Afro-Brazilian Retentions: A Reservoir for Deepening Diasporic Knowledge

Afro-Brazilian Retentions: 

A Reservoir for Deepening Diasporic Knowledge

by Katie G. Cannon


When the Society for the Study of Black Religion (SSBR) announced a 2012 travel-study seminar to Brazil, my response was an immediate “Yes, I want to go.” I was drawn to this extraordinary excursion, and also found resonance in the theme, Traveling the Ancestral Road, because over the years I have created African-centered courses in order to teach seminarians about retentions embedded in the experience of the dislocation and dispersal of Africans as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.  I was also enthusiastic about studying with Dr. Rachel E. Harding. Her book A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness (2003) is a meticulously researched study, a required text in my classes. I welcomed the experience of walking the city streets of Salvador with Professor Harding, benefitting from her wealth of knowledge and fluency in Portuguese, while conversing informally with SSBR colleagues as we moved from one place to another in the countryside of Bahia.

Traveling the Ancestral Road was a major intellectual and life-changing adventure—not only were we introduced to prominent religious, political, social leaders, first-rate interpreters of the Portuguese language and keen travel guides in Salvador, but there is a treasure trove of disaporic knowledge available, when one can see, up close and personal, richly decorated Candomblé terreiros, gold-laden churches, hand-painted tiles, folks in beautiful laced, white hooped skirts dancing in counterclockwise circles, translucent, porcelain-like cowry shell jewelry, and children in rhythmic drum corps marching in the Independence Day parade along narrow, cobblestone streets.

In numerous ways, conversations with members of the Brazilian Candomblé Terreiro do Cobre community illuminated underlying presuppositions about African elements in religious culture. The opportunity to witness the Candomblé Ceremony for the Orisha Xangô Ayrá at Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oka, the oldest Candomblé temple in continual existence in Brazil, aligned closely with the signature features in all of my African-centered courses.

Against this backdrop, participating in Dr. Harding’s seminar, Traveling the Ancestral Road: A Journey of Cultural and Religious Exchange to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, had double significance: first, our visit to the Tanuri Junçara terreiro to hear the lecture, on Art and Aesthetics of Candomblé, by Dr. Jaime Sodré, introduced me to pertinent information for a larger and more engaged discourse about Ethics, Ethnicity, and Architectonic Texts. Second, going to the home of historian/healer/ritual specialist, Elder Priestess Makota Valdina Pinto, for the workshop, Sacred and Medicinal Herbs of Candomblé, provided valuable insights I can add to the section on healing pharmacopoeia in my course, Character, Culture, and Craft in African Traditional Religions. Therefore, in this essay I reflect on my exposure to two avenues that deepened my research database regarding Afro-Brazilian retentions in the religion of Candomblé: architectonic aesthetics and healing pharmacopoeia.

Architectonic Aesthetics

Dr. Jaime Sodré’s lecture, Art and Aesthetics of Candomblé, was spiced with engaging anecdotes and laced with warm humor. Sodré, a Professor at the Institute of Federal Education, Science and Technology (IFBA) campus Salvador, Bahia State University and the College of the City of Salvador, earned a Master’s degree in Theory and History and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social History. Based on his repertoire of knowledge about African customs, traditions, and art, Sodré is one of the world’s most renowned researchers of African-Brazilian culture.

The general theme of Professor Sodré’s lecture was to situate Afro-Brazilian art in its socio-historical context and to identify the roots of its material modes and intimate continuities with an Angolan worldview. Even more specifically, focusing on how African ancestry merged with existential life experienced in Bahia, Professor Sodré increased our visual vocabulary by showing slides and talking about perceptive and transformative images intricately carved in Afro-Brazilian sculptures, masks, chairs, and other artistic patterns and designs. The styles and techniques of these creative expressions are transatlantic conduits of mediums and messages, concrete and recognizable entities of both form and function of dialectical retentions of what was and what now is.

