Cannon, Katie Geneva. Katie’s Canon Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. New York: Continuum International Group, 1997. Print.
Katie Geneva Cannon
Prelude / Chapter One : Surviving the Blight
There is a lot of information in this section. I’ll start with a couple of key terms. Jungle Stance: the posture of knowing you’re in danger without having to be taught. Cannon claims this stance is natural in young A.A. children because of the pressures of racist society. She also discusses “epistemological privileges of the oppressed” in this section. This is having a deep connection to histories of ancestral oppression that guides your decisions in the social sphere – sometimes this even means away from rationality.
Cannon notes that she will concentrate on a three part elucidation of Black female positions in society. This explanation will use race, sex, and class as it’s sites of inquiry. Later Cannon notes that her meditations will all challenge systems of domination.
In Chapter One, Cannon frames the institution of slavery in terms of “chattel” or property. This allows a view of the slave as properly – not human. In so doing, oppression is absolved of a lot of biblical responsibility. To cope with the realities of chattel, Blacks developed a couple of different coded/insider discourses: 1) folklore, 2) spirituals, and 3) communal prayer.
Chapter Two: Slave Ideology and Biblical Interpretation
In chapter two, Cannon outlines how three different Christian doctrines allowed chattel slavery to operate in the United States. First, she discusses how the biblical story of Ham predestined all Blacks to a life of servitude because of their status as the outcast, bestial, cannibalistic, heathen. Next, in “remythologizing divine will” Cannon posits that White Christians didn’t prohibit Black enslavement because it wasn’t explicitly prohibited in the bible. .. which presumably made it ok. So, since it wasn’t prohibited in the bible, the subservience of the Black people must have been the “natural order of things” and hence, God’s will. Finally, Cannon notes in “mythologizing the enslavement” that White Christians believed (or at least accepted the belief) that slave ships and slavers were sent to Africa to save the Africans from the “ignorance, superstition, and corruption” of the continent as a whole.
Chapter Three: The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness
In this chapter, Cannon sets out to “track down the central and formative facts in the Black woman’s social world, [thereby] identifying the determinant and determining structures of oppression that have shaped the context in which Black women discriminately and critically interpret Scripture, in order to apprehend the divine Word from the perspective of their own situation” (47). After sketching how Black women were both torn asunder from meaningful relationships with Black men and were also at the sexual whim of white slave masters, plantation owners, etc., Cannon notes that Black women’s position didn’t change much during the Reconstruction period or even until the first large waves of immigration north during the period after WWI (1915-1930). It was only after the economic realities of a dwindling white labor force during WWII that Black women were given even the smallest bit of representation. During the entire experience of Black women after the Emancipation, the church served as a central citadel of hope as it was the only institution that Blacks could use without restraint. As the church framed the Black woman experience from before the Emancipation when slaves weren’t allowed to practice to the present, Black women looked to Jesus and the church as a way to satisfy needs of human dignity and to secure the soul’s liberation. In so doing, Cannon notes that Black women “serve as contemporary prophets, calling other women forth so that they can break away from the oppressive ideologies and belief systems that presume to define their reality” (56).
Chapter Four: Moral Wisdom in the Black Women’s Literary Tradition
In this chapter, Cannon first interrogates mainstream, dominant Protestant ethics to challenge their view that self-reliance, frugality, and industry will, invariably, lead to economic success. Because of their position as an oppressed people living under oligarchic, white patriarchal economic relations, Black experience must develop other mechanisms to achieve a “standard of living that is congruent with the American ideal. In challenging this protestant ethic, Cannon’s goal is “to show how Black women live out a moral wisdom in their real-lived context that does not appeal to the fixed rules or absolute principles of White-oriented, male-structured society” (60). To understand this new ethic, Cannon turns to Black women’s literary tradition to discover what ethical values Black women have developed to participate in this society (61). She comes up with the following conclusions:
a. Black Women’s literary tradition parallels Black history
b. Black Women’s literary tradition uses the oral narrative devices of the Black community
c. Black Women’s literary tradition capsulizes the insularity of the Black community
In discovering these conclusions, Cannon notes that Black women’s literary traditions can be seen as a seriously reliable mirror of the experiences of Black reality.
Chapter Five: Womanist Perspectival Discourse and Cannon Formation
Cannon notes that her work as a womanist theological ethicist concentrates on four areas:
a. The creation of womanist pedagogical styles
b. The emergence of distinctive investigative methodologies
c. Reconsideration of the established theories, doctrines, and debates of Eurocentric, male-normative ethics.
d. The adjudicative function of womanist scholars
Next, she sets out to “identify some of the generative themes in the texts of A.A. women writers that womanist ethicists need to address” (70). The first theme she wants addressed is colorism (71). In the same vein, she id’s the value system of “pigmentocracy” (72). Third, she discusses the notion that accepting Black women as women means “moving beyond a single vision of vaginas” and finally recommends the reading of “Black women’s bodies as texts” (74). As Cannon notes, “Flesh houses memories – the color of flesh, the reproductive character of flesh, and the manifold ways that the flesh of African women is the text on which androcentric patriarchy is written” (75).
