Women’s History Month Hidden Figure: A Special Tribute to Miriam DeCosta-Willis (1934-2021)

Posted Posted in HBW, Obituaries

[ By: Victoria Garcia Unzueta ]

“Among her many professional friends and colleagues, we consider Miriam DeCosta-Willis the godmother of Afro-Hispanic Literature and culture.  Her footprints and magnanimous contributions as a scholar-civil rights activist will forever be inspirational and trailblazing to those of us who regard her as one of Maya Angelou’s phenomenal women.” – Dr. James Davis, Associate Dean, Academic & Student Affairs & and the Humanities, Howard University

Miriam DeCosta-Willis passed away on Thursday, January 7, at the age of 86.  A consummate scholar-activist, she was a writer and a college professor known for breaking down barriers. DeCosta-Willis lived a life filled with firsts, guided by her commitment to social justice inside and outside the college classroom.

Young Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Photo credit: Erika Sugarmon

Born on Nov. 1, 1934 in Florence, Alabama, DeCosta-Willis was raised in the South by her educator parents, Beautine and Frank DeCosta. Her family, especially her mother, played an important role in her upbringing as a strong-willed fighter. From a young age, she faced the challenges of being an African American in the South, however, she faced them head-on and fought for change. From organizing student protests during her time at Wilkinson High School to attending the Montgomery Bus Boycott with her mother, DeCosta-Willis’s values were instilled early in life.

DeCosta-Willis’ PhD graduation.
Photo credit: Erika Sugarmon

Denied admission to Memphis State (now University of Memphis), she went on to complete her undergraduate education at Wellesley College, and her PhD at John Hopkins, one of the first Black students to do so. Ironically, she returned to Memphis State to become its first Black professor in 1966, teaching Spanish, the foundation for most of her work. While there, she became a leader for Black students and staff.

In 1970 DeCosta-Willis joined the faculty of the then Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Howard University and by 1974, she had become chair. Her most enduring legacy during her years at Howard was the establishment of doctoral programs in Romance Languages in French and Spanish.  Under her leadership, Howard became the first HBCU to offer the Doctor of Philosophy in Romance Languages and remains a center for the study Romance languages throughout the Black Diaspora.

Her first work, Blacks in Hispanic Literature (1977), is a groundbreaking study of literary works by writers of Latin dissent in Africa and the Americas. Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003), was also a monumental addition to the field of Afro-Hispanic studies. “…the creative writing in Daughters of the Diaspora is spring-loaded: impassioned, forthright, and fresh, but also innovative, lyrical, and sensual. While there are dangers in grouping together this diverse collection of writers, their writing (much of it poetry) explores, among other themes: masking and identity, race and sexuality, colonialism and slavery, political commitment, national identity, and class.” -Douglas Field, African American Review 2004

DeCosta-Willis’s early work and countless scholarly articles she published provided a bridge between Latin American and Black Studies scholarship.

“Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis was a phenomenal scholar in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature/Studies, especially on the works of Black Latin American female writers, many of whom did not get much publicity at the time they wrote and published in their own countries. In fact, she mentored many of us who emerged from graduate schools and began our careers during the mid- to late-1970s. It was through her that we made contacts with the above women writers, whom she interviewed in their countries and/or invited to conferences at our universities here in the United States.  Dr. DeCosta-Willis’ many books and articles brought these authors to the attention of scholars globally and helped boost their careers. From time to time, she collaborated with us on edited volumes, so I worked very closely with her. For example, Dr. DeCosta-Willis solicited articles to publish Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejón (1998), Afro-Cuban poet, and Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003), which broadened the scope to include writers like Shirley Campbell (Costa Rica), Cristina Rodríguez Cabral (Uruguay) and Yvonne América-Truque (Colombia/Canada), among many others. It was truly exciting to work with her.” – Dr. Dellita Martin-Ogunsola, Professor Emeritus of Spanish, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Erotique Noire (1977)

DeCosta-Willis’s scholarly agency made another imprint in the foundational work in gender studies. Erotique Noir (1992) is a literary anthology written by Miriam DeCosta-Willis, Reginald Martin, and Roseann P. Bell, a pioneering work in the field of Black erotica. It features works from a large range of authors, poets, essayists, and scholars. Erotique Noir is described as being an intellectual, emotional, and sensual exploration of Black erotica. While celebratory, reviewers considered the book “bold, triumphant and heady, rich in its imagery, passion, and sense of adventure… [reclaiming] the fullness of Black life.”

Over the course of a 40-year career in higher education, her influence was felt by students not only at Memphis State, and Howard, but also at LeMoyne-Owen College and George Mason University.

“Dr. Miriam DeCosta Willis is one of the most important and influential scholars/criticism the history of Afro/a Hispanic literary studies. Her pioneering publications on Nancy Morejón, Luz Argentina Chiriboga, and others, are classics and remain generational scholarly models of inspiration for us all”. – Marvin A. Lewis, Professor Emeritus-Romance Languages/Literatures, University of Missouri-Columbia.

DeCosta-Willis’s focus on family was legendary. In 1955 she married Russell Sugarmon, a civil rights attorney. Together they had four children, Tarik, Elena, Erika, and Monique. DeCosta-Willis married to A.W. Willis Jr. in 1972, also a civil rights activist, who died of cancer in 1988. Following her retirement, DeCosta-Willis enjoyed speaking and continuing to write, centering her life around her four children, eight grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

According to her former close colleague at Howard, James Davis, “We were always awestruck by her seemingly unending scholarly productivity while maintaining a ‘normal’ family life with her beloved offspring.  Not only was she a brilliant scholar and writer, but she was also an endearing mentor to so many.” 