Sodré’s presentation gave us the vantage point from which to understand visual politics as categories of cultural truth that are not written narratives, but living aesthetic documents. In other words, this lecture provided intellectual means for us to exegete architectonic texts, non-scribal scriptures that artists receive from the spirit world and express as emblematic objects and mythic images. The range of culturally determined media and materials—selection of designs, colors, dyes, patterns, textures–glass beads, cowries shells, wood, metal, clay, ivory, and fiber—is essentially the same in architectonic texts as the selective reportage of written sources designated as holy.

Origin and age are fundamental to understanding the aesthetic influence of representative art, as well as knowing who can own it, and what it is worth. Artistically, graphic language can be both sacred and profane, beautiful and vulgar. Even when artwork is controversial, there is little evidence, thus far, of a symbolic text being censored or considered too extreme to be included in the Afro-Brazilian eclectic canon. A fundamental understanding is that architectonic aesthetics are nuanced visual statements representing multi-stranded, thickly textured, open-ended pluralist expressions of African people’s memories and movements in the Americas.

According to Sodré, it is precisely because of the artist’s direct access to the spirit world that the meanings of some of the colorful emblems of the Orishas used in ceremonies are concealed from outsiders and the uninitiated. Bahian craftpersons’ affinity with West Africa and Candomblé enable indigenous carvers, weavers, painters, ceramists, printmakers, and sculptors to use their skills, imagination, and special “eyes” to receive visions, to dream dreams, to signify certain religious messages about what is important in the public and private, official and unofficial religious life.

Sodré, who has done major work on Orisha fidelities and ancestral responsibilities, talked about the retention sensitivities of iconographic motifs in Candomblé. Affiliations with orishas, the refusal to split, to dichotomize, to become disembodied with detached remoteness from the divine presence in the daily fabric of life, enable artists to express internal revelations in external modalities. With very few exceptions, Afro-Brazilian art, rooted in the coexistence of religious sentient and cultural specificities, is a strong articulation of diaspora literacy.

Furthermore, I am most appreciative to Dr. Sodré for introducing me to the aesthetics of inventive sculptured totems in the work of a Bahian artist, Deoscóredes Maximiliano dos Santos, popularly known as Mestre Didi. Sodré provided us with a close look at the artist Mestre Didi,[i] who was initiated as a priest in Orisha worship and whose icongraphic figural sculptures are known for their beautiful, asymmetrical balance. Artists, such as Mestre Didi, use multiple approaches in order to bear witness to departed ancestors who are present in the lives of the living. Most significant is that the themes and inferential details in Mestre Didi’s mobile totems defy traditional assumptions about distinctions between humans, animals, and the divine.

In other words, by creating unbalanced inventive sculptured totems, Mestre Didi, as an artist and priest, uses artistic technology to transcend fixed boundaries and to communicate ontology as an uneven vital spirit-force in the realm of divine beauty and existential power. Unproblematic for Mestre Didi is any effort at a counterpoised position. His productive linking of tradition with talent enhanced his ability to create works of art as coherent designs of antithetical equilibrium. The message of Mestre Didi’s medium can be summed up in the metaphysical language of liberation ethics—humans share the sacred force of beingness with members of our species and the wider environment in which we are situated.

Healing Pharmacopoeia

It has been known for centuries that there is an inseparable cultural retentionary link between indigenous religions and medicinal healing found in West Africa, and that this retentionary link and heritage of traditional pharmacopoeia extends across the Atlantic Ocean as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.[ii] Medicine women and men know the names and properties of herbs, trees, roots, seeds, bones, birds, animals and mineral sources. Similar facts are known about other sorts of potent elements found in nature that herbalists use in the cultivation and preparation of healing recipes and folk remedy formulas.

Those of us who teach African Traditional Religions understand how healers work as diviner-counselors, diagnosing illnesses, removing obstacles, and discerning people’s troubles of every sort. They perform rituals to drive away witches, exorcize evil spirits, offer protection from danger, remove curses, detect dishonesty and theft, eradicate aggressive anger, and offer patients safe traveling mercies. A reality I learned early on is that some healers inherit the position of medicine men and medicine women, while others are called via dreams or through a series of spirit visitations.           

