In Memoriam: Yvonne Brown

[ By: Victoria Garcia Unzueta ]

Yvonne Brown (April 18, 1977 – November 26, 2021)

The Project on the History of Black Writing mourns the passing of author and educator Yvonne Brown who passed away recently due to COVID-19.

Yvonne Brown was the author of the acclaimed novel, Crying Girl (2019) and the founder of the Crying Girl Movement, which started as a marketing campaign for her novel, but evolved into a movement that encourages women from all walks of life to share their stories and express their inner strength. Brown’s writing has been published in the Chasing Rainbows blog, The Voices and Maryland Writers Project, broadcasted on Radio One and highlighted in PAPER magazineBrown was also the original director for Lyrikal Storm Arts and Edutainment, a Youth Poet Laureate Program.

Crying Girl is a remarkable novel of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into both Iran and uniquely vibrant Iranian woman and her American daughter. Yvonne Brown has written a novel permeated by hardship, triumph, and the intense love between mother and daughter. -Jasmin Darznik, Song of a Captive Bird

Dr. Maryemma Graham, Yvonne Brown and her daughters at the James A. Porter Gallery of Afro-American Art

“I helped Yvonne edit her novel Crying Girl and it was such a labor of love for her. She appreciated literature and writing so much and was deeply invested in the process of crafting this intensely personal narrative”, said Sarah Arbuthnot Lendt, HBW Program Coordinator.

In 2005, while working as an English teacher at Parkdale High School, Brown was selected as one of 29 scholars chosen to participate in HBW’s NEH funded Summer Institute, Language Matters II: Reading and Teaching Toni Morrison. From there, Brown went on to work for the Toni Morrison Society for 15 years in different capacities, ranging from archivist to her most current role as Social Media Chair.

“Yvonne made us acutely aware of why persistence pays off. From the first time I met her at our Language Matters Institute, it was clear that “doing it later” was unacceptable to her. She was passionate about Morrison’s work; she was passionate about everything, and her support for the Toni Morrison Society was invaluable. We could count on her as a thought partner, always one to think outside the box. Yvonne forged her own path and leaves a legacy which Layla and Samira as well as the rest of us will always cherish. I urge everyone to read Crying Girl,” said Maryemma Graham, HBW Founder.

Brown is survived by her two daughters Layla and Samira, and her siblings Darlene Sagheer, Kevin Brown, and Eric Brown. A Go Fund Me to support Brown’s daughters is currently taking donations. If you’d like to donate and send your condolences, click here.




“I remember you. You’re the Crying Girl.” – Toni Morrison, Northern Kentucky University July 2005


Victoria Garcia Unzueta, currently serves as the Social Media Coordinator for the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) where she manages the social media team and organizes the content that’s featured on HBW’s blog and social media sites. She is a junior studying journalism with an emphasis in strategic communications. Her future plans are to work in advertising helping non-profits or internationally focused businesses. Victoria joined the HBW team their freshman year as an Emerging Scholar undergraduate research assistant. She worked with the social media team to curate blog posts and social media content. They also worked on HBW’s 2020 Black Literary Suite “Black Writing in Reel Time” where she helped research and write.


New Hurston Studies and Beyond

[ By: Christopher Peace and Jade Harrison ]

The following is the third installment of a three-part series recapping the events of the Project on the History of Black Writing’s 2021 NEH Summer Institute, Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future.

Dr. Kevin Quashie, author of Black Aliveness, or A Poetics of Being (2021), spoke about Zora Neale Hurston’s ever-evolving work as a literary theorist during the final week of HBW’s NEH Summer Institute. “What we have in Hurston’s dossier is an ambivalent theory of Black critique,” he stated, “one that resists, or refuses, the need for Black culture to be made more static than it is.” Movement, adaptability, and resistance are terms that articulate Hurston’s timeless influence and classic expressions for Black literary criticism and pedagogy. Reflecting HBW’s goals to advance teaching and research in African American literature through professional development opportunities and collaborative partnerships, the final week of Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future focused on Hurston as a canonical Black woman theorist as well as the speculative implications of her literary and ethnographic work. Week 3 encompassed pre-recorded lectures and papers from a variety of literary and cultural scholars paving new trajectories for Hurston studies; along with Dr. Quashie, Dr. LaMonda Horton-Stallings and Dr. Giselle Anatol also presented throughout the week. Primary readings such as Katori Hall’s play Hoodoo Love, Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Brown Girl in the Ring, and Peter Bagge’s graphic biography Fire!! encouraged the NEH Summer Scholars to think about nuanced and non-traditional approaches to studying Hurston’s oeuvre in tandem with rich discussions generated by participants and faculty over the course of the Institute. Participants questioned how Hurston studies can become a measure for reassessing and reimagining the author’s work and African American literature of the past, present, and future more broadly. At the end of Week 3, NEH Summer Scholars built intellectual and collegial connections by sharing their discoveries about Hurston studies through a series of presentations which emphasized the scholarly impact of her legacy on their own classroom pedagogies and research interests.

The Institute helped develop strategies for teaching African American literature by examining how Hurston’s intellectual and philosophical imaginings advance a way of reading texts and an ethos of interpretation. Dr. Quashie distinguished critique studies as asking the general questions about how one reads (i.e., “whether you’re reading to unearth something there, where you’re reading as a reparative act, or with a kind of openness”), while criticism is the practice of accessing and analyzing a text. Scholars shared some of their challenging experiences teaching at predominantly white institutions and having students challenge their reading interpretation and assignment choices. Responding to the racial and gender dynamics of such encounters in the classroom, Quashie mentioned we should remember that a part of reading a Black-authored text is reading it in an anti-Black, misogynist world. “What is our orientation to reading, and what is our responsibility?” he asked in the discussion. “Reading is not a transparent act. That’s why I lean on critique studies. Let’s think of what it is to try to read or behold a text.”

