Toni Morrison documentary and panel discussion
2020-Feb. 24 at 4:00pm
In memory of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership will host a screening and...
Drawing from the Black Southern colloquial expression (you actin’ womanish), the word “womanist” is a dynamic term that describes a growing field of study and social movement that takes seriously the historical and contemporary experiences of Black women while advocating for the wholeness and wellbeing of all humanity.
Union Presbyterian Seminary has developed the Center for Womanist Leadership “to inspire, equip, connect and support Black women divinely motivated to serve as change makers in their community.” The mission statement reflects the visionary insight of the late Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union, who, in 1974, became the first African-American woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Cannon named womanism as a powerful approach to recognizing the human dignity and amplifying the long-ignored voice of Black women in a hostile world. She wrote that “…one’s soul has work that is …vital not only to the health and strength of the community but is integral to our fulfillment as individuals.
From left, Sharon Blount, Katie Cannon, Alice Walker, and Union Presbyterian Seminary President Brian Blount at the center's Inaugural Gathering in Richmond.
Director Melanie C. Jones teaching at Seminary for a Day
“However,” she continued, “this work is often stifled by the confining powers of patriarchy and racism that flourish in the subordination of Black women.”
Cannon’s New York Times obituary on Aug. 14, 2018, described her view of “womanism,” one that helped set the direction for the center:
“Womanism” — a term generally attributed to the novelist and poet Alice Walker — examines the intersection of feminism, racial identity and more, finding points of both commonality and conflict. In just one example of how Dr. Cannon applied a womanist approach to theology, she wrote of how the Christian idea of suffering was usually defined from the perspective of a white and male-dominant class, which, with a comfortable existence, could view it as a choice.
“‘In dominant ethics a person is free to make suffering a desirable moral norm,’ she wrote in “Black Womanist Ethics.” ‘This is not so for blacks. For the masses of black people, suffering is the normal state of affairs.’”
Such a piercing reality requires a sustained, systemic response. The center is a response to, and bearer of, that message.
In her seminal work, Katie’s Canon, Dr. Cannon wrote “Black women are the most vulnerable and the most exploited members of the American society. The structure of the capitalist political economy in which Black people are commodities, combined with patriarchal contempt for women, has caused the Black woman to experience oppression that knows no ethical or physical bounds.”
Cannon’s clear-eyed and uncompromising position on the status of Black women sets the tone for the work of the Center for Womanist Leadership. In 2019, Union Presbyterian Seminary Trustees named the Center in memory of Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon.
In its mission statement, the Center is described as “committed to convening Black women around common issues for wisdom sharing, networking, problem solving, and mobilization, and to giving Black women thinkers, activists and artists opportunities to expand existing efforts and connect them for sustainable collaboration.”
In July 2019, Rev. Melanie C. Jones joined the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership as its newest director and next visionary leader. Jones maintains, “Building on an enduring legacy of womanism in theological education with Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon as its leading trailblazer and foremother, The Future is Womanist. The compounding moral assaults facing Black women and marginalized populations in a contemporary world require a wisdom-bearing platform that cultivates freedom and flourishing and a justice-seeking program that enlivens the liberating reign of God in word and deed. This is the future of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, the premier center for womanist theory and practice in the nation.”
Union Presbyterian Seminary President Blount affirmed the prophetic leadership of Rev. Jones. Blount asserts, “In her teaching, scholarship and direction of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, she brings sharp theological insight and an engaging ethical perspective. She will be a great resource for our seminary as we strive to be a witness to and for the Church and the world.”
In 2019/2020, the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership is broadening awareness of its purpose and identifying individuals and institutions that can support its work financially.
In her own words, Katie Geneva Cannon captured the spirit of the Center. She wrote:
“What we need to be free is right here in this religion. It just hasn’t been unleashed, and that’s our job.”
a healing and hospitality programming arm
programming designed to identify, inspire, equip and support emerging Black women leaders
connectional programming with churches and religious communities to nurture and affirm Black women’s religious leadership
a publishing and cataloguing component for the Center
a social entrepreneurship effort, aimed at helping Black women and marginalized communities to become self-sustainable.
programming that values “the arts” and the divinely-inspired creative productions of Black women in music, dance, theatre, film, literature, fashion, crafts, photography, visual artistry, and more while interrogating possibilities for cultivating whole communities.