February 12, 2017 “Womanist Ethics” (1/16/05; 031812)


By Art McDonald

Celebrating women’s history month I am reminded of a recent piece of Black folk wisdom concerning the Civil Rights’ Movement: “If Rosa Parks had not sat down, Martin King would not have stood up.”

In 1978 I was just ordained and doing a year of extra study at Union Theological Seminary in NY City. In a class I was taking with a brilliant feminist theologian, Beverly Harrison, throughout the term I sat next to the only African-American in a class of about 15. She was also female. There were not a lot of minority students at Union in those days. Katie was very down to earth, warm and friendly, more than a little timid. She was easy to talk with and I liked her a lot. One of the reasons I sat next to her was that I felt a wee bit intimidated, myself, in this rather high-powered, elite Divinity School. Katie offered me security. Despite our divergent backgrounds, she a black female from the rural South, I a white male from the urban Northeast, we had the following in common: we were outsiders at this elite, mostly male and Protestant school. There were not many more Catholics than Blacks at Union. Furthermore, neither Katie nor I had gone to elite colleges like the majority of students at Union many of whom were from Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Both Katie and I had attended small, parochial schools, reflective of our cultural, religious and class backgrounds. Neither of us felt smart enough to be at Union, so we hardly ever said anything in class, except to one another. Katie went to an all-Black college in NC, Barber-Scotia College. When I was asked where I went to college, this first generation college graduate would explain by saying oh Providence College, a small Catholic school cross town from Brown; at least it was within a few miles of the halls of ivy!

It had been years since I had even thought about this woman or my time at Union and the feelings it raised, when, a few years ago I picked up a book written by an African-American professor at Harvard, Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, entitled: I’ve Known Rivers, (Langston Hughes) a book of stories about prominent Black artists and intellectuals. One of the chapters was a lengthy interview with a Black female theologian from Temple University, Dr. Katie Cannon, my friend from Union. Katie’s now a star in theological, religious, church and feminist circles, as an ordained Presbyterian Minister (the first Black female Presbyterian minister – 1979) and a professor, but in the interview she talked a lot about her humble roots and how intimidated, alienated, isolated and depressed she was as the first Black female to be accepted as a doctoral candidate at Union seminary. When I read this, I was blown away to read about my friend, to realize her pain during that period, as I remembered my own sense of inadequacy as a fellow outsider at this institution.

But if I was an outsider, Katie was an outsider times two or three, as black and female and poor. In the interview she related that even the handful of black males at the school, who formed a Black Caucus, excluded her. “What are you doing here,” they would ask? Yet, through all of this, Katie survived and finished, has become a serious scholar, and now is the subject of books and articles. Beyond this, Katie has become a prominent member of a collective of women, who refer to themselves as “womanist” thinkers and theologians. It’s a term coined by the African American writer, Alice Walker. A“womanist is a Black feminist. She is not opposed to other feminists, but just aware that white feminists and Black feminists have some very different issues to deal with.

Among other things, Katie teaches ethics, womanist ethics, i.e., she deals with questions such as do Black woman make moral decisions differently from other people; If so, why and how? If one is not only Black and female, but poor, does that affect how one makes moral decisions? I find it intriguing to imagine that ethnicity, gender and socio-economics might change the way one sees things morally. Katie certainly thinks so.

According to womanist thought, the dominant ethic in our society has been shaped by the white, male, Protestant establishment – it’s about self-reliance, frugality and industry – we know it as the Protestant work ethic. Katie argues that this way of thinking ethically assumes two things: freedom of choice and the idea that success is possible for anyone who lives by these proclaimed virtues or rules. Neither of these two things, she says, are experiences of the vast majority of the Black community, least-wise Black women. So womanist ethics, how Black woman reflect on moral decisions, must create virtue within the context of being outsiders in the culture, being oppressed and having her freedom greatly restricted due to sexism, racism, and classism. In such a context, being moral means how do I cope with and survive such conditions.

In trying to demonstrate her point, Katie suggests that slaves resisted the slaveholder ethic which held that slaves ought to be docile in the face of white domination and violence. In such a context, argues Katie, cheating, lying and stealing were deemed virtuous and moral as forms of resistance to oppression. Such a moral viewpoint allowed Blacks to survive and even prevail against the odds.

In her writings and reflections on womanist virtue, Katie draws lots of inspiration from a prolific Black female author of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote many novels, one of the more famous being Their Eyes Were Watching God, written in 1937. In another, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora’s mother played a fictional character who on her deathbed gave her one piece of advice knowing her life would be full of discrimination and disillusionment; that she would always be an outsider. “Don’t you love nobody better than you do yourself. Do, and you’ll be killed without being struck a blow…”

Like Katie, Zora made it to an elite school in New York, Barnard, and became a prolific author. The moral wisdom passed on by her mother made her appreciate that, as an outsider, merely surviving the continuing struggle against oppression was virtuous. For Zora and Katie, what makes behavior moral is that which allows one to maintain feistiness about life that nobody can wipe out. In this worldview, the key virtues are: dignity, grace and courage. Courage, says Katie, is the staying power of the Black community where individuals continue to affirm their own humanity in spite of institutionalized oppression. Katie thought Hurston a powerful example of such courage and dignity. In a 1928 article entitled: “How it feels to be colored me,” Hurston proclaims: “Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry, it merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

