Katie G. Cannon’s untimely death, has compelled me to begin this reflection at the funeral. Not hers; but my first funeral as a parish minister.
I can’t remember the decedent’s name, but I clearly recall that he was Blood. Not as in kin, but as in a member of the “Original Blood Family” street gang. On that early 2000s Saturday, he was also dead, and I had arrived at the church to funeralize a sixteen-year-old Black boy who had been killed according to the logics of his gang affiliation. It was my first funeral, and now approximately fifteen years later having funeralized hundreds upon hundreds of Black people, sometimes multiple in one day, I regrettably do not remember his name.
I can still see the-typically-struggling to be half-full sanctuary, filled past overflow with Black youth. They were predominantly Blood and Ruby; children bereaved, enraged, and adorned in red. As the eulogist mounted the pulpit, I stared into this red sea of Black children. I thought to myself “I have never seen this many young people in the church!” And then it happened. The eulogist declared with conviction to these Black Blood youth, “Without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sin.” I flinched. I was barely twenty-one years old, barely a seminarian, I had barely been introduced to the deep wells of womanism. I had no ecclesial gravitas to interrupt the project of pastoral death-dealing happening at that moment; and yet, Alice Walker’s Ms. Sophia (who my mother introduced me to when I was a womanish girl) tarried with me and gave my inner woman words, oh “hell no!”
The funeral and blood memory function as both literal signifiers of my professional beginnings in the parish, as well as figurative indicators of how choreographer Alvin Ailey described how the stories that live in our bodies, our blood, compel our understanding of the world without explicit recollection. I start here because Cannon’s ethics can be apprehended at what she identified as “the indispensable tri-formation between gown and town,” that is, at the intersections of church, academy, and society. The nexus of this tri-formation not only illumines the quality and potential of the intellectual geographic terrain of Black womanist re-productive work, but it also and simultaneously holds capacity to deal death and destruction to Black women.
Black feminist scholar Salamishah Tillet discusses the fundamental paradoxes of institutional belonging that highlight the interior estrangement of marginalized intra-communities. Following the cue of womanist thinkers like Delores S. Williams, Emilie M. Townes, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Marcia Y. Riggs, my theoethical inquiry highlights the moral failure of Black churches that reproduce sexual-gender injustice against Black women and girls. To be sure, Black churches have functioned as spaces where Black women have “come to know a God of justice and love.” They have also been incubators for bastardized hermeneutics and deformed theological imagination that demonize those who deviate from the normativity of the arbiters of power, typically Black cis men who perform heterosexuality-in-public. They have nursed evil that manifests in women who function as patriarchs, perfectly submitting to the socially constructed myths of body hierarchies propelled by the particularities of misogynoir. While we ought to be alarmed by theological assault in Black churches, ecclesial violence merely highlights the everydayness of acts of physical, moral, and social violence against Black women.
The critical race scholarship of Patricia J. Williams points beyond the church to the academic imperial project. Its psychological, bodied, and cultural violence of racism and racial hostility is deployed through the widespread and oft-intentional “everyday[ness]…of white domination” across class boundaries. It also manifests in the complexities of gendered racism and the uneven intellectual geographies that it presumes. For Black women, this means that while having to deal with the self-cannibalizing practices of social subjection in Black churches that take form out of the colonial logics that guide the white man’s imagination and the Black man who aspires to white male power, Black women have to deal with white women too.
In her essay “Black/Out: The White Face of Multiculturalism and the Violence of the Academic Imperial Project,” Delia D. Douglas argues that white women’s denial of how race and class shape differences among women exposes their complicity in the reproduction of racial power. Douglas’ argument echoes bell hooks’ assertion of the “inability of white women to get a handle on the meaning of whiteness in their lives” such that they dismissively assert “shared feminist identity” in ways that brutally displace, silence, and erase Black women as if the Black woman’s story is not true. Given that data indicates that the majority of women hired in post-secondary institutions, inclusive of free standing seminaries and university-based divinity schools, are white, able-bodied women, it is easy to see how white women as the beneficiaries of disproportionate, though unstated informal processes of affirmative selection that intimate concern for “diversity,” but are regularly complicit in maintaining the ivory tower’s white racial status quo.