One of the fastest growing fields today is Afro-Hispanic and Afro-Latinx [Latin American] Studies, but we know only pieces of a larger origin story. Like many hidden and forgotten narratives, DeCosta Willis’s story is one of them.


Selected Publications by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.

Érotique Noire/Black Erotica. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.

Notable Black Memphians. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008.

Homespun Images: An Anthology of Black Memphis Writers and Artists, Miriam DeCosta Willis, Fannie Delk, and Philip Dotson (eds.). LeMoyne-Own College, 1989

“Can(n)on Fodder: Afro-Hispanic Literature, Heretical Texts, and the Polemics of Canon Formation,” Afro-Hispanic Review, April 2002, Vol. 21 (1/2), pp. 53-62.

“Martha K. Cobb and the Shaping of Afro-Hispanic Literary Criticism,” CLA Journal, Vol. 45 (4), June 2002, pp. 523-541.

“Meditations on History: The Middle Passage in the Afro-Hispanic Literary Imagination,”

Afro-Hispanic Review, April 2003, Vol 22 (1), pp. 3-12.


More on DeCosta-Willis

Memphis Civil Rights Activist Miriam DeCosta-Willis dies at 86

Local Treasure: Miriam DeCosta-Willis

The HistoryMakers: Miriam DeCosta-Willis


Victoria Garcia Unzueta is a KU sophomore, majoring in journalism with an emphasis in strategic communications.   Originally from Dodge City, Kansas, she was editor- in-chief of her high school’s newspaper and yearbook. For Victoria, these experiences helped to shape her passion for journalism and community advancement, which led to her connection with HBW, where she is currently the social media coordinator.

HBW would like to thank Dr. James Davis, Dr. Marvin A. Lewis, and Dr. Dellita Martin-Ogunsola, colleagues of Dr. DeCosta-Willis, for their contribution to the creation of this blog.

Joyce Ladner’s ‘Tomorrow’s Tomorrow’: A Model for Imagining Possibilities of American Womanhood

Posted Posted in Anniversaries, Events, Guest Blogger, Uncategorized

[ By Shelia Bonner ]

Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman by Joyce Ladner celebrates its 50th anniversary of publication this year. Dr. Ladner, author and sociologist, spent four years (1964-1968) working as a research assistant interviewing, observing, and socializing with more than one hundred girls. Those interviews provided the framework for Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman (1970) which examines womanhood through the lens of young Black girls living in the city. 

Tomorrow’s Tomorrow by Joyce Ladner

Fifty years ago, Joyce Ladner published her groundbreaking study Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Through interviews conducted with teenage girls in and around the Pruitt-Igoe housing campus in St. Louis, the study refutes America’s long held ideals of womanhood and challenges mainstream stereotypes of urban living. This entry is an attempt to reassert the significance of Ladner’s approach to the scientific world and to illuminate the contingencies that exist in Black womanhood.

Dr. Joyce Ladner
PC: PDA Speakers

To put Ladner’s pioneering work in a larger context, it is important to note the dominant discussions of Black women. E. Franklin Frazier’s seminal piece, The Negro Family in the United States(1939), is considered shortsighted by many Black feminists and other scholars in general due to its historical and sociological focus of the Black family during a period when scientific studies helped to perpetuate biological and psychological theories of racial inferiority. Perhaps one of the twentieth century’s most controversial studies was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965). Widely known as “The Moynihan Report,” it became famous for its descriptions of the Black woman as domineering and emasculating. Arguably, both works place the Black woman in a negative light. Ladner identifies the studies as examples of the “disorganization perspective”(271). That is to say, it equates the working-class Black woman and her family as deviant and pathological by bourgeois standards, which privileges monogamy, patriarchy, and the nuclear family. Ladner’s work brilliantly shows that a sociohistorical analysis fails to give voice to the economically challenged Black woman’s plight succinctly. Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, as explained by sociologist Bonnie Thornton Dill, proposes a dialectical mode of analysis. According to Thornton Dill, it seeks to “make explicit the complex interaction of political, social, and economic forces in shaping the broad historical trends that characterize black women as a group as well as the particular lives of individual women” (101). Hence, Ladner’s four-year study introduces readers to over 100 girls whose experiences are as varied as the ways they see themselves.

“After reading too many trite, stereotyped and incorrect appraisals of the Black family and Black women, Miss Ladner’s enlightening and provocative book is especially refreshing. It also serves to nullify the erroneous conclusion that many social scientists, both white and Black have reached about Black women scientists, who began their work by asking the wrong questions and by holding biased assumptions” Angela Blackwell, The Black Scholar 1973

Dr. Ladner, University of Alabama, March 2019.
PC: Daily Collegian

Although Ladner’s study shows poverty had relegated a population of people to one section of the city, the girls’ sense of a positive self-image was not lost. In response to the question, “What did it mean to be a poor black girl?,” one participant answered, “I’ve always been proud of being Black because I think it is a superior color. I never thought of being… well, you know, white is pure and black is dirty. I’ve always thought of being Black as a way, a will. If you see someone Black it’s not a dirty thing… Black stands out against any color” (81). What is striking about the fifteen-year-old participant’s reply is the way in which she resists social constructs, such as stereotypical notions of race, to determine how she thinks of herself. Moreover, being poor did not detract from the value she placed on being Black. Ladner’s approach allows the respondent to affirm her own experience. Patricia Hill Collins agrees that, “Ladner’s explicit goal was not to assist bureaucracies in controlling, managing, or working with the girls. Instead, her goal was empowerment…”(114). Hill Collins’s statement returns us to Ladner’s compelling introduction and her she definitive statements about her role as a Black woman sociologist. Ladner explains:

“I began to perceive my role as a Black person, with empathy and attachment, and, to a great extent, their day-to-day lives and future destinies became intricately interwoven with my own. This did not occur without a considerable amount of agonizing self-evaluation and conflict over ‘whose side I was on.’ On the one hand, I wanted to conduct a study that would allow me to fulfill certain academic requirements, i.e., a dissertation. On the other hand, I was highly influenced by my Blackness⸺by the fact that I, on many levels, was one of them and had to deal with their problems on a personal level. I was largely unable to resolve these strands, this “double consciousness,” to which W.E.B. DuBois refers. It is important to understand that Blacks are at a juncture in history that has been unprecedented for its necessity to grope with and clarify and define the status of existence in American society. Thus, I was unable to resolve the dilemmas I faced as a Black social scientist because they only symbolize the larger questions, and dilemmas of our times” (xiv).

Ladner’s decision to take on the role of participant-observer delimits the restrictive nature of sociological examinations to produce objective studies. Her research shows that she could recontextualize mainstream ideas about a particular demographic by relating to those at the center of her research. Furthermore, approximately 13 years before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, Ladner’s work convincingly illustrates how the intersections of race, gender, and class affect working-class women in a way unlike it did their white middle class peers. The study is a classic redefinition of womanhood stretching readers to consider it as a multifaceted institution. In the closing lines of chapter 6, “Becoming a Woman: Part 1,” Ladner declares, “Black womanhood has always been the very essence of what American womanhood is attempting to become on some levels” (239). Published at the height of the feminist movement along with other late 1960s and early 1970s works, such as Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi(1968), Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings(1969) Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), Mari Evans’s I Am a Black Woman: Poems (1970) or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye(1970), Tomorrow’s Tomorrow served as a blueprint for those searching for a model of possibilities. I insist it continues to do that for us today as well.

“Determined to get beyond stereotypes, she challenged previous research models that regarded the behavior of poor blacks as deviant. She took great pains to understand these lives in their historical context, tracing the changing roles of black women since being taken from Africa, through slavery, Emancipation and the Great Migrations to the cities.” Ronda Racha Penrice, The Black Book Review Feb 28, 1996

Dr. Ladner, July 18, 2018. PC: Time Magazine

To locate contemporary discourse on diverse experiences of Black girlhood, look to scholars and writers such as Ruth Nicole Brown’s, Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy (2009), LaKisha Simmons’s Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans(2015), Nazera Wright’s Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century(2016), Aria Halliday’s The Black Girlhood Studies Collection(2019), Venus E. Evans’s Black Feminism in Qualitative Inquiry: A Mosaic for Writing Our Daughter’s Body(2019), or literary authors Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones(2011) and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming(2014). Placing these works in conversation with Ladner’s Tomorrow’s Tomorrow makes the study key to the emerging field of Girlhood Studies. Aligning with academe, other institutions, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, have recorded visual histories of Black girls and women through exhibitions such as Women thereby expanding the topic of Black womanhood to a broader audience.

The title, Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, is taken from the lines of a poem by Haki Madhubuti, formerly Don L. Lee. Its assertiveness provides a futuristic framework for those of us who are vested in examining the lives, experiences, and narratives of Black women. The closing words of the book are most prescient to our 21st Century:

“Black women must join all Black people in the process of defining who they are, what their goals are to be, who their prophets and heroes⸺past and present⸺are and what the strategies of survival will be; whether we will allow ourselves to become assimilated into the mainstream on the oppressor’s terms or whether we will fight the ominous extermination that is already taking a toll on the lives of college students, political activists and anyone else who defies the social system in ways which have been forbidden” (286).

In a world where it seems Black women are in a perpetual cycle of defining and making space for herself through slogans like #Say Her Name, CiteBlackWomen or collaborations like Crunk Feminist Collective, Ladner’s study becomes a valuable resource for the continual reexamination of the plight of Black Women.



Dr. Joyce Ladner – Julianne Malveaux interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seHNk6GRHi4


Other works by Dr. Ladner:

The Death of White Sociology, 1973

The Ties that Bind, 1998

The New Urban Leaders, 2001

Launching our Black Children for Success, 2003


Works Cited

Dill Thornton, Bonnie. “The Dialectics of Black Womanhood.” Feminism and Methodology.

Edited by Sandra Harding. Indiana P, 1987. 97-108.

Hill Collins, Patricia. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. U Minnesota P, 1998.

Ladner, Joyce. Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Doubleday. 1971.


Upcoming event:

Join HBW and the Margaret Walker Center as we celebrate Tomorrow’s Tomorrow 50th anniversary. Holding a discussion between Dr. Joyce Ladner, Shelia Bonner, and Dr. Thornton Dill as they reflect on Tomorrow’s Tomorrow 50 years later. Happening on March 25 at 6 PM CST via the Margaret Walker Center’s Facebook page.


Shelia Bonner is an American Studies doctoral candidate. Currently, she is the Andrew Mellon visiting scholar at the Margaret Walker Center, located on the campus of Jackson State University. Bonner’s research interest is broadly African American history with a particular interest in Black women’s life-narratives, literature, and visual culture. Through her research, Bonner seeks to understand how Black women navigate oppressive systems and the mediums they use to articulate those experiences. Her dissertation examines the life of Joyce Ladner. Bonner investigates events that compelled Ladner to join the movement as well as how her experiences, specific to Mississippi, shaped the activist’s identity as a budding intellectual.