Reading and interpretation became central themes for the remaining sessions of the week. Dr. LaMonda Horton-Stallings, author of Mutha’ Is Half A Word: Intersection of Folklore, Vernacular, Myth, and Queerness in Black Female Culture (2007) and The Afterlives of Kathleen Collins: A Black Woman Filmmaker’s Search for New Life (2021) joined us for a discussion titled “Zora Neale Hurston, the Canonization of a Not-So Indigenous Trickster.” In her presentation, Horton-Stallings mentioned how her research on Black female sexuality led her to include an interdisciplinary approach and to connect with fields and themes such as Black studies, folklore, and temporality. During the session, NEH Summer Scholar Lyndon Gill, who co-facilitated the discussion with Scholar Angela Watkins, connected how Horton-Stallings sees queerness as methodological and form-instructing in his own understanding of Hurston as a “Southern queer” doing queer work in the broadest sense of the term—a queerness that is “self-aware…it can weave in and out of different scenes and expectations.” Gill asked what ways Hurston’s “play, experimentation, and trickster performativity” inform our exploratory work as academics while adhering to certain pedagogical forms that the institution normalizes. Horton-Stallings responded by saying, “[Hurston’s] willingness to keep working in different forms is about not being just an authentic Black folk person, but how the form allows her to queer the ways in which people are trying to position her in each field or in each artistic tradition.”

KU Associate Professor of English and author of The Things That Fly in the Night: Female Vampires in Literature of the Circum-Caribbean and African Diaspora (2015), Dr. Giselle Anatol, generated a discussion about the speculative nature of Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic research, particularly its immersions into and documentation of the folk practices of people of African descent. NEH Summer Scholars Gary Ford and Sondra Washington led the discussion for Dr. Anatol’s lecture on the Afro-Caribbean figure of the soucouyant in relation to Hurston’s Mules and Men as well as Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring and Nisi Shawl’s “The Tawny Bitch.” Two of the primary readings of the week, Hopkinson’s and Shawl’s fiction integrate Afro-Caribbean folklore, magical realism, and feminist speculative fiction. The discussion encouraged participants to think about how writers like Hurston and Hopkinson create empowering illustrations of conjure and hoodoo that uplift Black women and resist negative depictions of black magic that frequently circulate in popular genres like literature and film.

On the last day of the Institute, Summer Scholars presented their works-in-progress which extended discussions of Hurston’s impact, recovery, and endowment. As a tradition in HBW’s NEH Summer Institutes, the concluding forum fostered participants’ integration of materials and future collaboration in publication, teaching, and conferences. The closing presentations introduced Summer Scholars’ fields of research and their unique approach to the future of Hurston’s studies. Some Scholars’ presentations focused on Hurston’s work exclusively, and others were inspired to return to their previous Hurston scholarship to recontextualize their work within contemporary research. For his presentation, Scholar Johnny Jones examined a series of Black plays through the lens of what he called “poetics of the Black vernacular,” and he used Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression” as a foundational text to understand Black theatre and experiment with creating Black plays. Scholars Michelle Jones, Ayana Weekley, and Jackie Jones discussed potential methods to include Hurston’s lesser-known texts, such as Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Seraph and the Suwanee, and Barracoon, in the classroom.  Finally, other participants put Hurston in conversation with figures from other disciplinary backgrounds. For example, Scholar Gary Ford, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Lehman College and a civil rights lawyer, compared Hurston with famous civil rights activist and state senator Constance Baker Motley, who wrote the brief that later became Brown v. Board of Education. Although Hurston criticized the landmark decision (she did not believe Black people or Black communities were tragic or less than) and Motley was an advocate for integration in public schools, both women were ahead of their times in terms of fighting against racism and sexism. Inspired by the discussion initiated by his presentation, Ford suggested he might write an article on the two women to examine integration and diversity more closely in the future.

HBW’s Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future created a virtual space for reexamining Zora Neale Hurston’s work within her historical moment and within the everchanging contemporary contexts of culture and knowledge production. In returning to Hurston’s work, NEH Summer Scholars created a community of Hurston-philes during the Institute that will hopefully last beyond it. Once a neglected figure within American and African American literature despite her successful writing career during the Harlem or New Negro Renaissance, Hurston is now a permanent fixture in both literary canons. HBW hosted Hurston on the Horizon to convene scholars interested in analyzing emerging trends in Hurston studies, developing new pedagogical approaches to Hurston’s canon, and imagining new directions for Hurston studies. The Institute’s study of Hurston is part of HBW’s larger commitment to recovering Black literature across the diaspora and facilitating innovative, multidisciplinary scholarship about Black writing and culture. Beginning with HBW’s first NEH Summer Institute on teaching African American literature from Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison at Northeastern University in 1993, such convenings have been a long running staple in HBW’s history. The 7th HBW NEH Summer Institute at the University of Kansas, Hurston on the Horizon is also the last one directed by HBW’s founding director, Dr. Maryemma Graham, who is retiring from teaching in December 2021. Dr. Graham’s 41-year teaching and research career includes her dedication to students, her recruitment and mentoring of faculty, and her impactful contributions to the fields of African American literary studies and digital humanities. Institute co-director and KU Associate Professor of English and WGSS, Dr. Ayesha Hardison, follows in Dr. Graham’s footsteps, as she became the new director of HBW at the start of the 2021 Institute.

