Cannon, Katie 1950—
Katie Cannon 1950—
Presbyterian minister, educator, feminist
As the first black woman to be ordained a Presbyterian minister, Katie Cannon has had to learn to define herself in her own terms in order to meet her many challenges. Growing up poor, black, female, and intellectually gifted in rural North Carolina, gender, and more particularly, race have always been central issues in Cannon’s life. As she told Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in an interview for Lawrence-Light’s I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation, “When people think of black people, they think of black men. And when they think of women, they think of white women.” Cannon knowingly chose to enter a field overwhelmingly dominated by white men. But as she told Lawrence-Lightfoot, “I name the dualisms…. I help to make the dichotomies real.”
In Cannon’s hometown, Kannapolis, North Carolina, two routes were available to most black women: They could either work in the local mills or become schoolteachers. It was the teachers who had the greatest impact on Cannon. In I’ve Known Rivers she noted that her role models “were black teachers who believed in black children. They believed that we were somebody.…They stood up and preached to us, The world is mean. It’s a jungle out there. But no one can take your thoughts away from you.’ There was no subtlety in their message. The teachers felt a responsibility to save the race.”
Although she thrived in this supportive and protective early academic environment, Cannon grew up with a sharp awareness of racism. Growing up in the mid-1960s, black people in her town were subject to the bite of legally sanctioned Jim Crow discrimination. Prohibited from such public facilities as the library and the local swimming pool, Cannon was oppressed. This provided strong motivation for Cannon to find a way out of her restricted life.
Cannon enrolled at Barber-Scotia College, just seven miles from her hometown. The institution was founded in 1867 for freed women slaves. Newly coeducational in the 1960s, the school proved to be very strict and demanding, but as she told Lawrence-Lightfoot, “Education was going to be the ticket out. I thought, Tve got to
At a Glance…
Born January 3, 1950, in Kannapolis, NC; daughter of Esau and Corin Lytle Cannon. Education: Barber-Scotia College, B.S., 1971, Johnson C. Smith Seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, GA, MDiv, 1974; Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY, MPhil, 1983, Ph.D. Religion: Presbyterian.
Educator, theological ethicist. Ascension Presbyterian Church, pastor, 1975–77; New York Theological Seminary, administration faculty, 1977–80; Yale Divinity School, visiting lecturer, 1987; Harvard Divinity School, visiting scholar, 1983–94; Wellesley College, visiting professor, 1991; Episcopal Divinity School, Cambrige, MA, assistant professor; Temple University, Department of Religion, associate professor of Christian ethics, c. 1993—. Editor, Que Pasa, 1982; author, Black Wornanist Ethics, Scholars Press, 1988; co-editor, Inheriting Our Mother’s Carden, Westminster Press, 1988.
Member: Ecumenical dialogue, Third World theologians, 1976–80; Middle East travel guide, New York Theological Seminary, 1978–80; member, American Academy of Regligion, 1983—, Association of Black Women in Higher Education, 1984—, Society for the Study of Black Religion, 1986—; World Alliance of Reformed Churches Presbyterian & Congregational, 1986–91; board of directors member, Women’s Theological Center, 1984—, Society of Christian Ethics, 1986–90.
Selected awards: Issac R. Clark Preaching Award, Inter-demoninational Theological Center, 1973; Young Scholar Award, Association of Theological Schools, 1987–88; Conant Grant, Espicopal Church, 1987–88. Fellow, Rockefeller Protestant Fellow Fund for Theological Education, 1972–74, Rockefeller Doctoral Fellow Fund for Theological Education, 1974–76, Ford Foundation Fellow National Fellowships Fund, 1976–77, Roothbert Fellow, 1981–83, Radcliffe College Bunting Institute, 1987–88; woman research associate—Ethics, Harvard Divinity School, 1983–84.
Addresses: Office—Associate professor of Christian Ethics, Department of Religion, Temple University, 646 Anderson Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19122–2228.
excel!’” And she did, rising to the top of her class, making the dean’s list, being elected Miss Barber-Scotia in her senior year, and graduating with a B.S. in 1971.
Following a trip to Africa in the fall of 1971, Cannon went on to study at the Johnson C. Smith Seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, Georgia. ITC was one of the two accredited black seminaries in the country at that time. She had been recruited during her junior year at Scotia. For two weeks prospective seminary students traveled North, to be exposed to “every aspect of the ministry.” According to Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book, they were given a “panoramic view of rural ministries, city parishes, university chaplaincies, [and] urban shelters.”
Cannon realized that the ministry could be more than just a vehicle for social and political action. Cannon related in I’ve Known Rivers that by the end of her two-week introduction to the ministry, she felt “challenged in my identity as a black person,” inspired by the intellectual responsibilities and variety of the work, and, having encountered several women ministers for the first time in her life, newly able to imagine herself in the role. Still, as one of four female students in her class—the first to admit women to the seminary—Cannon had trepidations. She found herself surrounded by a student body composed equally of Vietnam War veterans and draft dodgers and men who had had a lifelong calling to preach.