Henrietta Lacks: The Immortal

Posted Posted in Uncategorized

[ By: Aubrey Kerbs ]

Henrietta Lacks
PC: Bridgeman Images

If you ever took a class on medicine or human biology, you may have heard of the HeLa cell line. You may have learned that they were the first human cells to be successfully cloned, that HeLa is the oldest and most researched cell line in history, or that HeLa cells have been used to test the polio vaccine, used in cancer research, and even sent into space. You may not have learned how the HeLa cell line came to be and the important discussion it brought to light regarding informed patient consent.

PC: NY Times

It all started when Loretta Pleasant, later Henrietta Lacks, was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. The name Henrietta came from the nickname Hennie that her family gave her growing up. Her mother died during childbirth when Lacks was just four years old. Her father, unable to care for all ten children on his own moved the family to the small town of Clover, Virginia, where the children were split among extended family members. Lacks ended up with her maternal grandfather. 

On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore Maryland, the only hospital in the area that treated Black patients, because she was experiencing pain in her abdomen as well as some bleeding. She had hesitated because of the treatment Black patients typically received at the time. Lacks described a “knot” in her stomach, which the doctor ignored, telling her only that she was pregnant. It wasn’t until after she gave birth and had severe hemorrhaging that her doctors did a biopsy. The misdiagnosis at the time was a malignant epidermoid carcinoma¹ of the cervix. In 1970 research revealed that she actually had adenocarcinoma². 

A microscopic view of a HeLa cell culture.
PC: Biomol

During her treatment, two samples were taken from her cervix without her knowledge or consent. One set of the samples taken were healthy and the other, cancerous. The cells collected from Lacks were given to Dr. Otto Gey, who had been unsuccessful up to that point in keeping cells alive. Henrietta’s cells were the first to survive and reproduce after being separated from the body. The cancerous cells would become some of the most researched cells in history and are part of the immortal HeLa cell line. Lack’s cells continue to been used in medical research globally. 


The first working polio vaccine created in 1952 using HeLa cells.
PC: Sutori

Research on the HeLa cell line has furthered the advancement of medicine in many fields. Their ability to reproduce rapidly, they have been used in vaccine research, cancer research, and even COVID-19 research. Henrietta’s cells have helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease. They have been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, and human longevity. The use of these cells is infinite, and their lifetime is eternal.

One of the first major uses for the HeLa cells was the development of the polio vaccine. The research done on the cells using the virus that causes polio helped create the vaccine that every child now gets. The ongoing impact of the HeLa cells use can be seen in radiation for cancerous cells and AIDs research.  The use of HeLa cells in COVID-19 research has allowed for a greater understanding of the mechanics of the SARS-COV-19 virus, which can be used to curate treatment of the disease.

Jeri Lacks-Whye and David Lacks, grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks in 2013. PC: Baltimore Magazine

However, the successful story of advances in health and medicine is not all good. These cells were taken without the consent of Henrietta Lacks or anyone in her family. The family only learned that her cells were taken when there was a mix-up in a lab. Twenty years after Henrietta’s death, the family was contacted about providing samples to help differentiate between Henrietta’s cells and the cells of other people. The cells were taken at a time when a patient’s consent was not required. As a result, the practice of cell harvesting without consent was very common. Because the cells were used for public experimentation, her records became public in 1980, again, without the consent of her family. 

Although Henrietta Lacks made amazing contributions to science and medical research her story is a great example on why informed consent is crucial. Not only was this a lack of consent, but there was also no knowledge provided about the use of her cells. As a result, the family received neither the credit nor the compensation they deserved.

There is a long and dark history of medical experimentation on Black people by medical professionals who take advantage of an inequitable system compounded by racist practices historically especially with regard to the African American community. While Henrietta’s cells have led to major gains in the field of medicine, her family still lives with limited access to healthcare, unable to access the very medicines Henrietta made possible. Henrietta’s story is significant because of the ongoing meaning of her life to science and medicine. At the same time, that she was never made aware of the way in which her body was being used or was unable have a say in it is a travesty. Even with safeguards against the this type of exploitation, we still have a long way to go in addressing the systemic nature of racism as it operates in health care and medical research.


More on Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.





¹epidermoid carcinoma: Epidermal (skin) cancer which forms from squamous cells and usually appear in hollow organs such as the digestive system and respiratory track.

²adenocarcinoma: A type of cancer that begins in mucus producing glandular cells.


Aubrey Kerbs is an undergrad student majoring in history. After graduating next spring with a history BA, Aubrey will be pursuing a master’s in Library and Information Sciences. Afterwards Aubrey will be looking for work at either university libraries or government libraries. The goal is to one day work at the Smithsonian Institute. Aubrey works as a research assistant with the BBIP team.

Repost: Forgotten Figures for the Resistance

Posted Posted in Repost, Uncategorized

[ By Dominique Waller and Victoria Garcia Unzueta ]

*This blog has been excerpted and edited*

For Women’s History Month 2017, then HBW staffer Dominique Waller wrote “Forgotten Figures for the Resistance,” a blog highlighting figures overlooked in history. For this Women’s History Month 2021, The Project on the History of Black Writing would like to extend her blog by adding more hidden figures, who demonstrate the many ways in which feminist activism presents itself.

From Dominique Waller

Eva Jessye

Through research on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) by my colleague Shelia Bonner, I stumbled upon a forgotten Kansas treasure who attended Western University (1865-1943), one of the many colleges for African Americans founded after the Civil War. Eva Jessye (1895-1992) was an African American musician, composer, actress, and author from Coffeyville, Kansas. Jessye is acknowledged for being the first Black woman to win international distinction as director of a professional choir. Her choir performed many styles of music including spirituals, work songs, mountain ballads, ragtime, jazz, poetry, and opera. A pioneer in African American music, she was committed especially to preserving its most cherished traditions.