NEH Summer Scholars’ discussion of Hurston’s work has continued throughout the fall and will continue into January 2022. The Institute’s mini conference, which was planned initially to coincide with the 33rd ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville, FL, will now take place online in January. The mini conference will allow Summer Scholars to refine their Hurston-oriented projects and will include Institute faculty and invited guest speakers. Meanwhile, the Institute’s “First Fridays” public webinars have extended Hurston Studies to public audiences and placed Hurston in conversation with contemporary writers and scholars celebrating her legacy. For the third and final installment of HBW’s post-Institute webinar series, Dr. Lindsey Stewart, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis, will discuss her book The Politics of Black Joy: Zora Neale Hurston and Neo-Abolitionism (2021) on December 3rd. NEH Summer Scholar Leah Milne will moderate this discussion. Please register to join us as we conclude our exploration of Hurston’s life and legacy!


We are celebrating Dr. Maryemma Graham’s 41-year teaching and research career, which has included her commitment to students, her recruitment and mentoring of faculty, her contributions to the fields of literary studies and digital humanities, and her vision for her beloved Project on the History of Black Writing. We invite you to join us in supporting the work of students employed by HBW, by donating to the Amandla Excellence Fund. Named in honor of Marona Amandla Graham-Bailey, Dr. Graham’s late daughter, and a graduate student at the time of her passing, The Amandla Excellence Fund will support all facets of student professional development.  Donate today!


Christopher Peace has a B.A. in Writing from Mississippi College and an M.A. in Literature from Jackson State University.  He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, pursuing a degree in rhetoric and composition. Some of his academic interests include Zora Neale Hurston, spatial rhetorics, African American religious practices, and ecocomposition. At HBW, he has worked with the Black Book Interactive Project and Black Literary Suite teams; he also served as a graduate intern for the ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville, Florida.


Jade Harrison is a third-year doctoral student in English studying late-twentieth century African American women’s literature and compliments her literary studies in the Digital Humanities. She is currently a member of the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) and serves as Project Manager for the Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) at the University of Kansas.

The “Other Hurston”- Broadening Communal and Digital Spaces

[ By: Christopher Peace and Jade Harrison ]

Part two of our three-part series recapping the events of The Project on the History of Black Writing’s NEH Summer Institute “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future”.

Week 2 of HBW’s NEH Summer Institute Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future focused on different approaches to Hurston’s career by attending to her neglected texts, namely her ethnographies, journalism, and stage productions. Since the 1970s, critics have engaged with Hurston’s writing mostly through one genre (literature), one location (an undifferentiated South), and a certain set of themes (romance and language). Week 2 welcomed pre-recorded lectures or papers from a diverse selection of distinguished Hurston scholars, including Dr. Deborah Plant and Dr. Carla Kaplan. Additionally, Institute faculty Dr. Nicole Hodges Persley, director of the KC Melting Pot Theatre, and Dr. Lisa Pecot-Hébert, director of graduate journalism at USC Annenberg, brought their expertise to the Institute’s study of Hurston’s plays and series of articles for the Pittsburgh Courier. Drawing on this scholarly framing, NEH Summer Scholars addressed the effects of critics’ monolithic engagement by examining her unproduced plays Polk County and Cold Keener; less popular novels Moses, Man of the Mountain and Seraph on the Suwannee, recently published ethnography Barracoon, newspaper coverage of the Ruby McCollum case, and archived ethnographical audio material and film footage from the Library of Congress.

Combining their own specialized knowledge from a range of fields including Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies, Anthropology, Theatre and Performance studies, African and African Diaspora studies, Sociology, and Literary studies, NEH Summer Scholars’ diverse backgrounds illuminated the wide-ranging impact of Hurston as well as the expansiveness of her corpus. In the spirit of collaborative study, the Scholars were grouped together to lead discussions about research methodologies and their pedagogical implications with visiting faculty throughout the Institute. For example, Professors Amy Foley and LaToya Jefferson James discussed Dr. Deborah Plant’s lecture “Hurston, Innovation, and Ethnography.” Setting the tone for Scholars’ deep dive into the lesser studied aspects of Hurston, Dr. Plant notes in her presentation that “what we want to know about [Hurston], we’re not going to find out through her field notes—who she was as a social scientist precedes her academic training. There’s something about genius that you can’t explain.”

Dr. Plant’s second presentation of the week, “Teaching Ethnography,” also facilitated a rich discussion led by Professors Jalylah Burrell and Stephen Pasqualina. These Summer Scholars explored the Black feminist and womanist implications of Hurston’s research methods and ethnographic practices. Professor Paula White asked about Dr. Plant’s anthropological scholarship on Hurston and about the “key differences between womanist anthropologists and black feminist anthropologists in how they [framed] Hurston’s contributions to the field.” Dr. Plant explained how a part of her research has been to question what Black female anthropologists have been saying about Hurston in their scholarship. Hurston’s ethnographic studies make it possible to trace and analyze the interdisciplinary, literary, and historical foundations of Black feminist anthropology. During this conversation, Plant explained that most anthropologists writing about Hurston’s ethnographic work identified as Black feminists, not womanists. Dr. Plant reminded participants that “when we go back to the term [‘womanist’], and the creator of that term, Alice Walker, she’ll say ‘a womanist is a black feminist,’ [and] when we look at what womanism encapsulates in terms of Walker’s several noted definitions of it, we see it embraces exactly what black feminist anthropologists are doing; they’re taking that holistic, humanistic, revolutionary approach to anthropology.” Hurston’s ethnographic research about Black life serves as an opportunity for Black feminist anthropologists to trace their intellectual and anthropological histories.

