2010-Frances Smith Foster

Report of the Hubbell Award Committee

The Jay B. Hubbell Award is given each year to a scholar who has made an extraordinary contribution to the study of American literature over the course of his or her career. In 2010, committee members recognized Professor Frances Smith Foster for her outstanding work. Members of the Hubbell Award Committee for 2010 were as follows:

Dana Nelson (Vanderbilt U), 2010 Chair
Mary Loeffelholz, Northeastern University, (2011 Chair)
Shirley Samuels, Cornell University, (2012 Chair)
William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, (2013 Chair)
Ivy Schweitzer, Dartmouth College, (2014 Chair)

 Citation for Professor Frances Smith Foster from the Award Committee

On behalf of the Award Committee and the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, it is my great pleasure to present the Jay B. Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies to Frances Smith Foster. The Hubbell Medal recognizes scholars who have made major contributions to the contemporary understanding of American literature.  The roster of Hubbell Medal award winners reads like a who’s who of renowned scholars and critics.  This year’s winner upholds this high standard, and then some.

Frances Smith Foster is currently the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Emory University, where she has served as the English Department Chair from 2005 to 2008, as well as the Director of Emory’s Institute for Women’s Studies.  Frances earned her Bachelor’s degree in Education from Miami University in her home state of Ohio.  She took an M.A. from the University of Southern California and earned her PhD in British and American literature from the University of California, San Diego in 1976.

Frances began her professorial career at San Diego State University in 1972, chairing Afro-American Studies there from 1975 to 1976, serving as an Assistant Dean from 1976 to 1979, and as Coordinator of Special Projects in the Chancellor’s Office from 1979 to 1980.  From 1988 to 1994, Frances was professor of American Literature at the University of California, San Diego.  She moved to Emory in 1996.  During her busy and highly visible career, Frances has authored, edited, or co-edited 13 books; written scores of articles in numerous key journals; and has served on more academic committees than anyone should ever have to, unless on salary.  Such work is as necessary as it is underappreciated and too often unrecognized, so I’m going to mention at least a few of the high points of Frances’s professional leadership roles.

Within the MLA: the Delegate Assembly; the Division of American Literature and its Executive Board; the Committee on Academic Freedom, Professional Rights and Professional Responsibilities, which she chaired; the Division of Ethnic Languages and Literatures; and a pioneering role in what was once known as the Afro-American Literature Discussion Group. All this plus three years on the labor-intensive Executive Council of the MLA from 1995 through 1998.

Frances has played leadership roles in the National Women’s Studies Association, the Philological Association of the Pacific Coast, of which she was executive director, the Society for the Study of Women Writers, the Collegium of African American Research, the College Language Association, the American Studies Association and the American Literature Association. As for memberships on editorial boards – another brand of service we all depend on but rarely recognize adequately – African American Review, Tulsa Studies in Womens Literature, American Quarterly, Legacy, and American Literature all can claim the distinction of having had the name of Frances Smith Foster on their mastheads.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the Hubbell award isn’t the first honor that Frances’s scholarship has brought her. Frances has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellow, a California State University Administrative Fellow, a Harvard Divinity School Research Associate, a Fulbright Senior Fellow, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research in the Humanities, a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, and a Womanist Scholar in Residence at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.  At the 2009 MLA conference, the Association of Departments of English conferred on Frances the Francis Andrew March award for her lifetime contribution to the profession of literature.  The College Language Association has also paid tribute to Frances’s work by awarding her its Creative Scholarship award.

As a scholar, Frances is best known for having authored three books, each one a pioneering volume, as well as a number of influential editions. Her first book, Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives, published by Greenwood in 1979, was the first thoroughgoing study of a genre that has become central to re-evaluations of American and African American literature over the past quarter century.  Reading Witnessing Slavery taught me, as I was just beginning to try to map the terrain of early African American writing, that the slave narrative was much more diverse and experimental than a reading of Douglass or Wells Brown or Harriet Jacobs would suggest.  Frances proved that the slave narrative was a dynamic and ever-evolving genre of black self-expression that would sustain the sort of critical exposition and theoretical analysis that was unheard of when Witnessing Slavery came out but which is standard nowadays.

In 1993, Frances’s second book, Written By Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892, appeared from Indiana University Press.  Written by Herself was the most complete examination ever undertaken of the multiple literary traditions and cultural interventions of African American women writing before the twentieth century.  Just as Witnessing Slavery gave us the most authoritative review of the slave narrative up to the time that book appeared, Written by Herself quickly became the most reliable guide we had to the literary history of African American women up to the 1890s.

Til Death or Distance Do Us Part:  Love and Marriage in African America, which came out last year from Oxford University Press, has been widely and deservedly praised as, once again, a paradigm-shifting book.  As one historian noted, Frances’s “challenging. . . important book,” takes on a subject too often ignored, pathologized, or sentimentalized and then  “demolishes stereotypes about the history of love, sexuality, and marriage among antebellum African Americans,” while definitively establishing the “complexity, variety, and richness of the intimate relationships forged by enslaved and free African American women and men in the past.”  With its companion anthology, Love and Marriage in Early African America, which came out in 2007, these two books fill a huge need for a nuanced and wide-ranging assessment of courtship, love, marriage, and domesticity in African American cultural and literary history.