Eva Jessye Choir- Clara, Clara (The Requiem)- Porgy and Bess (1940)


Lucy Hicks Anderson

Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954) was married twice, fined multiple times, and jailed by the government for marrying and receiving benefits reserved from same-sex spouses. In defiance, she declared “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman”. Anderson was a pioneer for Trans rights and marriage equality long before the famous Stonewall uprising.


We’Wha of the Zuni

We’Wha (WAY-wah) was a two spirit who advocated for the rights of their people during the late 1800’s. The Zuni (federally recognized Native American Pueblo people) royalty mingled with politicians and local elites, as well as befriending the US speaker of the House and his wife. At the time, there was no one who doubted that We’Wah identified as female although born male. We’Wha grew up and drew traits of both male and female in a socially recognized third gender known as two-spirit. The fact that such an individual could be representative of the Zuni shows the degree that individual differences in gender and sexuality were accepted at the time. In fact, the ability to combine male and female skills and qualities was viewed as a gift. Not surprisingly, the Zuni people traveled thousands of miles, overcoming language and cultural differences, to live and converse with leaders of our nation.

Book on We’Wha: The Zuni Man-Women by Will Roscoe


Florynce “Flo” Kennedy

Flo Kennedy
PC: KCUR.org

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916-2000) was a Kansas City native, feminist, Black Power activist, and lawyer. Kennedy was active in 1960-1970, a time in which many activists were fighting for Black liberation. She was one of the founding members for the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Party, and the National Black Feminist Organization, along with many other organizations with which she was associated. Known for her outspoken, fiery nature and empowering activism, Kennedy often appeared in her signature getup, a Stetson, false eyelashes, pink sunglasses, political buttons bearing slogans like “Kick Ass” and “If you want to know where apathy is, you’re probably sitting on it,” and always carrying a whistle. Kennedy played a vital role in many court cases such as Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, which helped legalize abortion in New York and served as a precedent for Roe v. Wade. However, she is often hidden behind other feminists of the time like Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinman, and Betty Freidan.


Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai
PC: Wendy Stone/Corbis/Getty Images

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a professor of biology and a world-renowned environmentalist. With a degree from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, she completed graduate studies in Germany and Kenya and became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. An early environmentalist who continued the fight to “promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa,” she founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, an organization dedicated to environmental conservation, climate resilience, and sustainability. Maathai was recognized as Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” in 1998 for her pioneering efforts. Her work continues its inspiring legacy although her name is not often included in conversations about one of the most important movements of our time.

The Green Belt Movement


Andrea Jenkins

Andrea Jenkins
PC: MinnPost

Andrea Jenkins (1961- ), City Council member, representing Minneapolis’s 8th ward, became the first openly transgender person of color in the US when she was elected to a public office in the 2017.  Before taking office, Jenkins had already amassed 25 years of work in public service and policy, was a nonprofit executive director, poet, writer, and performer. Today, Jenkins is the Vice President of the Minneapolis City Council, which was put in the limelight following the murder of George Floyd in that city. Days after Floyd’s death, Jenkins addressed the reality of police brutality and racism. She said, “Until we name this virus, this disease that has infected American for the past 400 years, we will never ever resolve this issue.”


Waller drew a contrast between the popular Star Wars Resistance movement and social justice in her initial post, suggesting that fighting for justice is a resistance movement in its own right for women. She concluded in her 2017 blog post, “…feminism is nothing without intersectionality. For a movement to succeed it must be inclusive. The “Resistance” will fail if we can’t support each other.” HBW would like to invite our audience to take this Women’s History Month as an opportunity to focus on the forgotten figures and to strive to make all activism intersectional and inclusive.


Dominique Waller is a 2020 KU graduate and actor with numerous performances with KU theatre, including …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, as Jesus/Great Tree(2017); One Man Two Guvnors, as Pauline Clench (2019), and As You Like It, as Phoebe (2020). She had the lead role as Martha in a 2020 film The Light We Lose. She published “A Gospel of Tales,” in KU’s very own Kiosk 57: Renaissance. Dominique is continuing her acting career while serving as a manager at Kohls.

Victoria Garcia Unzueta is a KU sophomore, majoring in journalism with an emphasis in strategic communications.   Originally from Dodge City, Kansas, she was editor- in-chief of her high school’s newspaper and yearbook. For Victoria, these experiences helped to shape her passion for journalism and community advancement, which led to her connection with  HBW, where she is currently the social media coordinator.

ZORA! Festival Recap

Posted Posted in Conferences, Events, Guest Blogger, Uncategorized

[ By: Christopher Peace ]

The Project on the History of Black Writing staff member, Christopher Peace, recently attended the 2021 ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities as a third time graduate intern. Due to COVID-19, the festival was different from past years, taking on a hybrid zoom and socially distanced format. Peace recaps his experience with the festival this year, noting the differences from past festivals, as well as what he learned from this opportunity.