Chapter Six: Resources for a Constructive Ethic – The Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
In this chapter Cannon recommends using Hurston as a model for constructive ethics because “unlike most of the other writers in her time, Hurston emphasized the unique cultural heritage and wholeness of Black life” (78). Hurston achieved this through the employ of folklore, folk sayings, and her own lived experience. In so doing, she offers the reader a really good example of the Black woman as a moral agent. In fact, Hurston “grasped an understanding of the moral quality of life being fulfilled, not as an ideal, but as a balance of complexities in such a way that suffering did not overwhelm and endurance with integrity was possible” (83). This sound a lot like West’s concept of “tragicomic hope.”
Chapter Seven: Unctuousness as Virtue
There are definitely a lot of analogs between Cannon’s treatment of Hurston and West’s notion of tragicomic hope in this chapter. Cannon grounds the importance of Hurston early in the chapter by noting, “Hurston offers a concrete frame of reference for the understanding the Black woman as a moral agent” (91). This moral agency /good is equated with tragicomic hope when Cannon states that moral good “is that which allows Black people to maintain a feistiness about life that nobody can wipe out, no matter how hard they try” (ibid.). In defining “unctuousness” Cannon states that Hurston’s “quality of steadfastness, akin to fortitude, in the face of formidable oppression serves as the most conspicuous feature in the construction of Black women’s ethics” (92). In the pages that follow, Cannon describes how the ridicule and criticism that Hurston received internally (while grappling with the contradictions of having a white financier) and externally (through the brutal criticism of Black male writers, known as the “Godfathers of the Harlem Renaissance”) didn’t deter her from demonstrating unctuousness and moral good in all of her strivings to accurately represent the A.A. condition.
Chapter 8: “The Wounds of Jesus”: Justification of Goodness in the Face of Manifold Evil
This chapter takes up a central theological problem that hampers not only Black Xianity, but also Xianity as a whole. Namely, “Can God create a rock that God can’t pick up?” Or, in other words, would God create evil if he is an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? Or in Cannon’s words this is the fundamental query that “deals with traditional theological problem concerning transgressions that proceed directly from human sin – structures of domination, subordination, and constraints that reinforce and reproduce hierarchies based on race, sex, class, and sexual orientation” (101). In the Black church, Cannon claims that this problem of moral evil is inflicted by human agency. In this chapter, she intends to do the following:
a. Examine theodicy as it is presented in the ecclesiastical texts embedded as distinctive rhetorical units in Hurston’s work.
b. To critique Hurston’s sermon “The Wounds of Jesus” as a sketch of the problem of evil in Afro-Christian rhetoric.
c. To construct, even in the bare outline, my own composite womanist matrix for the corpus of sermons in the A.A. women’s literary tradition (102).
According to Cannon, Hurston’s treatment of ecclesiastical texts reflects the Black church communities understanding of God’s redeeming love. As such, these texts are seen as ways to assuage the problem of human agency in repressive forms. In her critique of Hurston’s sermon, she articulates that the problem of evil is a) an essential element in the completion of human history, b) relatable to the Black community through metaphorical adornment and c) a representation of the Black Xian tenant of revelation in God in Jesus Christ. In this sense, the image of Jesus as Redeemer exists a priori to any consideration of evil in the world.
In attempting to find the most fruitful site for the expression of seminal evil practices in Black life, one need only turn to Black women novelists due to their position in broader society and their triple oppression. In closing, Cannon notes that, “The point of much A.A. women’s spirituality as expressed in the literature is that it does not begin with questions about the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence of God and then move to justify God’s goodness in the face of evil. Rather womanist protagonists contend that God’s sustaining presence is known in the resistance to evil” (111). In other words, the problem of evil is not addressed, as it exists; hence, the womanist position is to confront evil with God’s sustaining presence as resistance tactic par excellance.
Chapter 9: Womanist Interpretation and Preaching in the Black Church
In this chapter, Cannon attempts to outline a program for Womanist action in Black churches to more fully realize the contributions of women and to exercise their image as evil from the good book. In performing this task, she relies on the texts of feminist liberationist Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Black homiletician Isaac R. Clark, Sr.
By adopting the methodology of Fiorenza, Cannon hopes to demonstrate how sermonic texts “participate in creating or sustaining oppressive or liberating theoethical values and sociopolitical practices” (114). In critiquing existing Black Sermonic oppression of women, the feminist liberationist interpretation also provides for a space to use womanist methodology at the “constructive stage of sermon preparation and delivery” (115).