The dispossession of Black women in church and academy is the shadow work of state-sanctioned violence. Police brutality not only deploys extreme and unnecessary force in ways that willfully inflict pain and/or death on Black women directly, but also on Black women left behind to mourn their sons, lovers, and brothers. The patterns that undergird the systemic criminalization of Black women and girls that beleaguers Black communities, destroy Black women’s lives. As with violent pastoring, the distorted aims of violent policing “obliterate the fundamental liberty or active, dynamic determination of self by the human person,” or in the language of M. Shawn Copeland, it destroys Black women’s humanum. This structural violence is not only somatic in its destructive capacity. It has profound spiritual implications as it endeavors to annihilate the soul, breeding “despair, hopelessness, and rage” that parallels the academic angst and anxiety that lends hegemonic (in)credibility to the caricature of the mad Black woman that keeps so many of our neighbors and colleagues in tri-formation laughing.
Neither in church, academy or society has the womanist theological community begun to adequately respond in theory or theological vision to the “oppressed of the oppressed” among us, Black transwomen. Black transwomen radically defy the liberal and liberationist theological phenomenon of “making men,” in ways that make some Black womanists “the real [fake] Harlem Shake” in concert with the “not-woman” cries of radical white feminisms that defecate on traditions of womanist communalism. In doing so Black womanists can participate in insidious scenes of Black genderqueer, non-binary, and trans subjection in ways that invisibilize the complex jeopardies of our kin. Such participation reveals a tri-formation of gown wherein our cisgendered slips are showing all around town, making perfect sense of the “suicide falls” that guide the choreographic imaginations of house ball communities around the nation and world.
Queen Bey has made the case that “I slay, you slay, we slay,” and since as scripturally attested, “in Adam all die” (I Cor. 15:22), the funeral makes perfect sense in its function as the fulcrum of church, academy, and society for Black women. In light of the kinds of deaths visited upon Black women in the tri-formation of gown and town, the question remains: what about this nexus of gown and town and its presupposition of indispensability for Cannon’s womanist ethics? Why didn’t Cannon just throw the damned gown and town away? Why did she, along with so many other Black women who self-identify as womanist theologians and ethicists choose to live here – at the interstices of a sexist church, a racist academy, and a racist, sexist, transphobic, capitalist society– amidst the fragments of “a bridge called our mother’s back?”
Remembering Cannon’s life and death, the funeral must be reconsidered. Here I find the metaphoric value of requiem, as opposed to dirge, in relation to the mourner’s bench to be instructive. Requiem calls us to remember what is, and the mourner’s bench calls us into what ought to be, but is not yet. A dirge is a song of lament for the dead; a requiem is a musical composition of remembrance of the dead. The two are not mutually exclusive, yet the distinction between lament and remembrance is significant. Lament demands weeping, mourning, and despair. Remembrance allows space for a variety of moral postures in the face of crucifixions. Christologically considered, remembrance, as in “do this in remembrance of me,” allows for “telling the story another way.” Our participation in telling the story potentially shifts lament toward its natural counterbalance of laughter; laughter which is not merely indicative of humor, but of abiding Black joy that hopes even at Golgotha.
Womanist theological and ethical work is requiem. Cannon’s act of remembering the stronghold of Jim Crow in her birthplace of Kannapolis, NC, as “back doors, colored water fountains, and throw away books from the white school,” empowered her to confess herself as a “revolutionary” to the Society for the Study of Black Religion. Remembrance reveals the why of Cannon’s quest toward the indispensability of the tri-formation of church, academy, and society. For in the act of remembering/requiem those things Toni Morrison tells us are “too terrible to relate,” we participate in Walker’s creativity that unearths the utterance of Ms. Sophia. This is the utterance of all the women and ‘nem whose life and witness in the world (society) by “the Spirit” (church) embodied demands for the story to be told (academic profession) another way. The indispensable unity of the womanist tri-formation of town and gown authorizes a dissenting “Hell no!” that declares, amidst death (“For as in Adam all die…”) the immanent transformative potential and mandate of another way, “even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (I. Cor. 15:22).
In this hour of bereavement, I choose to employ womanist requiem as a theoethical call into my blood memories – those stories that linger in my flesh empowering me to recollect the hope that is possible at the mourner’s bench; the place where too many of us find ourselves these days because so many have died in a red sea of black blood, without having seen the Promise. This Black womanist requiem does not require the death so often prescribed for Black women and those they love by the arbiters of church, academy and society. Yet amidst death, it sings, and moans, and dances, in its determination to remember the enfleshed logic of Black women’s “even so.”
It is this “even so” that is the beating heart of Katie’s canon. It continues to pulse into Black womanist theoethical futures in ways that will never let us forget her name.