Katie Geneva Cannon and Christian Womanist Religious Scholarship

Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon (Photo courtesy of the World Communion of Reformed Churches).

Possibilities are our creation – this is the stunning admission. Ulterior to the norm, the possible exists: a frank gesture of resistance, a stubborn trial of the unknown. It is bound to boundaryless-ness, rests on our tongues, and sits in our pedagogies—predictive and patient. It is prophetic and brave, calling out imbalance in order to restore levelness. The possible confidently predicts limit’s death; possibility in the pedagogical rids the world of oppressive viability. Honest teaching and unequivocal forces of learning now have room to spring forth from the teetering triumphs of limit, a limit unwittingly bound by itself.

Katie Geneva Cannon mastered the revelation that the possible is welcome territory, and that the new and the liberating are the result of a giving way, of the caving in of the limit’s perceived impossibility. She along with the other progenitors of Christian womanist religious scholarship reminded us of the fragility of oppression – how it needs silence to continue announcing itself. Therefore she encouraged Black women to open their mouths, to say something sharper, to identify the bitter, to usher in the possibility of sweetness.

Cannon made way for the future to be known and lived into in critically liberative ways. She assisted in unbinding the possible and gave it a name.

To be possible is to be free. I understood my possibility while breaking bread, a communion of women.

I called it complicated— forewarned my server that I wanted something a bit different.

They waited to hear it. I placed my order: one-third lemonade, one-third unsweetened tea, and one-third sweet tea.

“Oh, an Arnold Palmer!”

“No, not quite. It’s a bit different – the bitter tempers the sweet, the sweet tempers the sour, the sour the bitter. The contrasts balance each other out.”

Two years ago dining with the attendees of the Consultation of African and African Diasporan Women in Religion and Theology symposium in Atlanta, Cannon was intrigued and amused by my order.

As my colleagues laughed at my ridiculous request she called it ingenious and enthusiastically ordered the same thing.

“What is it called?” she asked.

“Nothing at the moment,” I admitted.

“You have to name it!”

“I do?”

“Yes! It’s your creation!”

“Well, since you’ve ordered it too, I would love it if you had some ownership!”

She laughed and without missing a beat said, “How about the Tomi Cannon?”

“Yes! We’ll call it the Tomi Cannon!”

At her core, Katie Cannon was a teacher; she is still teaching me today. Her life demonstrates how to create what is possible, how to prove irrelevant and misguided the power of the old and uncompromising, and how to build a world towards something new, something it didn’t know it missed until “new” existed. She illumined that old things were meant to be of the past, that new things were always a possibility, always welcome and needed.

We bring to life what could be. What we offer can quench thirst, too.

I called it difficult; she called it particular. Mine.

It is your creation; you have to name it.

Not ex nihilo, yet not existing already is the muse of the theologian: excavate theological questions, truths, and realities that contribute to the ever-expanding field of God-inquiry. It does not exist until you say it. Lodged in the midst of what was and what is, is your voice, is your revelation of divine truth.

Cannon was one of the first to take this to heart in expanding the fields of theology and ethics considering Black women’s voices as viable contributors and firsthand revelators. Add yourself into the mix. Stir things up; you will have something new.

Appropriation and reciprocity, a womanist theological and ethical principle centered in narrating newly a means of thought or intellectual discourse towards full accounts of Black women’s truths alongside other voices, prior voices, is the space in which mixing happens. The old and new are entangled until they are wholly different. They are changed, thus they must be called something new.

Sour, bitter, or sweet contrasts can quench. This is the lesson. Reality is hardly ever entirely sweet. Oftentimes it is not realistic for it to be. The bitter is there. The sour tries to highjack the tongue’s attention, but neither the sour nor the bitter destroys the flavor.

Black women’s insight changes the taste, adds a bit of sweetness: add sugar to tolerate the tartness. Cannon illustrates that the bitter, the sour, can change, do not always have to dominate. They tell a new truth. They merely need the right perspective and imagination. They need the right ingredients in order to live into another possibility. They can be liberated from the monotony of themselves.

Womanism quenches a thirst for honesty amidst the bittersweet and sweet-sour reality of marginalized life in the U.S. It acknowledges multiplicity as a necessary means of quenching one’s thirst for life. It does not ignore those who came before it, but asks the right questions about intentions and reality towards new truths.

Cannon shows us that certain elements change the nature of a compound. She does not bring the sweet in order for the world to forget about the bitter and the sour; she shows the world who and what has made lives bitter, who and what has soured the world. Then, she sweetens them with the advice of her foremothers, the stories of her aunts, the wisdom of the women in her life. She illumines that the substance of Black womanhood is strong enough to alter the force of the bitter, the sharpness of the sour. She ushers in the possibility of sweetness and makes something new.

The stories that have seeped into the stories of our families and histories can be transformed and yield something else. The work of Black women is proof that stories can liberate; they must keep the possible in view.

Katie Geneva Cannon’s legacy continues to push forward new and creative thought. In her colleagues, students, and mentees she has instilled a desire to let the tea continue brewing, to collect lemons, to bring the sugar. Her genius reminds us that our work can satisfy; our words can quench.

In a time where the language of possibility garners hope, Cannon’s legacy reminds us, especially Black women, that hope has potent properties. It has a tangible life. It is the spirit that feeds righteous resistance. Cannon’s mantle is passed on to those who understand that hope has conversion power.

We present the liberating possibilities that also exist.

We can alter our environment. Change its pH. Add sweetness. Remind the tongue that it can handle complex taste. Then, name this truth for what it is; it is our creation.

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Oluwatomisin Oredein

Oluwatomisin Oredein is a Louisville Institute postdoctoral fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. Her work engages articulations of African feminist, womanist, postcolonial, and black theologies with particular attention to women's voices within the African diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @tomioredein.