Teaching Afrocentric Ethics:
“The Hinges upon Which the Future Swings”
by Katie Geneva Cannon
In 1970, as a Youth Advisory Delegate for the United Presbyterian Church’s Fund for the Self-Development of People,[i] I underwent a transformative experience. My summer employment had ended for the day, so the Reverend Doctor James Herman Robinson (1907-1972)[ii] invited me to tea in the main cafeteria at the Interchurch Center in New York City. As soon as we sat down, the conversation turned to Africa, and within eleven months from the time we sipped our cups of tea, Robinson helped me to make my first trek to the Motherland, traveling to Ghana, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire.[iii] My Afrocentric consciousness was forever changed.
As a Presbyterian minister, Robinson founded the Church of the Master and the Morningside Community Center in New York City (May 1938).[iv] He recruited students from nearby Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University, and Barnard College to volunteer in neighborhood projects in Harlem, including cleanup efforts, housing programs, the cooperative store, etc. In the late 1940s, a wealthy couple heard about Robinson’s efforts and donated 467 acres of land in Winchester, New Hampshire, to the Church of the Master. Robinson used the land to get children off the steaming, spirit-crushing city streets, and he recruited students from places like Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, Columbia, and Dartmouth to work during the summers at Camp Rabbit Hollow for boys and Camp Forest Lake for girls, as the land came to be known.[v] In 1957, Robinson applied the Camp Rabbit Hollow model to Africa, thus becoming the Founder/Executive Director of Operation Crossroads Africa, Inc.[vi] In the past 59 summers, Operation Crossroads Africa, Inc., has sent over 10,000 persons in work camp teams to 35 African countries, 12 Caribbean countries, and Brazil. President John F. Kennedy called Operation Crossroads Africa the progenitor of the Peace Corps.[vii]
It is significant that for a number of years Robinson worked as a Consultant on African Affairs for the United Presbyterian Church, a member of the State Department’s Advisory Council on African Affairs, and a member of the Peace Corps Advisory Committee. It is also important to note that his courageous life of activism and leadership inspired him to serve as one of the founders of Sydenham, New York’s first interracial hospital. In truth, James H. Robinson was in the vanguard of progressive, contemporary thinkers on Afrocentricity before it was fashionable. It is appropriate, therefore, to devote this pedagogical essay to an elaboration of Robinson’s people-to- people diplomacy, the hinges upon which the future swings, that I employ in theological education.
In his forward to Africa at the Crossroads, Gayraud S. Wilmore offers two roughly equal and succinct summary statements addressing the most engaging concerns and operating principles that govern Robinson’s Afrocentric ethics: [viii] (a) to help us think theologically about some of the exasperatingly difficult problems of society, and (b) to provide the means by which we can develop methods of applying new knowledge to break economic, political, social, cultural, and even religious boundaries by which we are circumscribed. These two objectives are the fundamental principles in my signature course, Resources for a Constructive Ethic: The Black Women’s Literary Tradition.
I have been teaching Afrocentric ethics for 30 years. Afrocentric ethics is a critical reasoning process that opens up new cognitive realms regarding rules, ideals, guidelines, and values, by studying the various ways that African American people create moral agency in life-worlds where an aggregate of rigidly coded cultural imperatives bestow the status of superior normative humanity upon individuals at the top of the androcentric, material-means pyramid. In other words, Afrocentric ethics probes the complex cultural histories and social arrangements of slavery and colonialism in the past, and, in today’s socio-political domain, it probes the globalization of capital, the awesome dictatorial power of transnational corporations to invest in or withdraw economic resources from national governments. Afrocentric ethics then asks, what moral reflections come from Black folk who respectfully yearn to actualize the deepest possibilities of human existence? More than anything else, my specific work in Afrocentric ethics examines the themes and questions that emerge when people of faith draw our line of spiritual genealogy through the writings of Black women who debunk, unmask, and disentangle the composite reality of man as the universal norm, the taken-for-granted mode of being.