ZORA! Festival 130th Anniversary celebration gift box
PC: Christopher Peace (applicable to all)

The 2021 ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities began online weeks before I traveled to Eatonville. It was January 7, Zora’s 130th birthday anniversary. NY Nathiri, the executive director of Preserve the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.), invited me to a Zoom gathering for Zora’s birthday and asked me to give a toast. I received a fancy Zora box with a gluten-free cupcake and sparkling apple cider (this sample got me hooked on sparkling apple cider—I buy it every week now). The DJ really made this event stand-out, encouraging people to groove to the old school and newer musical selections. Zoom did rounds of spotlights where your camera would be highlighted on the main screen for all in the room to see, which was a convincing impetus to get us dancing and smiling. Toward the end of the evening, it was my turn to give a toast. Due to impressive scholars like Valerie Boyd and Trudier Harris being present on Zoom, I was a bit nervous to say my part. I began my toast thankful for my involvement with the ZORA! Festival and for Zora’s guidance in multiple areas of my life and I ended with my favorite quote from Their Eyes Were Watching God:

She saw a dust bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousands sister calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming on every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!

Unbeknownst to me, this quote would come to represent a different spark, a coming-together, for my engagement with Hurston, Eatonville, and the festival. The drive to Eatonville was smooth, with not as much traffic as the other times I’ve visited the city. My third time as a graduate intern attending the ZORA! festival was drastically different from the previous festivals. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, most of the communal aspects that defined regular festival experiences were held in digital or non-contact spaces. However, the warmth of the people of Eatonville and the dedication of the ZORA! Festivals to highlighting culturally centered engagement remained ever-present as this year’s attendees adjusted to safer protocols of engagement.

UCF Afrofuturism Panel (Click for video)

With COVID-19 changing the festival’s environment, Mrs. Nathiri informed me that my work with the festival would be geared toward “art administration.” After my third time at the festival, Mrs. Alice Grant, a long-time participant and curator of events, gracefully offered me a place to stay. For the most part, I worked with statistical data of various festival and P.E.C. audiences on Mail Chimp and on the ZORA! Festival website. I reported on the percentage of individuals opening and reading P.E.C. newsletters. I and others discussed ways in which the festival’s online presence could be more effective. All these tasks were very practical for me due to their attention to statistics and real-time audience participation as digital and public audience involvement are some of the major elements of my studies in the field of rhetoric and composition.

Christopher Peace holding up a peace sign, in front of two panels
from the Afrofuturism display at The Hurston Museum

The “humanities” aspect of this festival has always been my favorite. For the 2020 to 2024 cycle, the theme of the festival is Afrofuturism. This year’s focus was “Afrofuturism—What is the Sound?” To discuss these sonic themes, the University of Central Florida hosted a 2-day conference curated by Dr. Julian Chambliss, professor of English at Michigan State University and ZORA! Festival National Planner. This conference was inspired by Hurston’s legacy of valuing the voices and sounds of Black culture and married elements of futurism or science fiction to the oral tradition and music technology evident in Black history and culture. On the first day of the conference, keynote speaker Dr. Toniesha L. Taylor, associate professor of communication and rhetoric at Texas Southern University, presented “Mocked to death by time: Zora Neale Hurston as the sound of Afrofuture present past to future past.” Dr. Taylor’s insight on time’s cyclical movement between future, past, and present was truly astounding as she connected this concept to Hurston’s ethnographic work. The conference also provided an open-access Afrofuturism syllabus along with a collection of open educational resources (OERs) for the festival’s 2020-2024 Afrofuturism Conference Cycle.


The Moseley House

This year’s festival structure allowed me the time and space to experience parts of Eatonville I’d never seen. Mrs. Cynthia Haywood, who is an Eatonville native and museum secretary, and I led four visitors on a tour to different parts of Eatonville. Our first stop was a beautiful mural wall done by various artists that displayed Zora and other vivid images. Next, we stopped at the Moseley House, the second oldest building in Eatonville which now serves as a museum. A sign on the outside of the house reads “Zora Slept Here.” We left the museum and crossed the street to visit one of the most historic churches in the U.S., St. Lawrence A. M. E. Church. Large paintings of the Lord’s Prayer artistically reimagined were hung around the wall of the church. I purchased postcard versions of those paintings to take with me.

Mural Wall in Eatonville

The festival concluded with a drive-in movie night, featuring Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse and The Best Man. I think drive-in movies should return for the time being because this was a great socially distanced idea that yielded an impressive turn out. Ultimately, this festival was a blast, even in the midst of the pandemic.


Interested in learning more about Zora Neale Hurston? Apply to our NEH Virtual Summer Institute “Hurston on the Horizon; Past, Present, and Future”. “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. Spots available for 25 college/university educators. The deadline to apply is March 1, so apply 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.

Book Review: Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground (2021)

Posted Posted in Guest Blogger, HBW

[ By: Morgan McComb ]

 Last fall, during HBW’s 2020 Black Literary Suite “Black Writing in Reel Time,” we received the news from Julia Wright, regarding the forthcoming publication of unpublished novel by her father Richard Wright (1908-1960). A portion of that novel had first appeared in 1942, but most readers first learned of it in Wright’s short story collection, “Eight Men” (1960). We are pleased to conclude Black History Month 2021 with a review of The Man Who Lived Underground by HBW alum, Morgan McComb. The official release date for The Library of America edition is April 4, 2021.

The Man Who Lived Underground (2021)

The phrase “previously unpublished” in the literary world invokes instantaneous anticipation, and when that phrase is paired with a writer as illustrious as Richard Wright, people mark their calendars. Written between July 1941 and the spring of 1942, The Man Who Lived Underground (TMWLU) was crafted between Wright’s most famous novels, Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945). Although it was rejected in its original novel form, two short excerpts were published in 1942 and a severely edited and condensed version of the novel was later published as a short story under the same name in 1944. Considering that Wright’s novel was written during what many consider his most productive years, an obvious question arises: why was the novel never published? A literary cynic will jump to an immediate conclusion: the novel is not as good as the author’s other works and the decision to publish is influenced by capitalism and not simply a genuine expansion of an artist’s oeuvre. TMWLU would disappoint this cynic, for Wright’s previously unpublished novel is Wright and his work at perhaps their most ambitious.