Cannon’s apprehensions gradually dissipated, particularly after she selected Hebrew studies as her major. The subject was a natural for her because she had loved the Old Testament since childhood, when she would memorize and recite Bible stories at her grandmother’s knee. Interestingly, Cannon’s faith was not firm. She admitted to Lawrence-Lightfoot, “I was an agnostic [one who neither affirms nor denies the existence of God or a universal reality] …. I was searching, I was questioning, and none of the professors dismissed my questioning.”
Cannon voiced her skepticism, which fueled an aggressive dialogue between what she called “the thinkers and the preachers.” Again sensitive to a complex division, Cannon reported in I’ve Known Rivers that growth occurred in both factions. “We needed a little of their faith. They needed our facts…. I helped to make the dichotomy real.” Upon completion of her studies in 1974, Cannon was awarded a master’s degree in Divinity.
Although Southern black academic training had done much to nurture her intellect and confidence in her thinking ability, it did little to prepare Cannon for life in the “totally elite” white circles she was to encounter in the North. First, having earned her wings, Cannon served as pastor at the Ascension Presbyterian Church in New York City for three years. Her work there was followed by an administrative position at the New York Theological Seminary, then, ready to resume her scholarly endeavors, Cannon decided to attend New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. While studying at Union—where she eventually received a master’s degree in philosophy and her Ph. D—she was shocked to be initially closed out of every study group she approached.
Finally Cannon turned to the school’s Black Caucus, looking for the familiar fellowship she had experienced at ITC. But rather than welcoming her as a black student, a male classmate challenged her, as the only woman present, to “justify how in the hell you think God has called a women into the ministry.” As she related to Lawrence-Lightfoot, “I was devastated. I didn’t know an answer to that.” So Cannon went to the Women’s Caucus, where she was the only black person. The experience of trading one minority status for another left her feeling polarized. It was also her first encounter with female politics or what she calls “feminist conscientization.”
Even as an adolescent, Cannon felt she was not taken as seriously as males. She learned, instead, to be treated as an “honorary male.” At Union, she was learning to be treated as an “honorary white.” She maintained her identity while increasing her knowledge of a world strange to her. She admitted to Lawrence-Lightfoot that the environment “was … traumatizing….”
To make matters worse, Cannon’s area of concentration during her doctorate-level studies was the Old Testament—her special favorite—but also the most elite subject at Union and one traditionally reserved for the white men with the most powerful political connections. She explained to Lawrence-Lightfoot, “I was the first black woman in the history of the world to try and get a Ph.D. in the Old Testament … and I did not know that brain power alone would not produce a Ph.D…. I did not know that it was 75 percent political—someone has to take you on as a mentor.” But Katie Cannon defeated the pressures.
Cannon’s qualifications enabled her to move from one distinguished post to another. Eminent among those positions were one-year stints as a visiting lecturer at Yale Divinity School and as a visiting professor at Wellesley College, and she was honored as a Radcliffe College Bunting Institute fellow. In addition, she maintained an assistant professorship at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, and, from 1983 to 1994, she served Harvard Divinity School as a visiting scholar.
Currently an associate professor of Christian ethics at Philadelphia’s Temple University, Cannon frequently feels torn between the relative intellectual freedom she has experienced in the North and the warmth of her hometown in the South. She feels at ease and alienated in different ways in both communities. After 14 years in the white world, Cannon informed Lawrence-Lightfoot, “I’m trying very hard to reconnect to my black self. Now I’m feeling the need to learn how to journey home.”
Regarding her decision to teach in a classroom rather than preach from a pulpit, Cannon was quoted as saying in I’ve Known Rivers, “I used to want to change the world, to get rid of racism and sexism through my teaching. Then when that didn’t happen, I became frustrated and then cynical. Now I say to myself, if I can change one person’s perspective so that they leave my course with a changed perspective and ready to be part of the struggle, then I’m satisfied.” Lawrence-Lightfoot related that Cannon “is constantly challenging and battling the racist ’projections’ of her students—even those who consider themselves politically correct feminists.” Calling Cannon a “warm and generous woman,” Lawrence-Lightfoot noted that she speaks not out of rage, but out of “a profound determination that it is possible to rid people of deep-seated prejudice.” “You see,” Cannon iterated to Lawrence-Lightfoot, “part of the privilege of being white is that they don’t have to see racism.”
Recognizing that she could not expect to educate or sensitize 100 percent of her students to the nature of oppression, Cannon has reasoned that rather than shoot for the moon, her strategy has become to find a “less threatening way, [and a more] a creative way to help people become ’conscientized’ about what they don’t know and do something about it.” something else Cannon has to share with all her students, minority or otherwise, is the product of her special experience as a black woman. “It means that you know danger without having to be taught [what it is]…. How do you tap that wisdom—name it, mine it, pass it on to the next generation?” As she strives to do just that, Cannon sets an example for the younger generation each day. Like she told Vogue’s Lorraine Davis in 1985, “I try to help people understand what it means to live as a moral agent, when you have to live with racism, classism, and sexism every day of your life.”
Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara, I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Commonweal, March 10, 1989, p. 153.
Ladies’ Home Journal, Decerner 198, p. 91.
National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 1989, p. 18.
Vogue, January 1985, p. 104.
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