Frances Smith Foster accepts Gittler Prize

Emory professor emerita delivers lesson on 'conjuring culture'

Photos/Mike Lovett

Emory Professor Emerita Frances Smith Foster delivered a lesson on “conjuring culture” -- liberally laced with good-humored personal anecdotes and sobering accounts of her own encounters with racial prejudice in education -- as she accepted the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize this week.

The $25,000 prize -- which this year is shared by Foster and Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson -- was created by the late Professor Joseph B. Gittler to recognize outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic or religious relations.

Foster, whose pioneering research challenged long-held ideas about African American family life during and following the era of slavery in the United States, was the first recipient to speak substantively of the work of Gittler, a prominent sociologist who died in 2005. Gittler had no connection to Brandeis, and endowed the prize – one of the university’s largest – out of admiration for the school’s deep commitment to ethics and social justice.

In her prize lecture, delivered to an appreciative audience in Rapaporte Treasure Hall, Foster quoted a passage from Gittler’s 1949 book “Man and His Prejudices” about the pervasiveness of ethnic and racial bias and said it was apt today.

“We live in a world increasingly divided by intransigent ethnocentrism cultured by prejudice,” she said, noting that Gittler found covert prejudice “more basic and more insidious, difficult to rout from its hidden recesses, and almost impervious to any form of concrete action.”

Foster described herself as an “accidental academic activist,” in that her vocation was teaching but scholarly research and publication were requirements for her to fulfill that calling.

“I majored in education because I wanted to challenge and change our culture, in and out of class,” she said. “I graduated credentialed to teach high school English, but I knew the curricula had left out African Americans and most women.”

Foster learned of their stories courtesy of a local librarian; the one-room library in her town had a single shelf labeled “Books by Negroes,” and when Foster had exhausted it, the librarian kept coming up with more and more books.

It was the start of a lifetime of finding stories and information which, according to the conventional wisdom, did not exist, as she documented the lives and brought to life the thoughts and writings of slaves and post-slavery African Americans who many thought had created no such legacy.

“I labor under no illusion that ‘the truth,’ especially about the past, can ever be fully comprehended,” Foster said. “But I do believe that if we are ever to be at ‘home’ in our skins, hearts and heads, we really must do the best we can to conjure culture, inside and outside of our classrooms.”

In this respect she praised the recent work of Brandeis Professor Anita Hill in her new book “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home.”

Foster warned that “our latest-is-greatest culture leads us to idolize the new when often we have not fully utilized the old” and that “a culture that prefers to discard rather than repair too often finds itself with a product that, if not inferior, is at least a more costly equivalent… As scholars and social beings, we do well to look back as we strive to understand where we are and why, and as we try to conjure a more fulfilling future.”

In so looking back, she said, she had found evidence to debunk falsehoods and partial truths about African Americans during slavery and its aftermath that form foundations for stereotypes and prejudices that abide today.

President Fred Lawrence, who welcomed Foster and presented her with the medal that is part of the Gittler Prize, likened the honoree to Louis Brandeis in the sense that Brandeis was “someone who never understood the difference between theory and practice… for him the connections were all interwoven.”

Introducing Foster, Bernadette Brooten, the Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, said that the truths that Foster has uncovered about the realities of marriage and family life among enslaved people “is a story… that this country needs to hear, because the stories we tell about our communities and our past shapes who we are today.

President emeritus Jehuda Reinharz, who led the university at the time of the Gittler gift, said in an interview after the prize lecture that Joseph Gittler was particularly interested in issues of ethics and religion and was attracted to Brandeis initially because “we had just created the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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