In 1983 as a Research Associate and Visiting Lecturer in Christian Ethics in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School, I created my first set of lectures for what has become my signature course, Resources for a Constructive Ethic: The Black Women’s Literary Tradition. For reading, I relied heavily on Black women’s novels as required textbooks, necessitated by the fact that most students would not travel beyond the geographical boundaries of the Charles River. In order for students to become conscious of how existing systems of race, sex, and class affected them, they had to wrestle with the various ways Black women’s novels function as textual analogue to Robinson’s travel work camp experience.
A glance back at my doctoral dissertation, published as Black Womanist Ethics,[ix] makes me realize that the substance of that document still is my continuing thesis regarding critical truism in the work of Black women writers. In other words, in Resources for a Constructive Ethic, I contend that the Black Women’s literary tradition requires readers-students to constantly shift the territory of their normative gaze and the manner in which they see otherness as ordinariness as they journey through the allegorized terrain of racism, sexism, and classism that permeate the intriguing stories by African Americans, past and present. Student reflections from the course help me reach this realization:
For the first time I am obliged to stay conscious, in an embodied kind of way, as I read across cultural lines. When I read and re-read the same sentence over and over again, I realize that I am being transported across unfamiliar territory. I am moving into another country, one that is not my home. Once I accept the foreign feeling of the novel’s context, I no longer re-read every sentence, but instead, I read slowly, so that all five of my senses can stay in tac[t] as I move into larger understandings of the human experience.[x]
In the early 1980s, very few divinity students had ever read a book authored by a woman of African ancestry or ever had close contact with Black women in roles of intellectual authority, so in each assignment I required students to interface contestable issues in the texts with personal real-life contexts. Such interfacing assessment resulted in the following comment:
I love literature, and even though I have not yet mastered the skills of literary analysis, I find each novel full of strategies for resisting unfathomable tragedy. This course gives me courage to stay conscious of how hierarchies of power establish favors only for a few. Black women’s literature, like all good literature, is a parachute that carries me to many parts of the world, where I can see delicate, detailed mental pictures of the vast lay of the land, without tampering with the landscape.
The plots, characters and themes in novels such as Jubilee by Margaret Walker; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Price of a Child by Lorene Cary; Dessa Rose by Sherley A. Williams; I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde; Kindred by Octavia Butler; and The Wake of the Wind by J. California Cooper, encourage students to transcend boundaries, inviting them to take mental leaps over rivers and through the woods to drastically different socio-cultural locations. The following comments by seminarians make clear how the external itinerary in historical novels oftentimes corresponds to internal journeys of self-discovery:
African Americans must never forget the pain of slavery, the humiliation of bearing the children of rapists and the complete violation of the sanctity of the person that our foreparents endured. We must reclaim this legacy with pride and place the horrors that were executed on the history of the people who committed them. We can only free ourselves from ‘victim guilt’ by calling the crime, a crime and pointing out the criminals.
Another one wrote:
Homelessness and namelessness amount to beinglessness—a core ontological problem. The ghost in Beloved embodies re-memory, resulting in reincarnation as the key to all religious reflection. What does it mean to come back embodied as someone else’s re-memory? Beloved teaches us that we will face the terror [of] our past or the hunger of the pain will eat us alive.
Thus, Robinson’s first objective, to help us think theologically about some of the exasperatingly difficult problems of society, is achieved immediately, and many times over, throughout each semester, as students read the unflinching examination of the historical, cultural, and personal atrocities and indignities wrought by the isms that infect protagonists in novels assigned in my course. Such novels also include: Ann Petry’s The Street; Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People; Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye; Gayle Jones’ Corrigedora; Alice Childress’ A Short Walk; Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters; Ntozake Shange’s Betsy Brown and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Here is an assessment of this objective as spelled out in a student’s notebook entry:
Reading these novels makes me face African American women’s history of accessibility to dominant men by recognizing that historical accessibility does not presuppose consent to sexual domination, humiliation and abuse. We must reject a his-story that excuses rapists who burned the brand of whore onto African American women. Retrieving the history of our sexual abuse will reveal the extent of the psychic damage done to our grandmothers, mothers, and us, and will enable us to see inconsistencies and weaknesses in what we thought we understood.
