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When We See One Another: The Ethical Leadership of Women of African Descent in Scholarship and Art
“As members of the ‘beloved community,’ Black women are responsible, along with others who care, for collecting facts to determine whether injustice exists, whether a law, an (sic) historical situation, existing social relations elevate or debase human beingness. Moral agents must evaluate every situation as to whether it contributes to or impedes the growth of human personality and genuine community.” With these words the American ethicist, prolific theologian and womanist scholar, late Katie G. Cannon set the tone for an ongoing conversation that transcends not only generational and gender boundaries, but bears relevance for ethical leadership worldwide.
Cannon, alongside other female scholars of African descent, emphasised the importance of an inclusive human community in full cognizance of the fractions and different historical and societal locations from which this claim is articulated. Black women’s lives across the ages epitomize the struggle for justice in a particular manner. For Katie Cannon, theirs is a unique experience of the celebration of life, its non-negotiable dignity, and of the simultaneous disconnect and invisibility these women face due to societal denial and victimization.
A distinctive character of Katie Cannon’s scholarship and engaged citizenship was that she recognised African-American women’s history and experience as particular without denying the expression of other lived realities elsewhere. Hers was not an ideologizing and exclusivist position. Most significantly, she pointed to an inclusive human community, which distinguishes itself by creating a moral situation of acts of mutual consideration motivated by the desire to establish and restore justice.
Katie Cannon insisted that in the wake of the ongoing oppression Black women are confronting and spearheading transformation by making visible the sources of such restorative justice, the ground of dignity, and the need for love and community amidst all struggle. She explored and established Black women’s literary traditions as sources for ethics by bringing to the fore how these serve as repositories of nuanced contextual narratives from which embodied liberation can emerge – and for which Cannon’s elementary and yet so meaningful sentence “I come from a place” stands.
In her fine study, entitled The Social Dialect in Toni Morrison’s “Jazz,” (1995) Cannon engages with the literary oeuvre of Toni Morrison, scholar, novelist, storyteller and Nobel prize winner for literature in 1993. Katie Cannon connects with Toni Morrison’s approach to telling stories as textual artefacts, as self-composed, transformative expressions created as contra-punctual interventions – similarly to Jazz music with its freely arranged melodic variations against a regular rhythmic pulse. Toni Morrison understood her novels not so much as statements of moral authority on the Black experience, but rather “as maps or as texts,” as Katie Cannon writes in her essay, “with plenty of holes and spaces so that the reader can come into them.”
Katie G. Cannon and Toni Morrison passed on in 2018 and 2019 respectively, however, they remain two living icons for ethical leadership. Representative of a generation of women of African descent who dedicated their intellectual and artistic work to telling the stories of the place they come from. And by doing so, enabling others to narrate their own, so that a multivocal narration on ethical location may emerge.
Black History Month, which inspired this editorial, may provoke the question: How are we concerned? Perhaps by taking the time to reflect on our diverse ethical locations. A time for reflection on how ethics permeates different ways of expressing the humane and the undeniable dignity of each human being through the lenses of particular contextual experiences.
This is where the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter Movement and the Womanist Movement intersect: They call us all to unveil our blind spots – where we do not live up to our own speech and standards. Where ‘speaking truth to power’ remains a rhetoric figure of distant and heroic reminiscences and scarcely of self-offering and abandonment of own privileges. They invite us to discover our humanity afresh in the historic wounds of others without appropriating or invading them. And to walk the difficult avenues of trustworthiness and integrity, seeing our privileges and being ready to abandon them, so that the voices of the silenced can be heard for the elevation of all.
We are led into the responsibility to think and act for justice not as a symbolic, but as an existential act of seeing one other, so that we may come closer to the beloved community of which Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt, Katie Cannon depicted as the space in which just relationships have to be lived, and Toni Morrison exemplified in her literary art as the horizon for humaneness. A powerful legacy of ethical leadership of women of African descent to live up to, in union with all who care, women and men of all ages, of all regions, and from all cultures and backgrounds, for a world transformed – when we see one another.