The sister of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Christine King Farris is a noted educator in her own right and serves as associate professor of education and director of the Learning Resource Center at Spelman College. The author or co-author of several books, Dr. Farris has come out with a new memoir, Through It All: Reflections on My Life, My Family, and My Faith (Atria, 2010) and was the keynote speaker at the 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Awards, sponsored by the Rollins School of Public Health and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. The winners of this year's awards, which honor people and organizations in greater Atlanta whose work exemplifies the legacy of Dr. King, include Eslene Richmond Shockley for her organization Caring for Others; Haley Schwartz for founding The Breast Cancer Legal Project; the Decatur Cooperative Ministry; the Hudson Family Foundation; Zena's House; the Phoenix Boys Association; Girls on the Run of Atlanta; the Atlanta Community ToolBank; the Zaban Couples Center, the only shelter in Atlanta serving homeless couples without children; and Craig Washington, for his work in furthering the health and well-being of black LGBTQ communities.
After the ceremony, Dr. Farris spoke with Knowledge@Emory about her own career, life, and views on education.
Link to podcast available soon. Podcast transcript:
Knowledge@Emory: Why did you decide to go into education?
Farris: My mother was a teacher and I followed in her footsteps.
Knowledge@Emory: Why did you choose Spelman to make your home?
Farris: I had no alternative. My grandmother went there, my mother, and of course it was an outstanding college for woman. So I chose Spelman.
Knowledge@Emory: You've been teaching for more than 40 years-?
Farris: Fifty. I'm in my 52nd year, really.
Knowledge@Emory: What changes have you seen since you've been there?
Farris: There have been a number of changes. The student body has changed, and in order to keep up with the changes in the world, things are different.
Knowledge@Emory: What sort of changes have you seen in the student body?
Farris: Young women are more aggressive and outspoken, which is why Spelman doesn't believe that women should be quiet and sit in the background. So the students move right ahead in preparing themselves to be leaders.
Knowledge@Emory: In an international survey, American children tend to do less well in education than children from other countries. Why do you think this is?
Farris: I think it has a lot to do with the whole idea of freedom of choice. In other countries, you don't have the same types of freedoms. [In America], students feel they can express themselves and go in the directions they want to go. It's not a lockstep situation.
Knowledge@Emory: So you think that freedom means some people might choose to excel and others won't?
Knowledge@Emory: Historically black colleges have been struggling financially for several years. What do you see for their future?
Farris: We'll keep pushing. It's like it's always been-minorities are low on the totem post. We will continue to push on. We're not going to give up.
Knowledge@Emory: What are some of the advantages a historically black college offers to students, as opposed to a mainstream college?
Farris: Well, it's a mater of identification. That's first of all. It's to understand who you are. If you know who you are, then you can push on and you don't get lost in the crowd like you would in larger universities. I know that I wouldn't have been able to make it at Columbia if I hadn't had a substantial background and knew I had something to offer.
Knowledge@Emory: Why do you say you couldn't have made it at Columbia?'
Farris: I wouldn't have been exposed, and I wouldn't have had the background of knowing who I was as a person. That's very important, particularly when you are around and exposed to others not of your same race. Because I knew who I was, then I was able to adjust and do whatever. Although in many of my classes I was the only black student, and in one class, the only female and the only black.
Knowledge@Emory: How was that class for you?
Farris: It wasn't such a good experience, and I mentioned it in the book. The professor didn't acknowledge me and passed over me . . . When I went to grad school, I wanted to major in business administration because I had worked at the Citizens Trust Bank in the summers when I was in college, and I became interested in finance and banking. I had to go across the campus to the teacher's college, to what we called then Columbia proper. I was the only black woman-only woman-in that class. A few days later a black male joined and the instructor taught class as if we weren't there-didn't give us any recognition. At that point I changed my major.
Knowledge@Emory: What do you see as your greatest achievements?
Farris: Raising my children. And now I'm centered on my grandchild. I'm able to look at them and see that they've made it as contributing citizens and so forth. I think that's a contribution.
Knowledge@Emory: So you put that achievement over even the civil rights struggle and other things?
Farris: Oh yes, because they are the ones who will carry on.
Knowledge@Emory: Do you see yourself retiring?
Farris: (Laughter) Yes, I will retire. I don't know when, because I feel that if I retire, I don't know, it's like going into a shell. I've always been out and doing something. So I am trying to prepare myself, because I am the longest serving faculty member at Spelman.
Knowledge@Emory: Do you have any plans to retire soon?
Farris: Well, I take it day by day, year by year, semester by semester . . . .
Knowledge@Emory: What advice do you give to your Spelman students about life and balancing work and life?
Farris: I want them first of all to know who they are. If you know who you are, then you can contribute to others. If you're swept away and don't know who you are, then you tend to follow others . . . . If you know yourself and are happy with yourself, then you can contribute. That's what I try to impart to my students.