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Austin Peay professor selected for National Endowment for the Humanities’ Zora Neale Hurston institute

Zora Neale Hurston, circa 1938, from the Carl Van Vechten Collection held by the Library of Congress.

(Posted June 16, 2021)

Paula White APSU
Dr. White

Austin Peay State University’s Dr. Paula White is one of 25 scholars selected for a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute that will explore the works of Zora Neale Hurston.

The institute, “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present and Future,” is hosted by The Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas and will connect White virtually with scholars from across the country.

“It is top-tier in terms of intensity,” White, an assistant professor in the Department of Languages and Literature said. “It’s an intensive study of Hurston, her fiction, her ethnography, her essays and looking at how Hurston fits in the current moment.”

The “Hurston on the Horizon” institute will immerse White in a 20-day study of Hurston’s wide range of cultural production. The institute starts on July 11.

The institute also will allow White to work with leading Hurston scholars, such as Deborah Plant, Carla Kaplan, John Lowe, Claudine Raynaud and Carmaletta Williams.

“This gives me an opportunity to do a re-evaluation of how Hurston fits within my argument about Black feminist literary studies,” she added.

‘The foremother of Black feminist literary studies’

A former colleague at the University of Mississippi who knew about White’s research pointed her to “Hurston on the Horizon.”

“We had several conversations about (Hurston) and how she is the center of my research, and she was specifically the center of my dissertation looking at her as kind of the foremother of Black feminist literary studies,” White said.

Most people know Hurston for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but Hurston’s work spans three other novels, 50 short stories, plays and essays over nearly 40 years.

“When you think about what Black feminist literary studies is a lot of times we go back to the Black women’s literary renaissance of the ’70s and ’80s, so we start associating Black feminist literary studies with writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker,” White said. “But if we really look at that literature, some of the same things and some of the same topics questioning social norms and gender roles, Hurston is already doing that in her fiction.

“I would read those writers, and it would just take me right back to Hurston.”

In 2019, White traveled to Hurston’s hometown, Eatonville, Florida, and to the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts to conduct research, including interviews.

“I had a lot of reports and a lot of research from that trip, in 2019, and it was just sitting there because of the pandemic.”

The institute will reinvigorate White’s work.

“And to see (Hurston) centered like this, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is just an amazing opportunity,” she said. “I will get to know her better, not only through her fiction … but to see a fuller overview and exposure to her work.”

In addition to the virtual summer institute, the selected scholars also will attend a series of webinars in the fall providing an opportunity to connect with contemporary writers.

The group also will reconvene at the 2022 Zora! Festival in Eatonville, Florida.

What’s next

White specializes in African American literature and Black feminist literary studies. Her research focuses on 20th-century Black women writers in Black, Southern and queer literature. Her forthcoming manuscript, tentatively titled Black Feminism and the New Negro, retraces the origins of Black feminist literary studies to Harlem Renaissance fiction.

“The manuscript will look specifically at the new negro movement, which originated out of the Harlem Renaissance era, and Black feminism, existing in that space or Black feminist literary studies existing in that space,” she said.

White also hopes to share what she learns at the institute with her students and the Austin Peay community. She teaches African American literature in the Department of Languages and Literature. She also teaches in APSU’s Women’s and Gender Studies and African American Studies programs, both housed in the Department of Languages and Literature and the College of Arts and Letters.

“I have an idea for a BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) women’s book club to expose students and the university community to women writers of color because most of us have not been exposed to writers of color, specifically women writers of color,” she said.

White also is working on a paper that explores the literature written by the Niggerati, a self-named 1920s countercultural group of Black artists and intellectuals. And White is teaming with APSU Drs. Eva Gibson and Jessica Fripp – both professors in the Department of Psychological Science and Counseling – to write about their experiences navigating academia as Black women, specifically their experience working with the African American Employee Council at Austin Peay.

To learn more

For more about the Department of Languages and Literature at Austin Peay, visit www.apsu.edu/langlit.

For more about the Hurston on the Horizon institute, visit www.hurston.ku.edu.

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