, ‘I said that?’ ‘Yes.’ I’ve seen mentors who try to beat up people or try to clone people. No, there is too much work to be done. Let me figure out how to help you do your work and when you do your work there’s less work I have to do. It’s like a relay race – Bev and Lettie and Jane would give their graduate students a baton and they would run one lap and pass it on. I picked it up. [laughs]. Now, I just sit back and say, ‘okay Laurie you take it, you take that lap.’ So yeah, I’m personally invested in mentoring and sending forth people.

– REV. DR. KATIE GENEVA CANNON

Katie sent me forth. She did that for me. She was my gold. And she made me feel like my life, my scholarship, my teaching, my mentoring could be gold too, my mother lode, the good stuff. I miss her so much. I will be forever grateful for the life of the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. She will be forever missed.

Written by Rev. Dr. Laurie Garrett-Cobbina, Shaw Family Chair for Clinical Pastoral Education
CPE Certified Educator, San Francisco Theological Seminary