On Friday morning, June 29th, when we arrived at the home of Elder Priestess Makota Valdina Pinto for the workshop, Sacred and Medicinal Herbs of Candomblé, it was clear that Elder Makota was well-versed in the rudiments of the healing arts. In the early 1970s, Elder Makota left Catholicism, and in 1975, was initiated into the religion of Candomblé. Throughout her lecture, she integrated her curative knowledge with her role as priestess. She shared with us the properties and uses of plants in religious rites, such as prayers and offerings. Elder Makota can identify which Orisha is making a request of someone, as well as diagnosing illnesses caused by another individual. Even though the core of Afro-Brazilian medical lore is sacred, Elder Makota willingly shared important wisdom with us outsiders, and we are grateful that she considered us worthy of receiving it.

Elder Makota introduced a variety of living plants that are indispensable to life. Some were fresh leaves, others dried roots. Numerous green trees surround her house, transforming energy from the sun into healing vibrations and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere through the mechanisms of photosynthesis. She indicated that her intention is to continue unearthing the healing mysteries embedded in germinated seeds and to catalogue the apothecary of incredibly diverse flora growing in her organic pharmacopoeia in accordance with their utility and significance in the religion of Candomblé.

In describing culinary herbs used for the restoration of health, Elder Makota pointed to instances in which some plants are used for purification, a few mediate disputes, and one or two provide protection against danger, and others serve as energy sources for perseverance against great difficulties. She said, “Every household should have at least one sword plant (what is known in the USA as a snake plant) to ward off evil.”

Echoing throughout her presentation were examples of the mutual relationships and interactions between religious rituals, prohibitions, taboos, and ecological justice. This means that there should be no separation between what we believe and our embodied styles of life. Religious people need to be good stewards and become more resourceful regarding our planet. Elder Makota asked, “What is earth?”  Immediately she followed her inquiry with this answer, “Earth is a packet of healing energies, created by God for life. We need the soil, sun, water and wind. If there are no leaves, there is no earth.”  Elder Makota’s message was clear: “We can no longer ignore how our negative behaviors affect humankind and the rest of nature.”

Intrigued while listening to Elder Makota, I remembered how in the past when I talked with medicine women in my hometown in rural North Carolina, they too were well versed about the various ways plants provide us with essential healing oils and curative seasonings. For instance, it is worth mentioning that in 1959, I witnessed, first-hand, one of our local healers, Ms. Lottie, perform the ritual of talking the fire out of my body.  As a pre-teen, I was seriously burned while using a steam iron. When Ms. Lottie completed the ritual of talking the fire out, the pain of my burn vanished. There was no scar, no inflammation, not even a blister in the spot where my flesh was burning only moments before. Medicine women, like Ms. Lottie and Elder Makota, know how to distinguish between seeds and fruit that are toxic and poisonous and those that restore health and wholeness. As naturopath-herbalists, they know how to treat illnesses by extracting medicinal drugs from flowers, tree-barks, stems, leaves, and roots.  Elder Makoto articulated it this way, “The smell and shape of a plant will tell you what you can use it for. Also, your eyes will tell you what plant is good for you.”

However, it was Elder Makota’s prophetic articulation of an earth ethic that made my visit with this particular sacred healer different from all others. In Salvador, Bahia, Elder Makota presented her usable, botanical wisdom within an expanded view of our moralscape. She reminded us that the Afro-Brazilian retention of effectively treating illnesses with medicinal properties of plants is essential to our ongoing existence. She said, “The time it took to create this planet, the process the planet has to go through takes a long, long time. Some plants have not evolved. We may be destroying things that have not yet come to life.” Actualizing responsible earth ethics is not only necessary, but is a mandate for genuine doers of justice.

Elder Makota’s conclusion is prophetic. The focal point of her lecture is that humankind will self-destruct, if we continue contaminating, corrupting, and genetically modifying living organisms. Within the shifting matrix of the world’s powers and principalities, it is high time for us to rethink what it means to participate in wholistic common action for the well-being of the common good. In other words, if planetary healing is mandatory, more work needs to be done to place human health and earth wholeness into a balanced interactive relation to each other, in order to extend the horizons of both.