I wanted to share all of this, once again, because of an amazing movie Melanie and I saw this week: HIDDEN FIGURES, the true story of 3 African-American women who in 1961 were hired by NASA as trained mathematicians and one as an engineer to help with the launching of space travels. The movie (some of it fictionalized) depicts the constant obstacles these three women faced as they kept demonstrating to a mostly white male work force, their superior knowledge and acumen when it came to scientific and mathematical abilities. They faced overt discrimination, racism and sexism, and yet, as Katie Cannon suggests about womanists and Nora Thurston Neale’s characters, they survived by demonstrating the virtues of DIGNITY, GRACE and COURAGE. In those days, bathrooms and water coolers were still labeled white and colored. In one room where one of the women, a brilliant mathematician, worked with all white males and a few white females, there was a separate coffee-pot for her to drink from. When she was quizzed by the project head as to why she was absent from her desk for significant periods of time each day, publicly embarrassing her, she gave a brilliant, powerful yet measured and loud defense that there was no public bathroom for her in the building and she had to walk (actually run) over 10 minutes each way to find a colored bathroom.

In another scene, another of the women, who realized she had to learn more about computers and computer language so she would be eligible to head up a department implementing data cards through a new IBM machine, went to the library to get out a book on Fortran language, only to be told by the librarian that there was a section for coloreds and those were the only books available to her. So, in a manner only a womanist ethicist like Katie Cannon could understand, with no other option available given the overt discrimination, she stole the book and, like a true womanist, as a citizen and taxpayer, she had no trouble justifying it.

It’s an extraordinary story which made me literally sob at the end. We need to know this history; it still haunts us.

After having come through such a brutal and demeaning Presidential campaign, laced with horrific and hateful rhetoric on all sides, but most strikingly from the now President of the United States of America, I am proud and encouraged by the resounding efforts of so many across this country to say no to such abuse and behavior. I see so many signs of hope and renewed energy in this congregation and beyond, from east to west Coast, of people who are standing up and saying no to such bullying behavior on the part of one of the world’s key leaders. And I was proud to be part of a women’s-led march yesterday in Boston, with so many thousands of others, which hopefully becomes a national movement, to resist any signs of acceptance of abusive behavior towards women or minorities or disabled or immigrants who are our sisters and brothers in this one human race we call humankind. And I am grateful for the women in this congregation who helped organize yesterday’s wonderful celebration of life, hope, love and solidarity.

My friend Katie’s message, the womanist movement’s message, for all of us is, I believe, is to break out of our own narrow lens on the world, and begin to imagine seeing society through the lens of someone very different from us, especially one who is an outsider, who faces prejudice and discrimination, because he or she is Black, or a Woman, or a gay, or a foreigner. Maybe that means rethinking how we make moral judgments on other’s behavior and try to imagine what they might be experiencing in their struggle for survival in a sometimes hostile environment – imagining, with Katie and Zora Neale Hurston, how DIGNITY, GRACE AND COURAGE might be the supreme moral values, especially if they are denied certain people.

I am so thankful for the relationship I had with Katie so many years ago in New York and how much I have learned from her; and more recently from her writings. She has offered me another lens on life and experience and shown me how to articulate the feeling of being an outsider, the humiliation, the challenge to one’s dignity and self-esteem. She and Zora have taught me that service and other-centeredness are great virtues but so is self-love.

After reading about Katie in Sarah Lightfoot’s book, I was determined to contact Katie. But she beat me to it. A year before we left Pittsburgh, Katie came to the seminary where I taught there, to give a lecture. As I approached her, she still had those big brown eyes and warm smile, great laugh and good humor. But she seemed a little less timid. As I put out my hand, she stared at me with recognition and remembered, as I did, our similar experiences at Union, some 20 years prior. In fact, she remembered a piece of our history I hadn’t. At our first class together in Beverly Harrison’s course, we were all asked to pair off and interview one another, after which we had to introduce the other person to the rest of the group. What a joy to be reminded of that – two timid, out of place outsiders telling one another’s stories.

Despite her notoriety, Katie knows that the struggle for dignity and grace and acceptance, takes courage and still goes on, especially for Black women. In the book interview, Sarah Lawrence concludes with this: “Katie knows that reconciliation will not come through denying the contradictions or masking the pain. If reconciliation is to emerge, she knows that it will always be a fragile one fraught with small and large compromises. Wholeness will not come by erasing them or even easing them. It will come out of embracing them and learning to move between (and among) them with purposefulness, grace, and humor (one of Katie’s chief strategies). And just to show that she always has the latter in ample supply, she skewers the exclusionary attitude of the Black males at Union, as she reflected on why they might not have wanted her in their Black Caucus group. Says Katie: ‘You see, they were (probably) afraid that if I came to their potlucks I might bring quiche or yogurt or tofu.’ As she said this, declares Lawrence, a large grin spreads over Katie’s face and we laugh together about ancient and present pains.”

“If Rosa Parks had not sat down, Martin King would not have stood up.”