The next year, 1984, when I moved across the Cambridge Commons to join the faculty of the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), I discovered that in addition to the required reading of Black women’s novels, I needed to include memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, and critical essays by African American women. So, over the years it has felt quite comfortable to shift the emphasis from the truth-telling in fiction to the inclusion of social inequities witnessed in non-fiction. The results for students are the same. For example, several students in a working group went to great lengths to show how reading The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor by Patricia J. Williams made them realize that some things cannot be owned, no matter how extensive the consensus or collaboration of the general public that says otherwise. One student wrote:
This book clearly unveils how the boundaries of private ownership are stretched in order to rationalize and legitimize the invasions of the rich and powerful and to protect the myths and interests of the dominant class. Realizing Williams’ basic premise that some things are not commodities to be bought, sold and traded, frees us to no longer waste time and energy debating the distribution of ownership but to simply remove that which is not a commodity from a discourse on its proper, legal or just distribution. Thus, our research question is this–If over four hundred years of African American labor (1520-1882) is a commodity for which payment is due, what reparations are owed for this labor, and what punitive damages are in order?
From another student we can learn how the careful reading of biotexts, such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Nikki Giovanni’s Gemini; Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother and Deborah McDowell’s Leaving Pipe Shop, guided by judicious connections with existential reality, can lead to resonated centering points and common ground among people of various races:
Leaving Pipe Shop: Memories of Kin by Deborah McDowell was a gut-wrenching book for me to read, partly because of a growing sense of empathy with the narrator: the powerful descriptive talents of Dr. McDowell, especially her ability to paint scenes and develop characters in ways that appeal to multiple senses, drew me in and glued me to the text. I too have lost most of my family of origin, some of the dearest ones having died much too early as well. I too know the machinations of kudzu, morning glories, and honeysuckle, their tremendous capacity to network and to survive in the worst environments along roadsides and in abandoned lots. I too lived in the Kennedy era, loved and feared my piano teacher, wore white gloves to church, had elders who mandated my attendance there and who observed my coming of age.
While lecturing weekly before feminist liberationist seminarians who tended to be imbued with justice-making activism and a desire to free both the oppressed and the oppressors, I developed an Africentric method for demystifying domination that proved most effective. I adjusted the syllabus to require seminarians to construct a cognitive map of the “logic” that sets the perimeters for the intelligibility of race, sex, and class exploitation. In other words, students began to learn how to debunk, unmask, and disentangle precise hierarchical mechanisms of subjugation, subordination, and alienation.
Throughout Black people’s history in the Americas, doers-of-justice have consistently participated in a variety of literary undertakings and discursive interactions that identify benchmarks of deviation from the “legitimacy” of white supremacy. Understanding that this method of cognitive mapmaking sharpens their critical thinking skills for analyzing strategic actions, students learn early on to attach a positive value to Robinson’s second objective: to provide means by which we can develop methods of applying new knowledge to break economic, political, social, cultural, and even religious boundaries by which we are circumscribed. Long after the course ends, I get calls and correspondence from seminarians struggling to stay open-minded in their growing desire to live ethically as they identify the patterns that must be altered, and the accountable actions that must be taken in order for justice to occur. Here is a passage from a student’s mid-semester inventory on insights gained from doing Africentric ethics collaboratively:
I am learning so much more about violent repercussions in the work of justice, by studying the multitude of interpretative strategies in the cognitive maps of my classmates around the table. Their keen awareness of systemic oppression and willingness to ask hard ethical questions make me wonder if, sometimes, whether we are reading the same books. It is as if I have one piece of a [T]inker toy and together my colleagues help me make meaning by changing my toy into a motorized [L]ego set.
In many ways, texts such as In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker; Daughters of Anowa by Mercy Amba Oduyoye; The Black Women’s Health Book edited by Evelyn C. White and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison examine a series of contestable issues. In addition to highlighting racism, sexism, and class elitism, these non-fictional books by women of African descent highlight life-affirming possibilities in the struggle against ableism, ageism, lookism, heterosexism, specieism, colonialism, and imperialism. The following brief statement suggests how one student starts to come to terms with the death-dealing everydayness of white supremacy:
While the presence of Africans is duly noted throughout the canonical and normative American Literary Tradition, in Playing in the Dark Morrison exposes the misuse of African people and images in the imaginary landscape of Willa Cather, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway. These writers use “literary blackness,” to construct and validate the rightness of whiteness.