A marked departure from the literary naturalism of Wright’s Native Son, TMWLU is instead an existential allegory exploring topics as seemingly disparate as religion, racism, capitalism, war, police surveillance and brutality. The only simple thing about Wright’s novel is its title. The protagonist, Fred Daniels, does literally live in the sewers after he escapes from being arrested and brutally beaten by the police for a murder he did not commit. Wright’s prose, however, layered with inverted images of darkness and light and saturated in language that deliberately confuses the senses, demands more of his narrative and us as readers than an overly-simplified understanding of the novel as a literary meditation on Daniels’s plight as a Black man escaping a violently racist society (though it is certainly that, too). While racism and racial violence at the hands of the police is undoubtedly the impetus for Daniels’s flight, Daniels’ time spent underground thrusts him into encounters that expand the thematic scope of the novel, ultimately creating what his grandson Malcolm Wright describes in the text’s afterword as an inversion of Plato’s allegory of the cave.


BLM protests which happened worldwide during the summer of 2020.
PC: NY Times

Divided into three acts, Wright’s previously unpublished novel begins with Daniels as a character steeped in naiveté as he tries to defend himself against false accusations of murder. Daniels summons a proliferation of defenses for himself while questioned at the police station: his sterling employment record, his active membership and participation in the local church, and finally his wife, who is pregnant and due to give birth at quite literally any moment.[1] Capitalism, religion, and family, all supposedly indicators of a person’s contributions to society, of a life well-lived within the boundaries of societal mores, are rendered useless. Daniels’s attempts are futile: the police officers, both actors within and symbols of the violent white supremacist system of American policing, are convinced of his guilt simply because of his race and his relative proximity to the crime. This first act is cut from all shorter published versions of the text and, as we learn in the volume’s later note on the text, perhaps a key factor in why it was rejected for publication. Kerker Quinn, an early reader of the manuscript and then a faculty member at the University of Illinois and editor of the literary magazine Accent (where the first two excerpts of the novel are eventually published in 1942), found the first act’s extensive focus on descriptions of the police brutality Daniels suffers untenable, uncomfortable, and unreadable. White publishers at the time Wright composed TMWLU were desperate for a different manuscript, his still-unpublished Black Hope that centers on Black domestic workers. When TMWLU was delivered to them instead, his white editors’ and readers’ receptions to the manuscript were cool. Quinn’s objections to the racial violence of the first act and the demonstrably white field of publishing’s eagerness for a novel about Black domestic workers both demonstrate their primary concerns for white comfort and profits rather than Black artistic expression. Now, less than a year after thousands of Americans flooded the streets to protest the continued murder of Black people by the police, it is clear that the white discomfort that Quinn voiced after reading fictional representations of police brutality  remains a primary concern in discussions of the violent legacies of enslavement that we find in American institutions, judicial and literary alike.

Native Son (1940)

After Daniels retreats to the sewers, we begin to witness a transformation, one that is incited by Daniels’s sensory experiences of life underground. His first encounter is familiar to us, paralleling an iconic moment from the early pages of Wright’s Native Son. Shortly after entering the sewer system, Daniels lights a match and sees a mouse holding on for dear life as the rushing sewer water threatens to take them both under highlighting the precarious condition of all living things, ultimately becoming an internal existential refrain for Daniels as the novel continues. As Daniels navigates the sewer, he is drawn to sound: the voices of a church choir, the tapping of an embalmer’s tools, the lunch musings of men who work at a jewelry store, the heated arguments between real estate brokers. Guilt and fear are almost constantly invoked, but not in the ways we might expect from a narrative that follows a man running from the police. Instead, Daniels repeats that we are all guilty—of what is left purposefully ambiguous—and that we are all fearful; it is these conditions that create an interconnectedness of all people, and it is our refusal to see them, in Daniels’s estimation, that causes us to create barriers to meaningful understandings of our own existence. These are the same barriers that Daniels originally uses in his defense: an unquestioned investment in oppressive, racist capitalism, a reliance on religious fervor in the face of existential uncertainty, and the necessary upkeep of appearances through what Adrienne Rich has famously coined compulsory heterosexuality. Wright still constructs his narrative through the specific experiences of one Black man, and so race is never absent from the text; however, Wright crafts a novel that puts the often overwhelming and multifarious concerns of capitalism and religion, among others, in a relational conversation with race, thus expanding more philosophically on the conditions and concerns that are also imbued in Native Son and Black Boy, marking both as compelling narratives on Black existence(s) and experience(s) in America.

Wright’s novel is a valuable addition to an understanding of his overall artistic legacy for its distinctive and dynamic allegorical rendering of Black thought alone; but its timely commentary on institutionalized racism and the psychological toll of white supremacy makes its narrative even more powerful and urgent to us in our contemporary moment.

In addition to the unpublished full text of the novel, the Library of America’s edition also includes a previously unpublished essay by Wright, “Memories of My Grandmother,” in which he cites his grandmother’s intense and restrictive religious beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist as a foremost influence in the thematic and artistic impetuses that shaped the novel alongside surrealist art, jazz and blues music, and psychoanalytical theory. An extended meditation on both the craft and personal philosophy that led to TMWLU’s creation, Wright begins the essay with an emphatic statement that TMWLU is his favorite piece he has ever written, one in which he felt he had complete freedom of expression and a piece where he pushed himself to move beyond a singular thematic focus on race. Despite the fact that Wright’s novel is layered with images and motifs, Wright is pointed in his assertion that none of these images and motifs are meaningful in and of themselves; for Wright, the concern is the relation of all these images, and he cautions the reader and critic not to over-invest in interpretations focusing on a single image or moment.

