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Union Presbyterian Seminary works to expand Katie’s canon

Panelists celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, one of the PC(USA)’s most beloved educators

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Gone now more than four years, the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, one of the foremost educators in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the first Black woman ever ordained by a forebear denomination, lives on in the lives of the scholars whose work relies in no small part on what they learned from her.

Two of those scholars, the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Davis and the Rev. Dr. Richelle White, were the guests Tuesday on a webinar called “Expanding Katie’s Canon: Antiracist Teaching for Transformation.” The Rev. Melanie C. Jones, instructor of Ethics, Theology and Culture at Union Presbyterian Seminary and the director of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership there, hosted the hour-long discussion, which can be viewed here. Davis is associate professor of Christian Education at Union Presbyterian Seminary. White is professor of Youth Ministry and director of Field Practicum and Internships at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The event opened with a brief clip of Cannon discussing her long career as an educator. “I come from a tradition of teachers,” she said. “I love the Black teaching legacy,” which Cannon described as, “I’m going to give you the best I got, and I want you to be better … Black women in particular in that educational heritage have taught me how to be a teacher. I try to teach that to all the people I mentor.”

Jones recalled a favorite saying of Cannon: “The call to teach is like fire shut up in my bones.” Jones then asked the panelists for their first impressions of Cannon, under whom both White and Davis studied.

“My first impression weas that she was real,” White said.

“She was unwilling to let you bring less than your full self to the classroom or to research,” Davis said. “To do less was a disservice to her and to God.”

The Rev. Dr. Richelle White

“She was absolutely brilliant in the most practical way,” White said. “It was about being before it was about doing … She taught us to think and to think well. Everyone in class felt they were the only one in the classroom.”

“She had a way of reaching into you and bringing out something you didn’t see in yourself,” Davis recalled. “We tended to devalue ourselves, and she defied that boldly … Our stories were every bit as important as the texts we were reading … She teased out and cajoled what we would have to contribute — not someday, but right here in that classroom and in that moment.”

White noted Cannon’s teaching style was formed by the three tenets of womanist pedagogy:

  • Historical ethos. “One thing that’s crucial is memory,” White said, citing the work of ancestors “who gave us their best.”
  • Embodied pathos, the notion that “learning is engaged and embodied.”
  • Communal logos, or reciprocity. “Everybody talks together,” is how White described the Cannon classroom. While that can cause cognitive dissonance, “with that dissonance we can know one another better because we are talking from a perspective where everyone’s voice matters.”

For Davis, Cannon’s teaching approach “asks each of us, particularly those of us who are white … and teach with womanist sensibilities” to “have the responsibility to unmask those power structures … listen to our sisters’ stories and hear one another into being. It’s a privilege to sit and listen … and build relationships across whatever divide this world would foster.”

Throughout Tuesday’s conversation, Jones kept an eye on viewers’ comments. “Dr. Cannon would not allow anyone to see themselves as inferior, or anybody else,” said one commenter. Said another: “She knew how to listen with empathetic love and pressed us to ‘do the work our soul must have,’” reflecting a beloved Cannon quote.

Cannon was raised during the 1950s in a segregated society that restricted her access to parks, movies and live theater, White noted. She would ask the question, “What did Black people do that was so bad they couldn’t be part of society?’” White said. “She would share her narrative in a folksy way. She had a way of speaking that was gettable,” sprinkling her lectures with lines from hymns, R&B and rap songs, jokes and parables. “All of that brought the personal aspect of womanism,” White said, “that people could get.”

The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Davis

“She bridged the academy and the congregation in a way that not many on either side do,” Davis said. “Often those in the academy stay in the tower, in theory. Practitioners stick with what works and what’s expedient. She bridged that and found value in both the academy and the congregation. There was the expectation both had meaningful conversations to bring each other.”

In the early days when Davis was working on her PhD, a professor had this comment: “You write for the congregation and that’s not good enough for the academy.”

Davis went straight to Cannon’s office, burst into tears, and told Cannon, “I guess I have to leave the program.”

Cannon asked her if anyone had ever taught her to write for the academy, and Davis said no.

For two hours on a blackboard in a small classroom, Cannon taught Davis “how to turn congregational truth and beauty into academic language where it will be respected and known,” Davis said. “I will be forever grateful for that. She taught us how to be fierce.”

The Rev. Melanie C. Jones

“We are grateful for the knowledge we learn in the academy, but we recognize there is a multiplicity of embodied knowledge that must be shared,” Jones said.

Cannon and other ethicists “helped us make sense of the world and helped us stand and say, ‘No, we will not stand for this,’” Davis said when asked what Cannon might say about the Black Lives Matter movement. “She gave us theories and words and pedagogy we can use, but she also gave us the moral imperative that we cannot stand on the sidelines. … She gave us the courage and the expectation that this is not OK and we can do better.”

“To those of us who had the privilege of learning from her and to those who are learning what it means to be part of a dominant culture that is so scared in this moment it wants to shut down conversations, that puts a burden on us to say, ‘We are going to speak the truth,’” Davis said. “It is incumbent on us to teach social justice in comfortable congregations and to incorporate it in Christian formation. How else will we foster the courage to be faithful witnesses?”

White cited biblical scholars including the Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems and the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney as among those “who have put out excellent [womanist] resources.” She also touched on how important it was to Cannon that preachers spend ample time on sermon preparation. She’d tell students, “You have to be aware of what’s going on in the world and in people. She’d ask: What good is your preaching or your teaching if people can’t understand it?”

White recalled during the spring of 2007 driving Cannon to Duke Divinity School, where Cannon delivered a lecture. On their way home the two were at a rest stop, and White checked her messages. As they got back in the car, White asked Cannon, “Do you want to know who the new president of Union Presbyterian Seminary is?”

“Probably some shriveled-up white man,” Cannon told her. In fact, it was the seminary’s current president, the Rev. Dr. Brian K. Blount, who’s announced he’s retiring at the end of June. He’ll be succeeded July 1 by Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley, the first woman to lead Union Presbyterian Seminary in its 211-year history.

Cannon was “as amazed as I was amazed,” White said. “After we learned that Dr. Blount was going to be president, we rode home in silence. We knew change was coming to Richmond in the form of the first Black president. I will always cherish that memory.”

Davis remembered fondly the day Cannon was introduced to Davis’ father, who’d told his daughter, “I want to meet your Dr. Cannon.”

“I became immediately nervous,” Davis said, introducing the two nonetheless. “She reached out and hugged him,” Davis said. “She told him, ‘I hear you like my homeboy.’”

“Oh my Lord, he won’t know what that is,” Davis reported thinking. Then her father told Cannon, “I do like Dale Earnhardt.”

“I don’t know what caught me the most off-guard,” Davis said. “She had this way of transcending background, people and social location. It was about the heart of who each person was. She transcended every possible line and barrier the world could throw at us.”

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