Follow-Up to WATERtalk Introduction
“Walking Through the Valley:
Womanist Explorations in the Spirit of
Katie Geneva Cannon” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2023)
Emilie Townes, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Alison P. Gise Johnson,
and Angela D. Sims, Editors.
June 7, 2023 Wednesday, 1:00 pm–2:00 pm EDT
Video may be found at: https://youtu.be/E5R0SSc49JU
WATER thanks Emilie Townes, Alison P. Gise Johnson, and Angela D. Sims, editors of “Walking Through the Valley: Womanist Explorations in the Spirit of Katie Geneva Cannon” for a stimulating session. These notes are meant to accompany the video of the session where the speakers’ own words give a fuller sense of the work at hand.
INTRODUCTION—Mary E. Hunt
The only thing better than welcoming this esteemed group of writers and editors would be to have the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon with us in person. Alas, her untimely death in 2018 prevents that from happening. But I have every confidence that she is with us in some form as her person and her work animates our conversations.
Katie Cannon was a force of nature. As poet Nikky Finney said in her Foreword to the present volume, “Katie Cannon never just invited anyone anywhere. When Katie Cannon called, you were being sent for, and a caravan of deep listeners, mighty thinkers, and joyful toe-tapping folks were always there, waiting.” (p. xi). We are those people today, waiting to hear from our speakers who bring us their own wisdom as well as the wisdom of Dr. Cannon.
I can affirm what the poet said, having been summoned more than once. I first met Kate at Union Theological Seminary in the early 1970’s when she was a doctoral student there in Hebrew Bible. The night I met her she was the disk jockey for a party there. Life got better for me after that meeting.
Fast forward to the 2018 founding conference of what is now the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership in Richmond, Virginia. I, along with a few other white and Asian colleagues, received a Save the Date note from Katie. When Katie Cannon asked you to save the date, you saved the date. As a white woman, I am always respectful of Black women’s space, so I was not sure about attending. But I figured my name was not a typo on her list. I went.
I consider it one of the privileges of my life to have been present at that extraordinary Inaugural Conference, “Bearing Witness to Womanism: What Was, What Is, What Shall Be,” keynoted by Alice Walker. 1500 people gathered on the first evening, and several hundred of us spent the next days learning, celebrating, being amazed. Don’t miss Melanie Jones’ chapter in this book. “The House that Cannon Built and ‘The Hinges upon Which the Future Swings’.” Melanie is the first director of the center that was brought into being that weekend.
I was summoned again two days after the conference ended. The email read: “Good morning Mary and Diane. I thank you again for being among the cloud/crowd of witnesses during the launching of the Center for Womanist Leadership (cwl). As I continue to digest how visions, ideas and words became embodied realities this past weekend, I am writing to request you, Mary, to write a free-style essay of your experience I can use in ongoing promotional materials. And, Diane, I request you to send me any liturgical verses or prayers inspired by your participation in the weekend’s mountaintop experience…” Needless to say, I sat right down and did as requested.
Her response to my article is vintage Katie Cannon: “This is brilliant!!!! You are included among the living testimonies informing my new self-assignment—to craft the Doctrine of Incarnation from a womanist perspective. The excellent quality of your reflection is inspiring me to do the ‘happy dance’ on my good foot.”
As I wrote in my own remembrance of her, “Alas, we will not read that work from her hand, though there is a dissertation in it for someone. However, we know what womanist Incarnation looks like at the podium, in the classroom, in the pulpit, and indeed, on the dance floor in the person of Katie Geneva Cannon.”
Today, her memory is a blessing. So we turn to the present volume. I will only mention the most salient details of each editor as their CV’s would fill the hour:
- Emilie M. Townes is a highly regarded writer and professor. She just retired after a celebrated tenure as Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School where she is also distinguished Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She has begun a well-deserved sabbatical and will return to teaching. In 2024, she will be president of the Society of Christian Ethics, having already been president of the American Academy of Religion and of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. I would like to see her run for president of the United States, but her sabbatical may prevent that until 2028.
- Stacey Floyd-Thomas, another editor of this book, was Katie Cannon’s first graduate student. She is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair and associate Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. She, too, is a well published scholar focusing on womanist ethics. Stacey is Past President of the Society of Race, Ethnicity and Religion. I regret that she cannot join us much as she tried given the difference in time between here and Japan. I am sure she is doing good work in Japan after the fashion of her professor. She assured me that her colleagues here present would have this session well in hand.
