Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara 1944—
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot 1944—
Educator, sociologist, writer
A sociologist and a professor of education at Harvard University and the second African American woman in that university’s history to become a permanent faculty member, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has received many prizes for her work, which deals with race, class, American schools, and the education of minorities. She commented in the New York Times, “[African Americans] have a very distorted view of who we are reflected at us. Part of the focus of this work is really to bust through some of those caricatures.”
Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book, I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation, about the black middle class, was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club main choice. Her book Balm in Gilead, which chronicles her own mother’s life, won a Christopher Award in 1988 for “literary merit and humanitarian achievement” and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In 1993 she won Harvard University’s George Ledlie Prize for her research. She also received the MacArthur “genius” Prize in 1984, the Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and a five-year grant of $350,000 from the Spencer Foundation, an educational foundation in Chicago.
Lawrence-Lightfoot, who is divorced but goes by her married name, has been described by Karen De Witt in the New York Times as a “sociologist as storyteller, a pioneer of what she calls human archeology.” In her book, I’ve Known Rivers, according to De Witt, “She uses detailed interviews with six black professionals to reveal the layers that make up an individual’s experience and a people’s experience, providing sociological portraits that are a marriage of arts and science, literature and empirical description.”
Lawrence-Lightfoot lives in Boston and has two children—a daughter, Tolani, and a son, Martin—but she spent her teenage years in Pomona, New York. When she was interviewed by Bill Moyers in 1988 for Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (an edited version of the conversations aired on the PBS series of the same name), she described her years growing up, “My own parents were very explicit about teaching what I now regard as a counter-curriculum at home. This included reading Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois and some of the black poets from our own literary tradition…. They were leftists and pacifists. So there was always this contrary conversation going on at home and
Born August 22, 1944; daughter of Charles Lawrence (a sociology professor) and Margaret Morgan Lawrence (a child psychiatrist); divorced; children: Tolani, Martin, Education: Swarthmore College, B A.; the Bank Street College of Education; Harvard University, doctorate in the sociology of education.
Professor of education at Harvard University; sociologist; author of sociological books, also author of articles for the Urban Diversity series published by Columbia University in 1978, as well as for the publication, Daedulns.
Awards: Candace Award, National Coalition of 100 Black Women; MacArthur Prize, 1984; Outstanding Book Award for The Good High School, from the American Educational Research Association, 1984; Christopher Award for Balm in Gilead, Harvard University’s George Ledlie prize for research, 1993.
Memberships: National Academy of Education, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Addresses: Office —Harvard Graduate School of Education, Department of Educational Administration, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.
an attempt to reconcile what we were learning in school with what it was that my parents believed…. There were several generations of teachers in my family, so as an adolescent, I wanted to do something different, more exciting. I imagined things like theater and the arts…. But I never imagined becoming a professor and doing research and teaching.”
Nevertheless, that is what Lawrence-Lightfoot did after attending Swarthmore College, the Bank Street College of Education in New York, and Harvard University. At 25 she made her first $125 from writing an article about social science research. After getting her doctorate in the sociology of education at Harvard, she was immediately asked to become a member of the faculty.
Lawrence-Lightfoot later wrote her academic book, Beyond Bias: Perspectives on Classrooms, with Jean V. Carew, which was published in 1979 by Harvard University Press. Another academic book, Worlds Apart, published in 1978 by Basic Books, criticizes the commonly held belief that competition between parents and teachers for the education of children is a necessity and of value. Not only does this have a negative impact, she argues, she also contends that black parents’ feelings about schools goes all the way back to the time of slavery when educational resources were simply not available to them.
Lawrence-Lightfoot’s third book, The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture, also published by Basic Books in 1983 and the winner of the Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association, focused on the positive aspects of six schools in the United States, public, suburban, and private alike. Lawrence-Lightfoot looked at their strengths and their ways of solving problems, largely through interviews with teachers and studying the schools’ unusual programs for students, and offered the book as a “catalyst” for institutional “change.” In the Los Angeles Times Book Review Myra Glazer called the work a “refreshing antidote to our anger at our schools.” In the New Republic David Owen described it as “something grander” than sociology, “a kind of intimate portraiture.”
Lawrence-Lightfoot received a MacArthur Award, enabling her to write her fourth book, Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer, which was published by AddisonWesley in 1988. This book departed from academic writing and themes into the realm of personal life storytelling and was aimed toward a wider audience. Writing in Parnassus Poetry in Review, Suzanne Fox described Lawrence-Lightfoot’s writing style as “reflective, patient and tender,” and praised Lawrence-Lightfoot for her ability to achieve “tremendous balance” in her work.
The book chronicles the life of Lawrence-Lightfoot’s own mother, Margaret Morgan Lawrence, and also mentions her late father Dr. Charles Lawrence, two people whose struggles embraced the racial, class-related, and educational issues that concerned her. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s mother, for instance, battled to receive equal treatment as an undergraduate at Cornell University, where she was made to reside off-campus. The book also gives readers a sense of Lawrence-Lightfoot’s own life and the paths she chose to follow. The experiences of her father, who was also a sociology professor, and her mother’s inability to gain admission to Cornell’s medical school because of racial prejudice (she went to Columbia Medical School instead and eventually became an eminent Harlem child psychiatrist) illumine Lawrence-Lightfoot’s long-term interest in race, class, and education.
In Publishers Weekly, Richard Newman called Balm in Gilead an “account of the pain of racism, the necessity of its repression and control and the battle to keep anger from exploding and destroying one’s life, a victory not everyone achieves.” Lawrence-Lightfoot told Ms., “I am very interested in the … potential of feminist scholarship that begins to find the connection between thought and feeling and the public expression of large social questions.”
