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Why Hurston?

About the Institute

Hurston on the Horizon will provide an in-depth multidisciplinary reassessment of the works of Zora Neale Hurston, as well as her impact on contemporary practices and central themes within academic and public discourse.

In light of the ongoing need to reexamine canonical African American writers within the changing contexts of culture, community, and knowledge production, the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) at the University of Kansas, in cooperation with the Association for the Preservation of the Eatonville (Florida) Community (P.E.C.) will hold a three-week virtual Institute for 25 Higher Education faculty to be held July 11-30, 2021 through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous formats.

Hurston on the Horizon will provide an in-depth multidisciplinary reassessment of the works of Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), as well as her impact on contemporary practices and central themes within academic and public discourse. Co-Directors Ayesha Hardison and Maryemma Graham, building upon the successes of HBW’s previous NEH Institutes, will create an intellectually rich environment for intensive study and collaborative work among NEH Summer Scholars, Institute faculty and practitioners working in a wide range of humanities disciplines.

Despite publishing more than any other Black woman writer during her 30-year career, Zora Neale Hurston’s journey from one of the most neglected figures in American and African American literature to a secure place in the literary canon is significant for understanding the critical turns in 20th-century literary history. Her iconic status emerged after the 1978 reprinting of her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God , a work that has become a permanent fixture in high school and college curricula. A phoenix-like figure whose recovery helped to unleash a new generation of Black women writers, Hurston remains a central figure as the Black Women’s Renaissance approaches its fifth decade.

Most assessments of Hurston focus on her four novels, two collections of folklore, an autobiography, close to 20 short stories, and numerous articles she had published before 1950. However, at least seven short stories, four novels, an ethnography, and ten plays remained unpublished during Hurston’s lifetime and are archived in the Library of Congress. Hurston’s deep commitment to historical and cultural preservation, constant boundary crossing (especially between anthropology and the literary arts), her engagement with and embrace of various publics through the use of new technologies, her appeal to both educated society and “the folk,” and her controversial ideas about language, gender, race, culture, and the South connect directly to today’s conversations in the humanities. The Institute is, as such, an opportunity to present Hurston from a more holistic perspective through a rigorous examination of her continually expanding bibliography.

Within the Institute’s three-week survey of Hurston’s corpus, NEH Summer Scholars will identify significant shifts in critics’ engagement with Hurston, will establish connections between her and the aesthetics of contemporary writers, and will create resources for reinvigorating the study of her entire body of work for humanities courses. During the first week the Institute will explore classic representative works, including Their Eyes and Hurston’s short fiction collected in The Complete Stories (Gates 2008), led by Trudier Harris, a specialist in southern literature. In the second week scholars will work with literary and ethnography studies scholar Deborah Plant to tackle the influx of rich, “new” writing, including the recently published ethnography Barracoon (2018) and the unstaged plays collected in Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell’s Zora Neale Hurston (2008). In the third week, cultural studies scholar Kevin Quashie will encourage NEH Summer Scholars to consider a new era of Hurston Studies by placing Hurston in conversation with a range of contemporary critical trends, querying Black futures and the abundance of “new studies.” Hurston’s lasting impact on critical studies and popular culture will also be highlighted by work with interdisciplinary scholars, including Riché Barnes (Anthropology), Julian Chambliss (History/English/Digital Studies), Nicole Hodges Persley (Theatre), and Rebecca Wanzo (Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies).

The Institute poses three fundamental 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? The Institute’s multi-disciplinary exploration will provide a historical frame for the writer’s abundant output, will transpose Hurston into the current moment and will project her into the future.


Selected Participant comments from 2015 NEH Summer Institute Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement, which was similarly organized by the Project on the History of Black Writing.

“…The institute exceeded any and all preconceived expectations I had coming in. Each day the guest lecturers and poetry readers proved to be experts in the field resulting in an intensive two weeks of masterclasses. I expect that my scholarship will be more historically grounded because the institute has provided such great contextualization of the Black Arts era. Additionally, I expect my pedagogical approaches to be more refined as there was an emphasis on close-reading, contextualizing and introducing poetry to our various classes. …”

“…This Institute–Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement–was exceptional, a superb–nearly exemplary–experience of deep-studying and learning. Both of the classes I am teaching this fall (and one in the spring) will be reshaped by content and techniques gained from the Institute, and I have started to draft an essay about contemporary black poetry (and put together a conference paper for late fall) out of the work of the Institute. […] I could not commend this experience any more than I have here–it was singularly successful.…”

“… My participation in the NEH Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement Summer Seminar has been a transformative experience. […] Following the Seminar, I not only have gained a much better sense of particular poets within and beyond the Black Arts Movement, I also have a stronger understanding of Black writers within the recent literary tradition more generally. Moreover, I am beginning to consider the ways in which attention to Black poets necessarily changes the kinds of questions that can and should be asked about literary history. …”

“…The institute provided an intensely rigorous introduction to African American poetic tradition, with a focus on the contemporary moment. It was without question one of the most rewarding instructional experiences of my academic life…”

“…The experience of participating as a summer scholar in the NEH institute “Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement” is almost impossible to describe in words, because the impact it is already beginning to have on my teaching and scholarship is enormous. Every single aspect of the two weeks was hugely productive, with the perfect balance between talking about pedagogy and research projects. […] In addition, the community formed among the participants over the course of the two weeks will surely have an enormous impact on my own work personally and on this field generally, as I am confident we will be staying in touch and collaborating on future special issues of journals, conference panels, book projects, etc.…”

“…This experience was one of the greatest of my professional career. I teach at a teaching-intensive institution, and there is rarely time to talk with colleagues about poetry as intensely as we discussed poetry at the Institute. Even conferences have not provided access to the kind of engagement I experienced at the Institute. The faculty were truly expert; their scholarship was inspiring, and their guidance was exceptional….”