NEH Summer Scholars, which included tenured and untenured faculty as well as three graduate students, came from a range of universities and institutions across the U.S. such as the University of California (Irvine), University of Arkansas, University of Miami, and City University of New York to name a few. The twenty-five participants showed up virtually to each session excited to delve into intellectually enriching discussions about Hurston’s work and the Institute’s assigned readings, as well as their own discoveries about Hurston. Although the Institute was originally planned to take place at the University of Kansas in person, co-directors Ayesha Hardison and Maryemma Graham decided to shift the Institute online due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. While a residential Institute would have allowed the Scholars to connect with each other in person while exploring university resources and the social scene of Lawrence, Kansas, convening virtually displayed the best of virtual collaboration and knowledge sharing in the digital space.

Scholars used the Zoom chat space to highlight and deepen critical points that enhanced the discussions by providing a wealth of adjacent sources that demonstrated Hurston’s intersectional impact. From pedagogical suggestions to literary criticism, Scholars used the chat space to mirror and expand the rigorous exchanges happening during the synchronous sessions, creating a multi-layered, resourceful approach that could only happen digitally. For instance, Professor Jerrica Jordan shared an online annotation of Phillis Wheatley’s most famous poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” that includes images and explanations which help her students understand the importance of Wheatley’s poetry. Wheatley, taken from Senegal/Gambia, West Africa around age 7 and sold into slavery to a Boston family in the 18th century, was the first African American and one of the first women to write a book of poetry. Wheatley and Hurston unapologetically wrote about similar topics of race, Black consciousness, and religion. In addition to these two literary foremothers, NEH Summer Scholars made matrilineal literary connections between other Black women writers and Hurston, especially when sharing digital resources for pedagogical practice.

The Institute relied heavily on digital tools and resources while prioritizing accessibility and collaboration to help bridge the divide between traditional and newer technologies. During the end of the second week, Dr. Nicole Hodges Persley and performers from the KC Melting Pot Theatre (KCMPT) adapted a staged reading of Hurston’s sketches Poker! and Woofing on Zoom. KCMPT actors and actresses presented a lively performance, coupled with music and props, while the audience responded visually by using emojis on screen and commenting in the chat. After the reading, Dr. Hodges Persley, some of the actors, and Institute faculty engaged in a “talk back” exploring the major connections raised during the performance.

Apart from Zoom, Scholars collaborated and got to know each other by using other designated online spaces and platforms, including virtual discussion boards, happy hour events, and one-on-one meetings with Week 2 Institute faculty. For instance, one discussion board called “Hurston Show N’ Tell,” provided an opportunity for participants to post any personal interests, pictures, videos, or memorabilia about Hurston. Professor Johnny Jones posted a photo of his copy of Hurston and Langston Hughes’ play Mule Bone from the Lincoln Center Theatre 1991 production in New York City. Another Summer Scholar, Valerie Kelco, shared a few photos of Hurston’s singed papers, which were rescued from a house fire and later housed at the University of Florida Libraries in 1961. Not only were participants able to share their Hurston memorabilia, but the discussion board also provided a digital space for the Scholars to hold conversations through different comment threads about the items other participants shared. Scholars enjoyed these personal exchanges while also engaging the scholarship discussed during group sessions and faculty presentations.

Looking forward to the final week of the Institute, NEH Summer Scholars expanded their engagement with intellectual community building by refining their group and individual projects, which had creative, scholarly, and pedagogical aims. Their works-in-progress served as an opportunity to advance the Hurston-related projects they discussed in their applications to the Institute or to begin conceptualizing new projects informed by their reading and discussions during the Institute.

On November 5th, as the second installment of HBW’s post-Institute public webinar series, New York Times best-selling author, Tayari Jones, will lead the audience in a discussion about Hurston’s intellectual contributions and creative genius. Please register to join us as we resume our exploration of Hurston’s life and legacy.


Christopher Peace has a B.A. in Writing from Mississippi College and an M.A. in Literature from Jackson State University.  He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, pursuing a degree in rhetoric and composition. Some of his academic interests include Zora Neale Hurston, spatial rhetorics, African American religious practices, and ecocomposition. At HBW, he has worked with the Black Book Interactive Project and Black Literary Suite teams; he also served as a graduate intern for the ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville, Florida.


Jade Harrison is a third-year doctoral student in English studying late-twentieth century African American women’s literature and compliments her literary studies in the Digital Humanities. She is currently a member of the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) and serves as Project Manager for the Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) at the University of Kansas.

The Project on the History of Black Writing Mourns Melvin Van Peebles

[ By: Meleah Perez ]

Melvin Van Peebles passed away Sept. 21, 2021, at the age of 89, but his legacy lives on in the Project on the History of Black Writing database. Many in the cinema industry regard him as a pioneer, a trailblazer, a giant, but before Van Peebles was the godfather of Black cinema, he was Van Peebles, the writer.

PC: Wombat Publishing

Like many before him, Van Peebles discovered that his dreams and goals for life seemed impossible to realize in the US. It was the 1950s, and he wanted to become a Hollywood director. At the time, film had even more rigid obstacles than it does now. The industry was primarily, if not entirely, old white men. Oscar Williams, a writer and film director, said, “It’s Hollywood holding onto its established order so that no one else can get in and get a piece of that money,” in the 1984 documentary Black Hollywood: Blaxploitation and Advancing an Independent Black Cinema.