Instead, in likening the novel to the free play of jazz, the juxtaposed lyrics of blues, and his grandmother’s fanatical beliefs grounded in her religion, Wright insists the novel must be understood in its complex layering of all of these things, a layering that may not appear as narratively logical or interpretively sound. This complex construction is found in Wright’s narrative style as well: his prose is layered with contradictory imagery, and descriptions of Daniels’s experiences underground are defined by language that focuses on the instability of sensory experience—the light of diamonds laughs, fear feels wet on Daniels’s skin, guilt is  described as compacted sediment in the mind. The novel’s incongruous layering, according to Wright, is emblematic of a distinctive kind of Black thought, one that brings seemingly disparate and unrelated parts into a complex interplay of meaning. This mosaic rendering of Black thought is perhaps what kept TMWLU from being published during a time when white publishers were instead looking for an uncomplicated narrative about Black domestic workers that did not discomfit their own whiteness it is (a publishing impetus that today: one only need look at the literary and cultural “success” of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009), a novel written by a white woman and focused on Black domestic workers in the South, to recognize this continued reduction of Black identities in the American publishing industry). Wright’s novel is a valuable addition to an understanding of his overall artistic legacy for its distinctive and dynamic allegorical rendering of Black thought alone; but its timely commentary on institutionalized racism and the psychological toll of white supremacy makes the narrative even more powerful and urgent to us in our contemporary moment.

[1] This—an excision of his wife from the narrative and a lack of attention on aspects of gender—is perhaps the only critique I can offer of the novel. Critical grapplings with Wright’s writing (or lack thereof) on the specific issues faced by Black women implicated in Wright’s narratives are numerous, and it is an issue that Wright addresses directly in reference to TMWLU in his accompanying essay, “Memories of My Grandmother.”


More on Richard Wright

Richard Wright’s Legacy: Remembering George Floyd – Part 1

Richard Wright’s legacy and remembering George Floyd – Part 2

Richard Wright’s legacy and remembering George Floyd – Part 3

Richard Wright’s ‘Black Boy’ Celebrates 75th Anniversary

Turner Classic Movies Native Son (1951)


Morgan McComb is an English PhD student at the University of Mississippi whose research focuses on understudied Black women poets and Black Feminist Theory. She earned her masters from the University of Kansas where her thesis focused on the work of Naomi Long Madgett. She is currently working on a dissertation that focuses on the legacy of the work of Phillis Wheatley in Black women’s poetry and print culture. McComb has also published reviews in the College Language Association Journal.

From the HBW Archives: Zora Neale Hurston

Posted Posted in HBW, Repost, Uncategorized

[By Victoria Garcia Unzueta]

The Project on the History of Black Writing has been focusing on Zora Neale Hurston’s literary work for many years. With our upcoming NEH Virtual Summer Institute “Hurston on the Horizon; Past, Present and Future”, we wanted to share a collection of past HBW blogs focusing on Hurston and her impact in the realm of Black literature. The blogs range from informational blogs on Hurston and her work, to fun pieces such as Hurston’s connection to “swag” culture. We hope you enjoy and will take the time to read through the work we’ve compiled.


Zora Neale Hurston by Kenton Rambsy

Written by longtime HBW affiliate, Kenton Rambsy, this blog recounts what Rambsy learned about the life of Hurston from Wikipedia. Part of the “100 Novels Collection” series Rambsy goes on a journey to

Their Eyes Were Watching God

learn about authors within the 100 Novels Collection, including Hurston.


100 Black Novels by Decade, 1850-2010 by Kenton Rambsy

A list of 100 Black Novels within the HBW collection dated between 1850-2010. Compiled by Kenton Rambsy, this collection features a small portion of HBW’s complete novel collection, which holds over 1,000 novels. Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is featured within the list.


Zora Neale Hurston and Metaphors of Black Womanhood in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Danielle Hall

This blog written by Danielle Hall, analyzes the different metaphors found in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God dealing with womanhood and femininity. Using quotes and examples from the novel, Hall dissects the different themes and literary devices repeated throughout the novel which focus on Hurston’s exploration of being woman.

Zora Neale Hurston


Jay-Z, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rap Genius: African American Expressive Culture and “Swag” by Kenton Rambsy

Our final blog feature is a fun installment in which Kenton Rambsy breaks down how Zora Neale Hurston has contributed to the popular “swag” movement which has gained popularity in recent years. By annotating Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” Rambsy makes the connection of “swag” between modern rap culture and Hurston’s exploration of the theme in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.”


HBW’s archives are full of rich history and we look forward to your exploration of all the work we have to offer. If you have a further interest in exploring Hurston’s life and work, consider applying to the NEH Virtual Summer Institute, Hurston on the Horizon; Past, Present, and Future. With 30 available spots for college and university educators this institute is set to provide a collaborative learning environment for scholars. Deadline to apply is March 1, so apply today!


Victoria Garcia Unzueta is a sophomore here at the University of Kansas. Victoria is majoring in journalism with an emphasis in strategic communications.  Victoria is originally from Dodge City, Kansas where she was editor in chief of her high school’s newspaper and yearbook. For Victoria, these experiences helped shape her passion for journalism and community advancement and helped her to find HBW, where she hopes to continue the important work being done.