Lawrence-Lightfoot’s I’ve Known Rivers, the title of which comes from a poem by Langston Hughes, focuses on six individual middle-aged members of the black middle class, three men and three women, and provides in-depth interviews with each about their lives and families. Her profiles included Katie Cannon, a theology professor whose parents were share croppers in North Carolina, and Charles Ogletree, a leading criminal defense lawyer who never forgot a childhood friend sent to prison for life. She selected them, she said during an interview in Publishers Weekly, “not because they are famous, but because they are known in their particular communities and fields as being very good at what they do…. I very much wanted people from different walks of life, from different geographical origins and different social class backgrounds. I wanted to chart different journeys.” The journeys many of these black Americans took were from indigence to privilege.
Lawrence-Lightfoot also has spoken of the book’s dual nature, that of telling the stories of her subjects and “chronicl[ing] the developing relationship between [her] and the storytellers.” In Publishers Weekly she said, “My voice is revealed—and quite purposely so—in the text, in showing how intimate the development of our relationships became. Each one is idiosyncratic and personal,” adding that “people tell stories not to walls, but as part of a developing relationship with the listener.” Her book gives the impression of blending sociology and biography with oral storytelling and even therapy. According to Karen De Witt in the New York Times, “Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot asked her subjects to talk about their lives, to describe the seminal experience—the relations with family and friends, with spouses and siblings and with work—that have brought them to middle age. Each person’s story touches on historical milestones: the civil rights era, the Vietnam war, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, the Rodney King trial.”
The book received mixed reviews. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented, “Each subject, whom she interviewed over a period of several years, reveals something thought-provoking … [but] … the author has avoided some probing questions, such as the relationships of two subjects with white spouses. Also, [she] allows the narratives to meander, following the line of her interview sessions; she might have done more to mold her subjects’ stories.” Generally, Lawrence-Lightfoot sometimes has been criticized for having an overly academic prose style.
On a more positive note, Donna M. Williams of Ms. magazine described Lawrence-Lightfoot as “a keen and compassionate observer of human behavior” and concluded that “through the long and often arduous process of reflection and introspection, Lawrence-Lawrence-Lightfoot allows us to experience the intimacy of the interviewing process—the warm, awkward, and revealing moments—and through her telling and interpretations of these stories, she reveals herself as well.”
Lawrence-Lightfoot wrote I’ve Known Rivers in part as a reaction to the late professor E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, after being exposed to Frazier’s book about the black middle class as a Harvard graduate student in sociology and previously as a teenager during Sunday dinners when she listened to her family and their middle-class intellectual black friends—among them the psychologist Kenneth Clark—discussing the book. She came to consider Frazier’s book, published in 1957, to be short sighted.
Broadly, it contended that when middle-class blacks are absorbed into mainstream white society they deliberately leave their roots behind, becoming estranged from the black community as a whole. This contention, Lawrence-Lightfoot believed, did not seem to apply to her family or herself. In the New York Times she said, “I want to challenge caricatures and stereotypes and those typical static categories used in the social sciences.”
Over the years, Lawrence-Lightfoot has developed a rich and broad philosophy about her role as a teacher and teaching itself. As she told Moyers, “In our schools, students are mostly trained to get to the answer quickly. Part of teaching is helping students learn how to tolerate ambiguity, consider possibilities, and ask questions that are unanswerable…. In some sense you have to see yourself reflected in the eyes of those you teach—or at least see your destiny reflected in them…. When teachers can’t imagine themselves in their students, when there is no reflection back and forth, then there can be pernicious, discriminatory behavior on the part of the teacher, which is often expressed quite passively. This happens in a lot of schools where kids are very poor or predominantly minority or speak another language.”
Concerning the improvement of our country’s schools, an issue that has gained public attention in the 1990s, Lawrence-Lightfoot said to Moyers, “There are all kinds of suggestions for school reform that I absolutely agree with. We need to build schools smaller. We need to give teachers much more of a say in developing curriculum and in seeing themselves as major educational actors in the school and the community. We have to find ways of engaging parents or caretakers in the work of the school and building bridges between families and schools.”
Aside from writing books, teaching, and doing research, Lawrence-Lightfoot gives lectures and has served on professional committees and national boards, among them the National Academy of Education, the Boston Globe, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She also has been a fellow at Radcliffe College’s Bunting Institute and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and has received many honorary doctoral degrees.
Worlds Apart: Relationships Between Families and Schools, Basic Books, 1978.
(With Jean V. Carew) Beyond Bias: Perspectives on Classrooms, Harvard University Press, 1979.
The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture, Basic Books, 1983.
Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer (biography), Addison-Wesley, 1988.
I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, edited by Betty Sue Flowers, Doubleday, 1989, pp. 156–166.
Contemporary Authors, Gale Research, Volume 142, 1994, pp. 251–252.
Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara, Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer, Addison-Wesley, 1988.
Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara, The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture, Basic Books, 1983.
BOMC News, November 1994, p.5.
Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1988; August 19, 1990.
Choice, May 1979, p. 431.
Detroit Free Press, September 18, 1994.
Essence, October 1994, p. 70.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 23, 1983, p. 3; January 29, 1989, p. 1.
Ms. magazine, September/October 1994, p.77.
New Republic, January 23, 1984, p. 40.
New York Times, August 31, 1994, pp. C1, C8.
New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1988, p. 7.
Parnassus Poetry in Review, Volume 17, number 1, p. 132.
Publishers Weekly, July 24, 1978, p. 88*; July 11, 1994, p. 69; September 5, 1994, pp. 80, 82.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Wendy Angus, at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
—Alison Carb Sussman
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