Unable to make any headway, Van Peebles left for France, joining a host of writers and artists who formed an expatriate community. Once in France, he discovered that writers could adapt their novels into movies. He learned the language and began writing novels in French, which led to a number of titles, including Un Américain en Enfer (1965), La Fête a Harlem (1967), and La Permission (1967), all of which are included in HBW’s corpus. He went on to adapt La Permission into the movie, The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967). When Van Peebles made the film, in the ’60s, Black directors were still few and far in between — in France as well as the US — if not unheard of altogether. He, therefore, wrote and directed the film himself.

PC: Vinegar Syndrome

It wouldn’t be until June of 2020 — 50 years later — that The New Yorker’s Richard Brody would describe the movie as “among the great American films of the sixties,” with “powerful insights and teeming imagination.” At the time of its release, the movie also gained some recognition when it premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival.

This drew the attention of American audiences, leading to his American debut, Watermelon Man in 1970. The next year, Van Peebles released his most well-known film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971).

In his lifetime, Van Peebles was a director, producer, actor, playwright, and composer. Through all of his successes, he continued to write and publish novels.


The Black Book Interactive Project, or BBIP, has several works by Van Peebles, including his books in French. Titles include:

Un Américain en Enfer [An American Hell] (1965)

A Bear for the FBI (1968)

La Fête a Harlem [The Party in Harlem] (1967)

Just an Old Sweet Song (1976)

La Permission [The Permission] (1967)

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

True American: A Folk Fable (1976)


Titles that will be added:

Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973)

Panther (1995)

In The True American: A Folk Fable, Van Peebles wrote in his opening lines:

“Once upon a time, long long ago, but not so far away, George Abraham Carver was born in a place called Georgia. The first time he lived he never traveled more than a hundred and fifty miles from the shack in which he was born. For one thing, he was a marked child… In fact, for one, two, and some militants and maybe some sociologists would say three things, he was a marked child — he was Black,” (page 1).

PC: Festival de Cannes

This was the defining condition for many of his characters — being Black in America. Through his books and films, Van Peebles furthered a shift in the representation of African Americans. He liked to broach the taboo: politics, stereotypes, hypersexuality, and bigotry.

Because of his dedication to his many talents, he not only made an impact on Black cinema but also Black literature. To keep his written words alive and accessible, just as with many African American writers, BBIP has preserved his books in its digital archive. The ability to engage with his books allows readers and scholars to remember Van Peebles and to begin to understand the world through his eyes.



Melvin Van Peebles, Champion of New Black Cinema, Dies at 89

A Giant of Black Cinema, Melvin Van Peebles Dies at 89

Melvin Van Peebles, Godfather of Black Cinema, Dies at 89


Meleah Perez is is a poetry MFA student at the University of Kansas. She has a B.A. from the University of Arkansas in both journalism and creative writing. Her passions are wide-ranging and impossible to count, but among them are creative writing, anti-racism, Scorpio season, yoga, and her dog, Sadie. Meleah is currently a member of the Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) as a collections assistant at KU and hopes to create a bubble of inclusivity wherever she goes.

Hurston’s Canon: Into the Mysteries of Zora Neale Hurston

[By: Christopher Peace]

The following is the first installment of a three-part series recapping the events of The Project on the History of Black Writing’s NEH Summer Institute “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future”.

Logo for Hurston on the Horizon

Zora Neale Hurston’s literary and anthropological influence remains constantly relevant in today’s scholarship, and it continues to invite multiple audiences into the depths of her mysteries. The Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) in collaboration with the Association for the Preservation of the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.) held the virtual National Endowment for the Humanities Institute “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future” July 11-30, 2021. For three weeks, twenty-five Summer Scholars took a deep, expansive dive into Hurston’s popular and lesser-known works. While the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has long had widespread popularity within the African American literary canon, Hurston wrote at least seven short stories, four novels, an ethnography, and ten plays that remained unpublished during her lifetime yet existed among additional materials archived in the Library of Congress. Hurston’s boundary crossing engagement with various publics, language, new technologies, gender, race, culture, and the South became a blueprint for intersectionality as she appealed to educated society and “the folk” alike. Through synchronous and asynchronous meetings, the Institute connected Hurston’s critical approaches to today’s conversations in the humanities by asking 3 major questions: (1) What are the evolving and developing patterns in Hurston studies? (2) How can new technologies innovate pedagogies and enhance our understanding of Hurston’s canon? (3) Where does Hurston’s legacy fit into larger discussions about rethinking the past, present, and future meaning of African American literature and culture studies? By exploring answers to these questions, the Institute inspired participants, faculty, and staff to expand their reach into Hurston studies.

The first week of the Institute was titled “Hurston’s Canon,” where the focus included the Harlem Renaissance, Eatonville, and emerging digital methodologies. We opened with a tribute to Dr. Cheryl Wall who was originally scheduled to be a member of the Institute faculty before her passing in 2020. Her spirit and scholarship remained with us throughout our conversations; Wall’s chapter “On Art and Such: Debating Aesthetics during the Harlem Renaissance” from her book On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The Art of the African American Essay added rich discussions to our interdisciplinary focus on Hurston’s texts. Dr. Deborah McDowell referenced Dr. Wall’s work when explaining how one should read Hurston. “Hurston is invested in keeping things shaken up,” Dr. McDowell pointed out. “As Cheryl Wall mentions, one should read Hurston against the grain…we read Hurston’s lines along with other lines in the interests of complexity.”