Traveling the Ancestral Road was an intense cultural immersion experience, wherein each day of our journey was like seeing through a prism the reflection and refraction of precious Brazilian gemstones. The richness, rigor, and breadth of our daily agenda, cast off light in many directions, creating a variety of meaning-making encounters that increased my conceptual sensibility to artistic beauty, to the healing arts of Candomblé, to live dance and talking-drum performances. All of this dramatically deepened my understanding of Bahia as the capital of African culture in the Americas.

This reservoir that increased my diasporic knowledge consists of exposure to an array of conceptual and thematic African retentions, as well as elements of cultural reciprocity in the daily lives of Afro-Brazilian women, men and children. The growing-edge here is that, participating in this study-seminar enabled me to grasp the prominence of mythical iconography, wherein, before, I had only read about it. This new mindset loosened presupposed, conventional knowledge about spirit possession in indigenous religions, sharpened critical reflections about imperialism and the enslavement of Africans by Portuguese enslavers, and heightened appreciation for the gifts of healing present in the African American context.

In order to create a more provocative learning environment when I teach African-centered courses in the future, I will integrate mental and visceral knowledge regarding ritual repetitions and festive arts with innovative methods that bridge these two realms, so that students can obtain answers to research questions that expand our intellectual discourse about Afro-Brazilian religious, social, political, and cultural realities.

Previously, in each African-centered course, we viewed documentary films and video clips about African Religions in the Americas, along with reading and analyzing weekly required texts. When local museums presented African exhibits, we took field trips. With a commitment to keep my memory green about life-lessons learned during this 2012 seminar, Traveling the Ancestral Road, my task is now to create processes of learning that will enable students to hear a multitude of voices performing and to see with new eyes Candomblé’s sharing of votive food with visitors during festal assemblies.

For a greater awakening of diasporic discoveries and imaginative possibilities, it will be worthwhile for us, as co-learners, to participate in a variety of meaning-making artistic expressions. Furthering the medium of performance pedagogy, I will now invite seminarians to make their theological perspectives tangible, by writing creative commentaries, crafting feeling-pictures, composing fragmented collages, etc., so that silences can be heard and graphic literacy can be brought to life. Moreover, I will expand the course requirement of annunciation-celebration, by providing opportunities for us to listen to talking drums and pay closer attention to documentaries that include spirit-possessed choreography. Of course, to state these pedagogical changes another way is to say, I will encourage students to investigate African religions via non-hierarchical, multiple entry and exit points, and expand the range of knowledge-sharing via sources available in cyberspace.

Furthermore, I note that amidst the busyness of our 21st century technopolis, I will create a digitized educational component on earth ethics. Hopefully, by mixing-and-matching generative surges of sustainable possibilities with interdependent, harmonious trajectories, seminarians can become informed participants in the environmental justice movement. In turn, we can reduce our destruction of non-renewable natural resources and expand our consciousness as humans, who are not only dependent on plants for medicine, but also for food, beverages, shelter, clothing, tools, and fuel. In essence, the bottom-line, organizing question is this: How are we affected daily by the pollution in our air, water, and soil, pollutions that cannot be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, nor stored in some harmless form?

To sum up, this travel seminar to Salvador, Bahia provided me with distinct sites of data for my Afrocentric courses. New questions emerged about varying constellations and connections between Brazilians who make up the largest African diaspora in the Americas, indeed in the world, and people of African ancestry in the United States of America. In essence, Traveling the Ancestral Road expanded my territorial horizons, enlarged my religious consciousness, challenged codes of meaning within my eco-justice-faith formation— deepened my African soul.


[i] Mestre Didi is the son of Maria Bibiana do Espirito Santo (“Mãe Senhora”) who was Iyalorixá of one of Bahia’s most important Candomblé terreiro communities – Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá – from 1942-1967.

[ii] See, also Manoel Raimundo Querino, The African Contribution to Brazilian Civilization, translated by E. Bradford Burns, Arizona State UP, 1978; Shelia S. Walker, ed. African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas, Rowman & Little, 2001.

Katie Geneva Cannon is Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

“The Hinges Upon Which the Future Swings”

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.

Theoethical Conscientization

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.

Afrocentric Methodology

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.

Another wrote:

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.