In the analysis of preaching in the Black church, Cannon identifies a couple of useful analytical categories:
a. Divine activity – The fact that the Black preacher occupies a space between God and the congregation.
b. Word of God – This is the idea that the “God-Self” is present in the content of the preached word.
c. Proclaiming or announcing – The preacher’s indicative mode for declaring the biblical ideas, beliefs, and systems of though in the vernacular of the hearers.
d. Contemporary Issues – This is how the preacher grounds biblical exegesis in lived experience of the congregation.
e. Ultimate Response to God – This is the preacher’s call to the congregation make a decision “for or against emancipatory praxis” (118).
After finishing her discussion of Black sermons, Cannon launches into an EXTREMLY dense and loaded discussion of “Womanist Queries” where womanist can seek to change the traditional Black church model that oppresses women in multiple ways. This discussion continues into the next chapter. To put it quickly, Cannon notes that her program is one of “unmasking those detailed and numerous androcentric injunctions” in so doing “womanist hermeneutics attempts to expose the impact of ‘phallocentric’ concepts that are present within Black sacred rhetoric” (119).
In womanist hermeneutics, the preacher should aim to:
a. Trace out the logic of liberation that can transform patriarchal oppression
b. Urge congregationists to make interventions, no matter how slight, in the dominant religious discourse of the time
Chapter 10: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: The Womanist Dilemma in the Development of a Black Liberation Ethic
After framing the tension that exists in Cannon’s own identity as both a Christian social ethicist and a womanist liberation ethicist, she launches into a programmatic discussion of how to change things. I’m going to be brief here as there is SO MUCH.
If acting like a Canonical Boy, the Black woman must:
a. Discount the particularities of her lived experiences and instead focus on the validity of generlizable external analytical data
In so doing, this position ignores the positionality of Black women, and therefore presents them no place to enact their own agency. In challenging this position, Cannon wants to decenter the White male ethicist position to compensate for the more than analytical – the daily lived experience of Black oppression.
To challenge this position, Cannon recommends:
a. New research questions must be developed so that Black women’s moral wisdom can provide answers
b. Practice moral acts that demystify large and obscure ideological relations, social theories, and indeed, the heinous sociopolitical reality or tridimensional oppression
c. Use frameworks of wisdom to compare and contrast Black female moral agency with the agency of those in society who have the freedom to maximize choice and personal autonomy.
d. Focus on particular questions of women in order to reveal the subtle and deep effects of male bias on recording religious history
e. Examine Black women’s contributions in all major fields of theological studies – Bible, history, ethics, mission, worship, theology, preaching and pastoral care.
f. Move from the position of direct object to active subject in the Black Church.
g. Move toward a fundamental reconceptualization of all ethics with the experience of Black women at center stage
h. Recognize and condemn the extent to which sex differences prevail in the institutional church, in our theological writings, and in the Black Church’s practices
Chapter Eleven: Appropriation and Reciprocity in the Doing of Womanist Ethics
I loved this chapter. In this section, Cannon raises some really interesting questions about how to “do” womanist ethics. I’ll list in bullet form:
a. Are they traditions of white feminists and womanists mutually exclusive? (Her answer is a definitive NO – pg. 131).
b. What challenges arise in the process of appropriation?
c. Do I have to choose between my racial identity and my womanhood?
d. How do we remain both beholden to our inherited religious culture materials as well as responsible in favoring the extension of oral texts for posterity? In other words, what are trade-offs in our movement from orality to textuality?
To close Cannon states,
“The origin of the idea dictates the claims of accountability. Whether we begin with paradigms created by mentors of European and Euro-American ancestry or with theoretical constructs emerging from the oral traditions of the African Diaspora or with a dialectical, syncretistic interplay between the two, we must answer the inescapable questions of appropriation and reciprocity. To decline the ethical labor of wrestling with the questions . . .. is to play the game of androcentric heteropatriarchical academese without understanding it” (135).
Chapter Twelve: Metalogues and Dialogues: Teaching the Womanist Idea
In this section, Cannon outlines a womanist pedagogy. To carry out this task, she recommends a three-wheel program.
a. The first wheel is the intellectual predisposition of traditional male thinkers whose very language of objective universality masks our existence, forces us to persist in binary oppositions, and looks at Black women as superfluous
b. The second wheel is the specificity of Afro-Christian culture, systematic accounts of the history and achievements, perspectives and experiences of members of the Black church community.
c. The third wheel is the experiential dimension of women’s texts and interpretations.
She gives a really lovely definition of liberation ethics on the bottom of 138. She concludes the chapter by noting that liberation ethics is something we “do.” Womanist epistemology is the process by which we bring this kind of knowing about A.A. women into relation with justice to arrive at new understandings of our doing, knowing and being (paraphrase 141).