- Alison P. Gise Johnson is associate professor at Claftin University in South Carolina. She is the co-author with Vanessa Monroe of Exodus Women, vol. 1, Securing the Sacred. That book includes a Forward by Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. Dr. Johnson is the author of the essay “Fulfilling Katie’s Deepest Desire,” part of a series of remembrances in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Issue 35.1, spring 2019. https://www.fsrinc.org/remembering-cannon-gise-johnson/. A deep bow of thanks to you, Dr. Johnson, for your interview in the JFSR with Katie in 2018, “Dancing Redemption’s Song, Across Generations: An Interview with Katie G. Cannon.”
- Our third in person guest is Angela D. Sims, President of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. She wrote Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror and co-edited with Katie and Emilie Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader. She is a graduate of Trinity College Washington, a wonderful college near here, and has an MDiv from Howard University School of Divinity, also a bus ride from this office. She did her PhD at Union Presbyterian Seminary with a dissertation on Ida B. Wells. She is now the first woman president of Colgate Rochester Crozer and an ordained Baptist minister.
INPUT from speakers
- Emilie Townes
This book is a ‘good’ thing to come out of a pandemic. Writing the book was an act of love and of grieving. Katie taught the importance of presence, listening to people, coaxing out the best from them. The book reflects this approach.
The structure of the book involved choosing themes in Katie’s work and then inviting 2-3 people to write essays on each theme, letting it grow and expand. Katie’s love of learning was key.
- Alison P. Gise Johnson
The task is to hold both grief and gratitude at the same time. Emile invited us to birth a work that looked like it would be one of Katie’s children. From a background as a chemical engineer, Dr. Gise Johnson came to theology with the help of Katie Geneva Cannon.
Dr. Cannon often used mind maps. One was a theo-ethical trajectory of Christian imperialism. Dr. Cannon looked at Black women living in poverty and the spirituality of Black women to navigate and create sacred places.
Also in this section are an analysis of the richness of darkness and a look at eco-womanism. Black sovereignty is reclaimed. The whole section is “doing the work our souls must have” as per Dr. Cannon.
- Angela D. Sims
A student of both Dr. Gise Johnson and Dr. Cannon, Dr. Sims describes the development of a how she was mentored and supported by these women. Dr. Cannon modeled how to “show up” in so many places and ways as fully oneself. She taught students how to dig deeply into themselves, their families, and their settings, and use their findings in their studies.
Black women’s experiences are the foundation of the work. Three
womanist virtues from Zora Neale Hurston set the pace: quiet grace, unshouted courage, and unctuousness. Dr. Cannon taught that “Even when one’s face is on fire, we are still called to do the work.”
The intergenerational reality of the writers of this book and Dr. Cannon’s commitment that all are co-learners give the volume its depth and authenticity.
The genealogy of womanist thinkers, the ‘descendants’ of Dr. Katie Cannon, have done her proud in this volume.
Many participants offered comments after we looked at Kate’s doodles made into wearable art:
- One Canadian participant drew a parallel to the “original sin” of Canada which is its mistreatment of indigenous people. A murder and a suicide at an encampment of indigenous people had just taken place in Peterborough, Ontario. After a service to commemorate the two deceased, the questioner returned home dispirited because of the enormous social inequities she saw. Our session was healing from her.
Emilie Townes responded that Katie taught her “the power of hope” to keep us in the struggles. She added that despair is a luxury we no longer have. We have to make justice with others because the power is in the community.
Alison Gise Johnson added that unhoused people are the canaries in the coal mine, showing the future. That both middle class and unhoused people were together at the memorial service gives hope that the middle class will explore how they got that way and advocate for the unhoused.
- An Irish colleague spoke of liberation theology in Peru and the dangers of Christian imperialism. She advocated for multiple voices and the dismantling of unjust structures which are part of the globalized forces.
Angela Sims underscored how Katie Cannon reached across race, areas of research, and generations to build community. She suggested that this colleague do the same, extending an invitation to people to join conversations even where there appears to be silence.
- A woman who works in Ecuador added her gratitude to all involved in the session. Her take away: the method of the book–dialogic and communal–is the message. Dr. Cannon’s emphasis on co-learning is a good antidote to the usual ways of the academy. The book deserves a broad audience, including possible translation into Spanish and/or Portuguese.
The editors took the matter under advisement.
- Another participant asked about womanism. While a course on womanism would be necessary to answer her question, we were given a basic introduction to this work by Emilie Townes.