One reason I get to deliver this citation this evening is because Frances and I have worked on several big editing projects together, including The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature and The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature.  We experienced our fair share of trials and tribulations working on these projects, but the only testifyin’ I’m going to engage in on this occasion is to say simply that if you ever have a chance to collaborate on anything with Frances, you should say yes.  The only drawback you may find is the one I confessed to in a letter I sent to Frances in the summer of 1996 after she’d sent me the drafts of two long articles for the Oxford Companion, one on “Diasporic Literature” and the other on “Class.”  This is what I wrote:

Dear Frances,

Your articles on DIASPORIC LITERATURE and CLASS are very impressive.  You seem to have been just the right one to                             have written those articles in the first place.  Do you just walk around all the time with all that information about diasporic                                 literature in your head?  After I read that article I was depressed for the rest of the day thinking (again) about all the stuff I don’t                         know and haven’t even heard of in Af Am lit.  I’m very grateful that you were willing to contribute these article to the
COMPANION and to do so on such short notice.

The Oxford Companion to African American Literature came out in the fall of 1997, just about a year after Frances wrote those two articles, originally assigned to other scholars (who shall remain nameless here), but which Frances took on because we were under the gun to deliver copy and deliver it fast.  Deliver it we did, thanks to Frances’s generosity and hard work.

I consider Frances Foster to be the premier historian of African American women’s writing on the literary and cultural studies scene today.  What undergirds her scholarship and makes all of her books so original are the following: an engagement with and respect for not only the canonical but the non-canonical texts of African American literature from the earliest voices up to now; a thorough grounding in the African American periodical press as a cultural institution and a venue for literature; a well-researched appreciation of the many ways that black Christianity and black religious literature have shaped and informed the history of African American writing; and, finally, a wellspring of insight into what motivated women writers to take up the pen, as well as an uncanny sensitivity to what their modes of expression signified to female as well as male readers.

For all these reasons and more that we don’t have time to talk about this evening, Frances, thank you for all you have taught us and congratulations on winning the 2010 Hubbell Award.

William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Dana Nelson, Vanderbilt University

Hubbell Acceptance Speech By Frances Smith Foster

Thank you. Were it left to me, were this merely a personal moment of triumph, having said a heartfelt “Thank you,” I would seize this medal and sit down.  But, being awarded the Hubbell Medal is not merely a personal milestone.

I do take it personally, of course, and I am deeply and profoundly moved by this honor.  I have worked long and hard. And, I have tried to make a difference in the lives and letters of many people.  This medal, the congratulations I’ve received, and your presence here tonight, say that some folk think I’ve not only succeeded but that I have made my mark in American Literature.  And I’m so happy!

My joy tonight is intensified because despite appearances:

I’ll tell you, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up

And places with no carpet on the stair.1

Did you know that I started out as a part-time temporary freeway flyer (a.k.a. “adjunct”); I spent 16 years with a 4-4 teaching load; 6 years at a public university teaching, publishing, and working very hard to make African American literature count as more than an elective for English majors and trying to get more English majors and graduate students of color? (And here, I must mention my successful collaboration with Richard Yarborough of UCLA.)  Moreover, I had two children – one during my master’s work, one just before I began my PhD studies.  But the blues (as cathartic and instructive as they may be) are not appropriate songs to sing at an occasion of affirmation and celebration such as this.  Besides, as my good friend, Shereley Anne Williams wrote in “The Peacock Song”

…if I’m a peacock

my feathers’ s’posed to cover

all hurts and if you want to

stay one  then you got to keep

that tail from draggin so mines

is always held up sky high. 2

I accept this award with thanksgiving for the many people – and the “holy” spirits –who taught me not to wear the grinning lying mask, but to walk with my head up “for balance and so they can look into my eyes” (Williams, 67).  And I in theirs.  I give thanks to God and to my family and friends.  I appreciate my sister Cle coming from Ohio and my daughter Krishna coming from across town.

I realize that there are many in this room and many more in this profession who deserve this medal and more.  I believe that had some of my colleagues not worked themselves to death – literally– one of them would be in this spot tonight.  I am honored tonight –in part –because I am one of the few left standing.  I am standing in for many:  Nellie Y. McKay, Barbara Christian, Claudia Tate, Mary Helen Washington, Kenny J. Williams, Darwin Turner, William Robinson and others.  I am standing here because too many people to mention have picked me up when I was down and have helped me make a way out of no way –  I send a shout out to Donald Gibson, Thad Davis, Susan Friedman, Bill Andrews, and Richard Yarbourgh,  Paul Lauter, David Laurence, Elsie B. Adams– especially.

And, perhaps most important of all, this award symbolizes a professional achievement for MLA and American Literature Section.  My degrees are all in British and American literature but I have chosen to focus my research projects on the writings of people who were not on my class syllabi.  (The closest my PhD qualifying exams at University of Southern California came to black people was a question about William Faulkner.)  My work –on slave narratives, on African American women writers, on love, marriage and family values in early African America — is still not considered by many (most?)  to be “mainstream.”  But this award says that these and similar subjects are now considered part of American literature by enough to make a difference.  Tonight, my recognition suggests that our profession is beginning to acknowledge the importance of scholarship beyond the monograph, that one doesn’t need an Ivy League education to make a contribution, and that focus on collaboration does not make one noncompetitive.

Tonight the profession I chose has chosen me –and I am a peacock with head and tail held high. Thank you.

Frances Smith Foster, Emory University