Several students underwent particular conscious-raising after reading Sister-Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. One said:
I have been troubled for some time now by the African American community’s patent response to homosexuality, notwithstanding the tangible presence of gays and lesbians within our communit(ies), both in and out of the closet. Also, I fail to understand why homosexuality is deemed “more wrong” than adultery or sexism or dishonesty. For too long, homosexuals have been silenced in the Black Church. Audre Lorde insists that we cannot put the weapon of silence in our enemies’ hands.
Audre Lorde clarifies not only that the enormous anger that I have carried since I can remember is justified and natural, but that it is a powerful fuel. Although I realized even as I did it, that my straight A’s in high school were achieved strictly out of spite and anger, I wanted the anger to disappear so that I could get on with a normal life. Twenty years later, I see the necessity and power of my daughters’ anger, as nothing but a thin false calm over my own turbulence. Lorde says that we must learn to mother ourselves in order to lay to rest the bruised, hurt, weak girl-children we have been.
After a thorough reading of nonfiction prose by Bell Hooks, especially a line-by-line critique of Black Looks: Race and Representation, one student observes that Hooks deconstructs not only white images but also “race” productions generated within white supremacist western culture. She wrote:
From slave narratives to Micheaux’s films, from black beast confections to Buffalo Soldiers, from revolutionary black women subjects to “renegade” connections between African Americans and Native Americans, from Anita Hill to Madonna—Bell Hooks challenges us to look critically as opposed to being spectators as we encounter images of blackness in all cultural contexts. Readers who want to decolonize our minds must consider the ideological content of images in order to move past the denial inherent in claims that we are merely being “entertained.”
Most importantly, the cognitive maps based on non-fictional essays provided substantial resources in the development of each student’s ethical voice. One student describes it this way:
There are a number of “jaw dropping” passages in June Jordan’s Technical Difficulties: African American Notes on the State of the Union. The book delves into the internally audible psyche; a place that records and plays back in our minds all the things that we don’t say in public. Jordan has an incredible ability to effectively mix personal life experience with academic discourse. Her use of that which is intimate renders it public. She is able to make experiences that concern her, concern us.
Another ends her reflection paper with this comment:
Reading June Jordan’s brief description of a man raping her, and how she had no one to call, except by long distance, I thought of all the African American women writers we have read this term and their deep love and dependence on other women. Even in The Hottest Water in Chicago: Family Race, Time and American Culture, Gayle Pemberton relied on her sister. Jordan’s account saddens me. My resolution for this year is to reconnect with all of those women who have been vital to my life at various times. Since reading these books I’ve called Georgia and written letters to friends in Trinidad. There’s a whole host of people who have seen me this far.
The impact of moving from Harvard Square to join the faculty at Temple University in North Philadelphia in 1992 coincided with my need to expand the core syllabus to include self-consciously constructed narratives about belief systems, cultural rituals, and kinship patterns by adherents of African Traditional Religions in the U.S. Sea Islands, the Caribbean, and Brazil. This expansion of the syllabus worked particularly well for students interested in African retentions in new world cultures. Within the context of this Afrocentric course, reading books such as Mama Day by Gloria Naylor; Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau by Jewell Parker Rhodes; Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker; Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall; Baby of the Family by Tina Elroy Ansa; Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo; The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat; The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart and When Rocks Dance by Elizabeth Nunez-Harrell helps students to keep in the forefront of their consciousness what values ought to be considered in making judgments about African realities on both sides of the Atlantic. After completing cognitive maps for the titles listed above, a working group summed up their learning in this way:
We believe the biggest crime of the Maafa (the European enslavement of Africans) is the process of deculturalization of the Africans brought to the shores of America. The resources of African Traditional Religions were systematically suppressed. Most practices of Voodoo, Candomble, Santeria, Obeah, Rastafari, were labeled as heathenistic and treated as punishable offenses.
Students majoring in almost every discipline in the social sciences and the humanities who use this Afrocentric method to acknowledge striking parallels that exist between the religion, art, music, dance, language and architecture in Africa and her Diaspora.