Thinking of Hurston’s intersectionality and complex engagement with multiple audiences, Summer Scholars and participating faculty discussed ways in which her work could be more accessible today. Dr. Carmaletta Williams, the executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America and appointed a daughter of Hurston, suggested that the latter’s “archives have to be accessible. We have to make it that people want to read [them]; public scholarship is one of the ways that we do that. We don’t just make scholarly tombs; we have to make them accessible— that’s actually the focus of my writings.” In addition to Williams, N.Y. Nathiri, John Wharton Lowe, and Maryemma Graham were featured in “The Living Legacies” public panel, which focused on cultural preservation, oral histories, archival access, and literary recovery. Dr. Graham discussed how Hurston’s works are constantly being reimagined through the people who knew her. For example, Dr. Graham told stories about her own aunt’s interaction with Hurston and about American poet and writer Margaret Walker including Hurston in her journals. Dr. Lowe, a literary historian and professor of English at the University of Georgia, drew on his text Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Comedy to highlight his working history with Hurston’s influence on the African American humor genre.

Mural Wall in Eatonville, Florida.

Throughout the week, the faculty homed in on Hurston’s childhood town, Eatonville, Florida, while also highlighting Hurston’s birthplace in Notasulga, Alabama and her move to Harlem, New York, where she took part in the Harlem Renaissance. “Hurston and Eatonville are two sides of the same hand,” stated Dr. N.Y. Nathiri, the executive director of P.E.C., “She’s an environmental activist.” Dr. Nathiri heads the ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities, which aims to make Eatonville an internationally recognized cultural tourism destination through Hurston’s legacy. Dr. Williams reiterated Dr. Nathiri’s point about Eatonville as an active influence on Hurston’s identity and scholarship: “Hurston [goes] back to Florida, to home where the land will feed [her], and it’s the place where she can decompress. So, nature is also the space where she can work herself out.”

At the end of the week, Dr. Julian Chambliss saw Eatonville as representing “the Black speculative epistemology…crucial to understanding Hurston’s importance to our current moment.” Chambliss situated Zora Neale Hurston’s work as both an example of the counterstorying practice project central to Afrofuturism and a model to rethink the nature of Black cultural knowledge. Along with the ways Afrofuturism employs race and technology, Summer Scholars engaged with Dr. Sylvia Fernández and HBW’s Black Book Interactive Project Manager Jade Harrison to learn about digital humanities methodology to not only preserve Hurston but situate her in the twenty-first century.

From the novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine to the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, the first week revisited Hurston’s classic works while also putting those works in new scholarly contexts. Although rigorous and informative, the Institute also aimed to create a community of support among the Summer Scholars. Outside of the 3 to 4 hours of synchronous meetings each weekday, participants met online for more relaxed conversations. To address Zoom fatigue, Dr. Giselle Anatol led a breathing meditation toward the end of the week to recenter participants during the sessions. Leaning into the mystery of Hurston, and encouraging our ongoing study of her boldness as well as her subtleties, Dr. Glenda Carpio, Harvard University professor, succinctly stated, “‘If you can’t be free, be a mystery.’ This wonderful phrase is very Hurston; she made herself a mystery. She didn’t want to be typecast in any way. The inspiration was to be a mystery.”  Hurston’s mysteries entice further dives into her works and invites contemporary methodologies into the complexities of her timeless influence.

To sustain the Institute’s intellectual engagement, three post-Institute events will further explore Hurston’s scholarship. Editor and journalist Valerie Boyd, New York Times best-selling author Tayari Jones, and University of Memphis philosophy professor Lindsey Stewart will discuss the Harlem Renaissance writer’s life and legacy in this webinar series, which is open to the public and begins this Friday, October 1. Please register to join us as we continue the conversation.


Christopher Peace has a B.A. in Writing from Mississippi College and an M.A. in Literature from Jackson State University.  He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, pursuing a degree in rhetoric and composition. Some of his academic interests include Zora Neale Hurston, spatial rhetorics, African American religious practices, and ecocomposition. At HBW, he has worked with the Black Book Interactive Project and Black Literary Suite teams; he also served as a graduate intern for the ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville, Florida.

The Black Book Interactive Project

[ By: Jade Harrison ]

The Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) is the digital component of the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW). A collaborative research model, it increases the number of Black-authored texts available for scholarly engagement and teaching.  Founded in 2010, based on a pilot project created by then graduate student Kenton Rambsy, now a professor at the University of Texas-Arlington, BBIP has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Our collection features over 4,000 Black-authored texts and descriptive metadata, making it the largest digital archive of its kind. Project Manager, Jade Harrison wrote an update on the work BBIP has done this past year.

During Fall 2020, the BBIP team completed a large-scale inventory assessment of the BBIP corpus, which contained 3,159 fiction titles. The team also cleaned and organized BBIP’s vast collection of titles according to original publication title, original publication date, publication decade, author gender, author race, retrieval location, and status of the text. We have scanned 1,668 texts as PDF files, and successfully identified and confirmed 1,491 titles in the BBIP corpus awaiting digitization. One of the student digital assistants is Alejandro Rangel-Lopez.

Rangel-Lopez is a third-year Political Science and Public Administration undergraduate student.