She began with Alice Walker’s 4 part definition in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens:
- older Black women pass on info and survival skills to younger Black women
- diversity of community of blackness re: race, gender, color, sex, sexuality
- standards of beauty never fit Black women nor most women
- critique of feminism: womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender
Other early womanist thinkers include: Delores William, Jacqueline Grant, and Katie Cannon
Race, class, sex—womanist thought incorporated those elements in theo-ethical reflection.
Womanism spread through the religious academy then in churches where women had been marginalized despite doing most of the work.
Bottom line: Black theology (mostly by men) was not enough. Feminist Theology (mostly by white women) was not enough. Black women live in a matrix called womanism.
- The moderator asked: Katie was an outstanding teacher, as attested to by her winning several awards including the American Academy of Religion Excellence in Teaching Award in 2011 which now is the Katie Geneva Cannon Excellence in Teaching Award since she set the bar. What can we take from her pedagogy to improve our own?
Dr. Sims—Dr. Cannon expected deep listening with prepared students who came to learn
Dr. Gise Johnson—Dr. Cannon assumed everyone was a scholar; she simplified complex research. The work helped one to see one’s own work that would liberate one’s community.
Dr. Townes—Dr. Cannon showed deep listening and actually heard what people were saying. She would push people to clarity so they could appreciate what and how they are saying their truth.
WATER thanks profoundly Emilie Townes, Stacey Floyd-Thomas in absentia, Alison Gise Johnson, and Angela Sims editors of the volume, “Walking Through the Valley: Womanist Explorations in the Spirit of Katie Geneva Cannon” which is published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2023. This marvelous session will be viewed by many people and will further spread the word of Dr. Cannon.
Conversation continued after the usual closing time. Highlights of that include:
- The presence of Nancy Krody who knew Dr. Cannon at Union Theological Seminary and at Temple University, as well as the presence of Mark Primavesi whose wife Anne Primavesi was an early eco-feminist theologian.
- What would Katie be doing today? What would she be saying now, having died before George Floyd (2020) and Breonna Taylor (2020), to name just a few of those killed by police brutality? Where do you imagine she would be putting her energies?
Alison—Katie was working on a book about the transatlantic slave trade at the time of her death.
Angela—Katie was interested in the economics of poverty; US infatuation with racism; moral problems rooted in racism.
Alison—Katie focused on desegregation of schools and what happened to Black teachers as well as Black students
- How did Kate’s ministry take shape, and what does it tell us about the marriage of scholarship and activism? While she preached regularly at certain times during her career, she really saw academia as the locus of her ministry. But to those who know her biography so well, were there other forms of ministry, especially in her later years, that informed her scholarly work and vice versa?
Alison—Dr. Cannon created Bible studies in local churches even though she was not able to continue her own biblical studies.
—The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership is for Black women in ministry and scholars; church was academy and academy was church.
—Katie’s work for the Center before the inaugural conference included convening women from local churches, students and scholars; Katie created safe and sacred spaces for Black women
- Emilie Townes underscored the joy that characterized Katie’s life. She was the consummate storyteller.
- Alison quoted Katie: “man’s rejection is God’s protection.”
- What Katie Cannon work is in the pipeline—theses, dissertations, some of her unpublished essays perhaps? Many students and scholars are finding her foundational work crucial for the crying needs of our day. In specific:
—Emilie is returning to scholarship herself; PhD students are using Katie Cannon’s work as a launching pad, though it seems early to take on her work since she is still very much ‘alive’ in the academy.
—Katie’s art work offers another way into her thinking; art is a medium for expression for all especially for those who have been marginalized.
—–The Center can be a place where students can sit with questions and then engage with Katie’s work.
COMMENTS FROM THE CHAT
- Rosemary Ganley: I must mention a riveting 2 hour feature film made entirely by Canadian Indigenous filmmakers called “Bones of Crows”. It tells artistically and honestly the 150-year story of the oppression of Indigenous people here. Women leaders are center. Right up to date including scenes in the Vatican. Christian imperialism writ large.
- Kathy Maxwell: Thank you so much to all, I am so looking forward to the book. This has been wonderful and engaging. As the oldest student at VDS, I have had the outstanding experience of taking courses from Dr. Stacey-Floyd Thomas, missed her here today, but wonderful to learn more.
- Jin Young Choi: Deep gratitude to Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon and the phenomenal editors (and WATER) for helping us continue to do the work we do. I’m looking forward to reading the book.