By Valerie Elverton-Dixon,
When a human being dedicates her life to the sustenance and joy of humankind, when she works with a will for justice and for the moral evolution of humankind, when she dies, it is fitting to pay tribute. This is nothing new for me, I think that works of mourning, acts of mourning keep us grounded and connected to a reality that life on this earth, in this delicate human flesh is fragile and fleeting and over far too soon. We all live moment by moment. We cannot take tomorrow for granted, and a life well lived is a work of art.
The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary, the first African-American woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the first African-American woman to chair the dissertation committee of another African-American woman in religious studies, a pioneer of womanist thought, a towering figure in theological ethics, my own teacher, mentor, sister and friend has died. (https://www.upsem.edu/newsroom/professor-katie-cannon-first-black-woman-ordained-in-pcusa-dies-at-68/)
This for me is personal.
There is much that I could write about her scholarship and her pedagogies that have influenced a generation of scholars, teachers and preachers. We will be writing essays about her thought in the areas of ethics, homiletics, teaching and learning for years to come. There will be much to say about her concepts of unctuousness and her thinking regarding “ethosfacts” in her application of archaeological methods in the field of social ethics. We will be dancing the dance of redemption that she adopted and adapted from her teacher Beverly Wildung Harrison, made her own, and passed on to us for our own adoption and adaptation. We will make her thinking regarding the work of sociologist Oliver Cox part of a womanist peace theory. And we will, through her spirit, continue to “debunk seamless histories; . . .unmask the deadly onslaught of stultifying intellectual mystification; . . . and disentangle the ordinary absence of women of color in whole bodies of literature.” (Katie G. Cannon “Structured Academic Amnesia” in “Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society.”)
This, however, is personal.
There is an old saying that when the student in ready, the teacher will appear. That was the case with Dr. Cannon and me. I first met her at a Society of Christian Ethics meeting in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. She was already a star. I was just starting work on my PhD in Religion at Temple University, not exactly sure whether the academy and I would make a good fit, especially when it came to academic writing. I was trained in journalism and had worked in both print and radio. I was trained to write in a clear, concise and if possible entertaining style. Academic writing was abstruse and turgid. Why use a simple word or sentence when a complex paragraph will do?
Much of the discourse I heard at the conference was over my head, and I was not certain whether people really knew what they were talking about or if the difficult language was an obfuscation to cover up intellectual uncertainties and insecurities. I remember that she and I had a short conversation in the lobby of the hotel near the end of the conference. I do not remember how the conversation started. I probably saw her and walked up to her and started the conversation. As a journalist, I am not shy about approaching total strangers, introducing myself and starting a conversation. I do not remember much of what we said, but I do remember that she asked me what I was interested in studying and that she listen very carefully. She gave me her complete attention. After I had answered her question, she encouraged me to continue my studies. She thought that my intellectual project was worthwhile. I never questioned whether or not I ought to work toward the PhD after that conversation.
Time passed. When Dr. Cannon came to teach in the Department of Religion at Temple, it was an answer to prayer. She became chair of my dissertation committee. From that day to this she was more than a teacher, but a mentor and a friend. She was not only a mentor and a friend to me, but to many of us working on advanced degrees at Temple and beyond. She understood that scholarship was lonely work, but that scholars are also human beings connected to families and communities with obligations and commitments to people who may not understand the demands that the academic life places on us. She brought us together once a month for lunch where we could vent, talk about our progress and setbacks, and hold each other accountable for doing the work.
She built community not only in the institutions where she taught, but she also was an important figure in establishing the Womanist Consultation that meets prior to American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meetings. She helped to bring the Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society Group at the AAR into existence. She was a past president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. I am certain that there are organizations that she was a part of that I do not know about. Others will have to write about those. What I know is that she taught us through her example to support each other with constructive criticism and encouragement.
Even after my PhD work was finished, when I started teaching, I would call her with my tales of woe and ask for advice from everything from ordering books for my syllabus to how to handle complaints from students who wanted me to lecture when my method of teaching is dialogical. After I left the academy, I would still call her whenever I was about to stretch my thinking beyond its boundaries. She was my sanity check. Usually, she told me that I was still sane and to go ahead. She has pushed me for twenty years to turn my dissertation on the Clarence Thomas Hearings into a book. I thought the time for such a book had passed, but the #MeToo movement has proved her right.
From time to time, I would get postcards in the mail from her with her own colorful designs. Sometimes she would send a hard copy of something that she thought would be helpful to my work. It was always a joy to get a piece of mail with her handwriting on it. This past Thursday, the day after she died, I found the invitation she sent me to the Womanist gathering that she convened this spring with Alice Walker. She told me that it was a mountaintop experience. The last time we talked was when James Cone died. I talked to her about the tribute I was planning to write about him, and we talked about what we both wanted to do now that time was marching on. I told her that I had no desire to teach again, that I have a list of books I want to write. She talked about her love of teaching and why would she retire from something that she loved? We affirmed each other’s choices and ended the conversation with plans to hang out together when she came to St. Louis to receive yet another honor in June. That visit was not to be.
At some point during my adult life, I made a decision that I would not let “them” see me cry. This ubiquitous “they” are the people animated by the forces of opposition that want to stall or stop our progress. “They” are the principalities and powers and flesh and blood human beings who perpetrate lies and injustice. “They” will not see me cry. I reserve my tears for my bedroom after I have turned off my light for the night, for prayer meeting, and while working on the PHD for Dr. Cannon’s office where she handed me the box of tissues and told me that “Failure is not an option. There is no way out but through.”
Dr. Cannon was not one who believed in this stoicism. She wanted us to take care of our mental health. She said that we ought to let them see us cry because racism hurts, sexism hurts, injustice hurts, disrespect and disregard hurt. They ought to see our pain so that they know that we do feel pain.
At this moment, on this occasion, I am not ashamed to admit that I write this tribute to my teacher, mentor and friend through my tears. I say and say again that our tears are another way to pray, that they are the Holy Spirit making intercession for us with groaning that is beyond words. (Romans 8:26) Holy Spirit, the female aspect of God, the mind of God, the provision of God, the fecundity of God, the Comforter can translate the language of our tears that expresses the depth of our grief and the pain of our loss. At the same time, these tears that I shed are also tears of gratitude that this extraordinary woman came into this world and poured herself into me and into her family, friends, students, and colleagues. I weep tears of gratitude that she finished her work with a mountaintop experience and did not suffer long. These tears pray paradoxical prayers that know that she is gone, but that she is also not gone. She is still with us in our scholarship, in our courage to trust our judgement now that she is not here to tell us that we are sane. She is with us in our teaching and preaching and writing.
As long as any person can read these words, or read and hear the words of the people she has influenced, The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon still lives.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”