“At BBIP, I serve as the resident “OCR expert” and aside from converting files, I train others who come along to work with me on the process. This year, my colleagues Grace, Andi and I have made great progress on processing all of our existing .pdf files into .html files. In fact, we’ve processed roughly 300+ files this summer alone. Those files we have converted should be ready to be uploaded to the Philologic interface developed by the Textual Optics Lab at the University of Chicago. For this upcoming academic year, I’m excited to continue working on OCR and reintegrating the scanning process into our workflow again, which we’ve had to do remotely due to the pandemic,” said Rangel-Lopez, BBIP Collections Assistant.

In October 2020, HBW formed a collaboration with the HathiTrust Research Center. BBIP subsequently became a flagship project for “Scholar-Curated Worksets for Re-use, Dissemination, and Analysis (SCWAReD),” funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  SCWAReD aims to create and foster scholar-curated worksets that highlight specific topics, disciplines and themes related to historically under-resourced and marginalized communities. The HBW corpus is currently the largest known digital collection of African American fiction in existence, which underscores the importance of the partnership with HTRC, the largest digital library in existence.

Brendan Williams-Childs is a second-year MFA student with an emphasis on fiction.

“Working with SCWAReD is a learning process in a good way. From a grad student perspective, it’s opened up a lens on how complicated collaborations can be but has also underscored that the sorts of projects the teams are all working on that couldn’t be done without those partnerships,” said Williams-Childs, BBIP Collections Assistant and HBW’s SCWAReD Project GRA.

In March 2021, BBIP Project Manager, Jade Harrison, along with two graduate student Collection Assistants, Brendan Williams-Childs and Ashley Simmons, created a revised metadata schema with 21 categories that account for biographical, bibliographic, historical, and literary text-specific information about Black writers and their corresponding works of fiction regardless of canonical status. We have utilized this schema to guide our efforts in finding pertinent information about critically recognized and lesser-known Black writers and texts to build “The Black Fiction Dataset.” This dataset will serve as an accessible and sustainable digital collection of searchable information about the Black authors in our corpus and their published fiction since the 19th century.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how the worksets will look and what people will create based on their research! Jade and Ashley are both working on dissertations that should be able to utilize the results of the SCWAReD collaboration, which is great, “Williams-Childs noted.

Starting July 1, 2021, new funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities – Humanities Collections and Reference Resources division supports phase III of BBIP. The goal is to complete the digitization of 2,100 additional texts, further refinement and application of metadata, and the launch of two new cohorts of the BBIP Scholars Program (2022 and 2023). Learn more about the Black Book Interactive Project here.

Starting July 1, 2021, new funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities – Humanities Collections and Reference Resources division supports phase III of BBIP. The goal is to complete the digitization of 2,100 additional texts, further refinement and application of metadata, and the launch of two new cohorts of the BBIP Scholars Program (2022 and 2023). Learn more about the Black Book Interactive Project here.


Jade Harrison is a third-year doctoral student in English studying late-twentieth century African American women’s literature and compliments her literary studies in the Digital Humanities. She is currently a member of the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) and serves as Project Manager for the Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) at the University of Kansas.

An interview with DeAsia Paige, author of The College Diaries Pt. 2

[ By: Shawna Shipley-Gates ]

In Part II DeAsia Paige and Shawna Shipley-Gates hold a conversation on the impact Black feminism has had on each of their lives and its continued use their everyday experiences. Paige also discusses her current work and plans for the future.

*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity*

The College Diaries (2020)

Shipley-Gates: I’m glad you brought up feminism because I found it very interesting. I personally have a background in sexual health, so my focus is on pleasure and sexual health among Black women. I appreciated you saying that Black feminist scholars are the ones that gave you your first real sex education class. How important was it to demonstrate your commitment to Black feminist scholarship in the book?

Paige: It was a main priority for me because the book had some feminist undertones, and that’s who I am in general.  I knew that had to be in the book. If it wasn’t throughout the book, it had to be a small piece of it. You can’t really know me and understand my experiences and how I’m interpreting them, unless you know that most of my education, what I know today, and how I go through things in my life are because of reading bell hooks, Brittany Cooper and the like. So that was the priority for me.

When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost (1999)

Shipley-Gates: I think that was another piece too, you brought that academic aspect to the book, still making it accessible. Very Brittany Cooper-ish, right? She’s a community engaged scholar, where you were like, “I still want to introduce you all to Black feminism, if you haven’t heard of it before, and how I use it. That it’s accessible, and part of our everyday life, such as providing my first sexual education class.” I love talking about pleasure politics; my first introduction was Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. When you read these pieces, it resonates with your day to day life, which I saw in your book. Sometimes I think people are afraid to integrate academia with mainstream writing or work, period. So kudos to you for explaining it in a way that people can flow right with you.

You mentioned that you have an impactful relationship with music? I thought that was brilliant, that following Black musical artists provided the anthems or soundtracks for this particular time of my life. At what point in your life did you realize that you had such an impactful relationship with music? When did you realize that’s what helps you get through?

Paige: I have a church background and to me the best part of church is the praise and worship section. I grew up singing in the choir as well, so music has always been a way to feel something. In church music is used as a conduit to catch the Holy Ghost, as prayer breaks, they are a popular phenomenon within Black churches. For me, music has always been that way of connecting with some sort of power, feeling, or really anything, and that was really instilled in me from a young age. I went to a Christian school and the Christian church that I went to was affiliated with the Christian school. My mom was in church as well, so our church is in my DNA. I think that’s when I knew. It was always inside of me. As I grew up, I became more interested in secular music, because in the history of music in this country, secular music is derived from gospel music. It wasn’t like I had to shift gears when making that transition to listen to secular music. It was the same thing for me, just in a different format, a different language. But it’s always been in me, since before I can even remember really.

