“Literary Archeologist” Foster Reexamines African American Historical Identity

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Frances Smith Foster, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Emory University, forbids her Black Literature students from even mentioning the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs for the first half of the semester. In her Thursday lecture in the Scheuer Room, Foster spoke of her vision of African American literature and culture, a vision not limited to oppression and suffering in a discussion called, “Before Phyllis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass: Redefining Early African American Literature.”

The question Foster asked her audience of faculty and students was, “how do we create a story with fairness?” She recalled the early years of Black Literature Studies and its focus on the heritage of African Americans as it pertains to slavery and its survivors. Now, she says, the direction has both grown and shifted.

Largely speaking, Foster focused her lecture around the importance of archival sources for developing an understanding of how African American culture grew and developed, not only in relation to the problem of slavery, but in all aspects of black life. Foster recently discovered and published the earliest known story by an African American writer, Theresa – a Haytien Tale (1828) in the African American Review. Foster, who calls herself a “literary archeologist,” has edited and authored 14 books. Her latest, Still Brave: Legendary Black Women on Race and Gender comes out November first. As Associate Professor of English Foy said, Foster’s achievements are an ”inadequate resume” for expression of her impact on Black Studies.

According to Foster, her the field of African-American literature has gone from viewing the African American as an “object” who is a “victim” to a “subject” who is assertive. This is because, in her words, “despite its best efforts slavery could not murder the souls of the African American people.” Therefore, over the past decade the focus of her and her contemporaries’ work has been religion, culture, sex, gender, love and family: basically, not assuming slavery was “all-powerful” over other aspects of black life. Foster speaks to community, of the enslaved and free, to love, loyalty, culture and most of all, ideals. According to Foster, enslaved or not the black people of early America were forming their own culture and identity.

“[Foster’s] insistence on archives helped make very clear the diversity of the African American community of 100 years ago, 200 years ago,” said Ana Celia Zentella, the Visiting Eugene M. Lang Professor for Issues of Social Change. Foster looks to archiving because she believes that African American publishing maybe the key to discovering what that society was truly like. This is why she is wary of limiting the definition of “African American” and uses President Obama as a metaphor. The President, Foster said, does not fit the accepted history of what it means to be “African American:” he does not have ancestors that were slaves, and he is half-white. Whether we like it or not, and whether it is accepted or not, the definition of “what it means to be black” is changing. We can’t be upset about learning new things, Foster stressed.

The literature Foster cites as “African American” is not all in English. It is in Arabic, German, French, it is written by Muslims, Catholics, and Methodists. What it means, moreover, is that the black society that existed alongside slavery is more varied and complex than what may be popularly thought. Foster even refuses to limit black literature to that written only by the black hand, she thinks that narratives dictated to white writers cannot be ruled out simply for that fact, or considered invalid. Each voice adds to the picture of black life in the 18th and 19th century.

The most striking picture Foster painted was through a letter to the editor from an 1828 copy of Freedom’s Journal, an African American run newspaper. In the letter, a man railed against a column which appealed to the vanities and sentiments of “ladies” who cared for nothing but the latest fashions. Though Foster did not agree with the latent sexism of the letter, she did show the audience its implications about black women of the time. First of all, there was a class of black women who could read, enough of them that a section of a major newspaper was devoted to their interests. Secondly, there were black woman were wealthy enough to worry about luxuries. Foster seems to find, in her archival work, significant counterpoints to views of black culture as being primarily a product of the horrors of slavery. She points to an existing class of wealthy, educated, established African Americans living before, during and after slavery, with national and international connections through publishing.

Foster spoke for over an hour and then took questions from the audience. She was eager to hear opinions and offer long thoughtful answers. Though engaging, Foster sometimes lost her audience when she mentioned titles of more obscure narratives and writings by black authors.

Though Luke Rampersad, ’10 didn’t get all the references, he maintained that, “the subject matter is close to my heart and [the lecture] was very thought-provoking.” Both students and faculty could agree on that, as the question and answer period stretched the lecture to almost two hours and many hung around afterward to thank Foster.

Where does her research take her next? “Change is a process and it’s not a product,” she said during her lecture, “it’s not something you can retire on.” With a book coming out this year and another one on the way next year, Foster seems far from retirement, and still full of passion for a subject she has studied since the 1970’s. As for her students, “I push them to know something that no one else knows yet,” she said.

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