By Traci C. West.
In order to succinctly reflect on Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon’s work and life, I must force myself to accept the reality of her death. This is excruciatingly hard. For it is the magnitude of Katie Cannon’s generosity that so indelibly marks my memory of her life and work as well as the gift of friendship she gave to me. The untimely, permanent loss of that Katie Cannon magnanimity seems impossible to accept, or at the very least, incomprehensible to my mind and spirit.
Academia can be a place of unrelenting, enervating competition where stinginess seems the only language available. The expression of restrained regard and support for the ideas of one’s contemporaries that are constructively related to one’s own ideas represents a common academic posture, almost expected to maintain one’s own scholarly credibility. But these norms were broken in the lived worldview of Katie Cannon. As one of the founding theorists of womanist Christian ethics, Katie Cannon forged a unique mode for intellectual innovators and pioneers in the academy. She continuously and graciously carved out, saved, and extended an invitation to come and share the generative intellectual space that she produced. This extended to womanist, feminist, liberationist, and Africana studies colleagues and students as well as so many others. For decades I observed how she expressed this commitment through her pedagogical practices at her lectures, panel presentations, meetings, and informal receptions and gatherings. She did so in more instances than I can begin to recount here. I was astounded by the deep wells of patience she drew from in response to the range of idiosyncratic personalities, demands, and frankly, sometimes obtuseness, of supposedly like-minded scholars who engaged her work. The persistent manner in which she was a staunch builder of the womanist movement while conveying the conviction that there is always more room in the conversation exceeded a standard liberal nod to inclusiveness. She deliberately forged a tradition of honoring and supporting the expansion of perspectives, strands, and trajectories within and related to womanist thought.
Methodologically, Katie Cannon’s black woman-centered analyses of white supremacy constitute one of the many aspects of her intellectual legacy that I deeply admire and must name as a crucial framework on which I rely in my own work. In her analytical approachone finds a sharp conceptualization of both the strength and vulnerability of black women especially evident in their collisions with white supremacy. Katie Cannon’s scholarship reveals the ugliness of white racism and how it preys on black women’s human vulnerabilities. To reveal the ugliness demands courage because it is so painful. The reflective process of unraveling the impact of racist patternsas well as the commitment to remaining focused on them and inviting others to do so toorequires scholarly and spiritual stamina. Katie Cannon’s work provides us with historically rooted, geopolitically situated, and intimate examples of black women’s epistemological strength. She depicts black women’s embodied knowledge as a creative force. The task of the womanist ethicist, she insisted, is to uncover and comprehend it.
Personally, as I reflect on our ongoing, supportive exchanges during the last two years of her life in which we discussed a common, difficult concern, I linger on the power of her poetry. Her poetic phrasing flows throughout her formal writings and speeches as well as her informal email messages. Below, I quote from her description of her aunt and her childhood experiences in a kind of (amateur) redaction poetry. I lift selected words from a page of Katie’s Canon to dedicate to her.
Katie, from “Exposing My Home Point of View.”
I couldn’t be like a normal kid.
food on the table.
God made everybody.
But I was so glad she gave us that.
I still knew I was somebody.
take this dust that’s earthly worn.
But I was so glad she gave us.
 Katie Geneva Cannon, “Exposing My Home Point of View,” Katie’s Canon (New York: Continuum, 1995), 166.
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