Shipley-Gates: That’s interesting because you said you relied on gospel music quite a bit.  Even when you were grappling with your relationship with church at the time, if nothing else, you can go back to gospel music. I sensed that could have been where it started, but I love to confirm that.

What do you have going on now, since you’ve graduated, since the book is out? What have you been working on?

Paige: Right now my job keeps me pretty busy. I am currently based in St. Louis where I write for the Belleville News Democrat. I cover Black communities in the Metro-East region. What I do is in partnership with Report for America, a national fellowship program for entry level journalists that connects them to newsrooms across the country. I received one of the fellowships and got placed there. Most of my time is dedicated to covering race issues and social issues in the Metro-East. I’m currently working on a story about how Black women and urban farmers are working together to provide food for their communities. It’s a lot of pressure because I am the only Black reporter in my newsroom, so there’s always this pressure of not only doing your job, right, but also trying to make sure that you’re covering your community in a way that they will really enjoy. That basically takes up all my time.

I do freelance music journalism, but I haven’t done that consistently because my job takes up a lot of my time. I did write this piece for Bitch Media about how Black women R&B artists are overlooked in this year’s Grammys. I like to write about the intersection of race, music, and culture. That’s something that I try to do on the side, but my main job takes all that away from me sometimes. I’m trying to get back into it because I really love writing about music.

Shipley-Gates: It’s funny that you mention Bitch Media.  I’ve actually realized since the holiday break, that I really enjoy writing myself. I just realized I like to write about culture and other things focused on pleasure. I just did a Bitch Media article a couple months ago on Heaux Tales by Jazmine Sullivan.

Paige: Oh, I think I might have read that because I was looking at you now, like, I’ve seen her before.

Shipley-Gates: Yeah that was me! My first one, so I was like, I think I like this. It was my inner Brittany Cooper trying to straddle the line between academia and the mainstream. I enjoyed writing and you’re right, it takes a lot out of us to try to commit to what pays the bills and trying to do what we love to do. I’ve had to commit to that but if not, I have my own blog. Blogging and writing these articles are a perfect way to present work like your book in a way that’s more visible and accessible.

Paige: Yeah, what a great project to write about.

Heaux Tales (2021)

Shipley-Gates: Heaux Tales is a perfect example too, of Sullivan being able to share what she’s gone through, but in the musical form. She’s able to say something that people are grappling with – like what’s a good girl? You know, I definitely go there because when it comes to books like yours or articles that we love to write, or just musical artists, people like to be hypocritical, without realizing that there’s a lot that we have in common. However, somebody has got to let you know what we have in common, especially Black women. Don’t be too much on your high horse, she’s saying; you got hoe tales just like anybody else.

It’s good to see that you’re still pushing and that’s awesome. Are you on Instagram, Twitter, where can readers find you?

Paige: They can follow me on Twitter, because I don’t really get on Instagram, but it’s @DeAsia_paige

Shipley-Gates: I know you haven’t really done that much marketing, but we still want to pump you up, especially with the Bitch Media article out, we want to be able to push that as well.

So do you have any thoughts of future projects? Are you thinking of another book? Or are you going a different route? I know, you said that your work is sucking up a lot of your time. But your ideal situation: if there was another 20 hours in a day, what would your future projects look like?

Paige: I’ll definitely be doing more music journalism, for sure. As far as another book, I wrote this book through a program affiliated with Georgetown University that helps you write a book in a year. The process was very rushed, but then there was also the pandemic. I was trying to graduate and move to St. Louis all while finishing the book. I With a lot of things going on, that made the writing process a little bit less enjoyable for me. Now, if I were to do another book I would go at my own pace. Do what I want whenever I want to do it, not a set timeframe, which was just impossible, I don’t know how I did that with everything that was going on, but yeah, I would love to write another book maybe in five years.

Shipley-Gates: Right, you need more material, you need more to report on, but in the meantime, you’re working on musical journalism. Now we can try to see future projects. One last question, what would you say to all of your readers, especially the ones who are, were, or might end up dealing with traumatic experiences, similar to what you experienced in college?

Paige: I would say don’t think that you’re doing too much or that you’re being overdramatic. Don’t beat yourself up too harshly. Just be gentle with yourself and know that your feelings are valid, even when you think that they aren’t. I’m an overthinker, so when you have that compounded with the patriarchy and how men can act, you start to think that maybe I am doing too much. You become overly apologetic for whatever you did, but that’s the patriarchy at work for sure. I want readers to know that they are never alone, never be afraid to advocate for yourself because you’re definitely worth it. For sure.

Shipley-Gates: That was brilliantly said. Any last thoughts or comments that you would love your readers to know about your book that I didn’t ask about?

Paige: This is so crazy. I’m always the one doing the interview and that’s the question I ask people at the end.  I’ve never been asked that question before. But no, I think you’ve covered it. I’m glad that you were interested in doing this, I really appreciate it. The Project on the History of Black Writing connected us for sure, and I’m excited to see how it turns out.

Shipley-Gates: Thank you so much again for being willing to meet with me. Amazing job. I’m proud of you and let’s push this book out, because I think a lot of people need this.

DeAsia’s book can be found here and you can also find part one of the interview here.


Shawna Shipley-Gates is a graduate student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas. Her research interest highlights the cultural literacy of black women’s sexual health and how those cultural experiences can be translated into effective yet sex-positive education; healthcare and wellness practices; and policy and advocacy work. She is also the owner of Cupcake Noire, a sex-positive brand for black cis, trans and non-binary womxn.