The city of Richmond is now the venue for both me and my work as a theo-ethicist. In drawing up the course of study with colleagues in the Department of Theology and Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary, I did not propose Resources for a Constructive Ethic: The Black Women’s Literary Tradition. Instead, this twenty-year march of time points to a growing accumulation of much new womanist scholarship. When I first began teaching at New York Theological Seminary in 1977, there were no books by Black women theologians. However, the primary materials now being published by Black women in the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature allow me to ask, and begin to answer, new questions about the ideologies, theologies, and systems of value of African American people. This pivotal shift is occurring as more women of all races, creeds, and colors earn doctorates from theological seminaries and departments of religion in universities. By asking heretofore undreamed and unfamiliar questions of every aspect of the theological traditions to which we are heirs, womanist, feminist, and mujerista scholars play a significant role in authorizing God-talk.
In essence, I have come full circle. As the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Social Ethics, I am right back to where I began. Womanist, Feminist and Mujerista Ethics is my new Afrocentric course. Once again I am creating lectures from scratch, but the required texts are no longer novels. They are publications by self-avowed, practicing womanist,[xi] feminist, mujerista theologians. James H. Robinson’s principles are still the substance of my overarching objectives, because with each birthday I realize more that the current students enrolled in my class, equipping themselves as leaders in church and society, are truly the hinges on which the twenty-first century swings.
[i] Self-Development of People is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Presbyterians and ecumenical partners unite in faith and action through sharing, confronting, and enabling by participating in the empowerment of economically poor, oppressed, and disadvantaged people, seeking to change the structures that perpetuate poverty, oppression and injustice.
[ii] James H. Robinson, Road without Turning: The Story of Reverend James H. Robinson (New York: Farrar, Straus & Co., 1950).
[iii] Ruth T. Plimpton, Operation Crossroads Africa (New York: Viking, 1962).
[iv] Frank T. Wilson, Sr., ed., Black Presbyterians in Ministry: Living Witnesses Biographical Series (New York: Consulting Committee on Ethnic Minority Ministries, Vocation Agency, United Presbyterian Church in the USA, 1972), 27-30; Louise E. Jefferson, Twentieth Century Americans of Negro Lineage (New York: Friendship Pr., 1965).
[v] Amy Lee, Throbbing Drums: The Story of James H. Robinson (New York: Friendship Pr., 1968).
[vi] See Harold R. Isaac, Emergent Americans: A Report on ‘Crossroads Africa’ (New York: John Day Co., 1961); John David Cato, “James Herman Robinson: Crossroads Africa and American Idealism, 1958-1972,” American Presbyterian 68 (Summer 1990): 99-107.
[vii] Gerald T. Rice, The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corp (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame, 1985).
[viii] Gayraud S. Wilmore, Foreword for Africa at the Crossroads by James H. Robinson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962). See also, James H. Robinson, Tomorrow Is Today (Philadelphia: Christian Education, 1954); Education for Decision (addresses by James H. Robinson and others) edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, Earl G. Harrison, Jr. and William L. Swing (New York: Seabury, 1963); Love of this Land: Progress of the Negro in the United States. Illustrated by Elton C. Fax. (Philadelphia: Christian Education, 1956).
[ix] Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars, 1988).
[x] All quotations in this chapter, unless otherwise indicated, were written by students enrolled in my courses at Harvard Divinity School (1983-84); Episcopal Divinity School (1984-1992) and Temple University (1992-2001). I owe a great debt to all the students, since 1977, who let me be a co-learner with them. They have been rigorous as well as generous in completing every aspect of course requirements. I offer special thanks to the women and men whose admirably nuanced words bear witness to the theoretical ideas in this paper. All quotations are used with permission.
[xi] See the bibliography in the sample syllabus for a Graduate Seminar in Womanist Theology and Ethics in The Womanist Theology Primer- Remembering What We Never Knew: The Epistemology of Womanist Theology by Katie G. Cannon (Louisville: Women’s Ministries Program Area, National Ministries Division, Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) 2001.
Katie Geneva Cannon is Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.