About Dr. Neal Lester

Neal A. Lester, PhD, is a Foundation Professor of English and Founding Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. He has been a Professor of English at Arizona State University since 1997, having taught previously at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) and the University of Montevallo (AL). His areas of specialization are African American literature and cultural studies. Dr. Lester earned his BA in English and was Valedictorian of his graduating class at the State University of West Georgia (Carrollton). He took his MA and PhD in English at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) and is the first African American to receive the doctorate degree in English at Vanderbilt. He is the first tenured African American faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Alabama.

The author or co-author/ editor of seven books-- among them Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays (1995) and Understanding Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents (1999)-- Dr. Lester has published, lectured, and taught extensively in the area of African American Studies. He has published on personal ads as African American biography and autobiography; Black masculinities; African American homoeroticism; neo-slave narratives; parental (il)literacy in children's literature; the absence of the Nword in contemporary African American children's texts; African American female sexuality; Black/ white interracial intimacies in American popular music; heteronormativity in children's texts, African American womanist theory; Disney's first African American princess in The Princess and the Frog; Disney’s Tangled feminist messages; Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo as an anti-trickster; and the gender and race politics of hair. His course, "The N-word: An Anatomy Lesson," the only such course taught in the country, has garnered local, national, and international attention. His third book, Once Upon a Time in a Different World: Issues and Ideas in African American Children’s Literature (2007), is a collection of Dr. Lester's essays on children's literature with scholars, critics, and non-academics responding each to a different essay and creating a threaded conversation about identity, gender, sexuality and race. He has also completed a co-edited collection of essays on the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in personal ads, Racialized Politics of Desire in Personal Ads (2008). His co-edited volume Sapphire's Literary Breakthrough: Feminist Pedagogies, Erotic Literacies, Environmental Justice Perspectives (2012), is the first critical study if this important poet and author. Dr. Lester is also co-author of the exhibition catalog HairStories (2003) for the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2013, Dr. Lester served as the lead editor of the international journal of children’s literature, The Lion and The Unicorn, a special issue on children and hair. Dr. Lester has just completed an editied volume on global social justice, under contract with the Modern Language Association (MLA), to be published in 2022.

A popular public speaker, frequent radio guest, regular op-ed contributor, newspaper columnist and blogger, and discussion facilitator, Dr. Lester has a distinguished record of lectures and keynote addresses, local, and national media interviews, guest speaker events, scholarly consultations, conference presentations, and editorials on such topics as the Nword, everyday lessons in privilege and bias, cultural appropriation, children's literature, American race relations, and humanities and entrepreneurship. As well, he has received numerous teaching awards and recognitions, including Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award (1993), Distinguished Teaching Fellow Award (1996), and David Bottoms Distinguished Department Alumni Award and the College Alumni Achievement Award from The University of West Georgia.  Dr. Lester was named "Distinguished Public Scholar" by the Arizona Humanities Council in 2001 for his work both inside and outside the classroom. Dr. Lester was a recipient of the ASU "Last Lecture" Award (2002), the Arizona State University Parents Association Professor of the Year (2003), the CLAS Dean's Distinguished Professorship (2004), and a Foundation Professorship (2007).

Dr. Lester’s public service and administrative experience include six years on the Board of Directors for the Arizona Humanities Council--2 years as Board chair, as Chair of the ASU Department of English, and as Dean of Humanities in the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In addition to serving on editorial and advisory boards, has served on the Executive Committee of the Association of Departments of English (ADE), an affiliate of the Modern Language Association of America. Dr. Lester served as Associate Vice President for Humanities and Arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development where his role was to promote integrated humanities research across disciplines throughout the university. He also created and has directed at Arizona State University the award-winning university-wide Project Humanities initiative since 2010, bringing scholars and communities together to "talk, listen and connect."  In 2014, Project Humanities received the inaugural Key of Excellence Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society for successfully promoting liberal arts and sciences across communities and disciplines. 

Introducing Dr. Neal A. Lester

Dr. Lester received the Roy Wilkins Community Service Award, the highest honor from the East Valley NAACP chapter, for his innovative Project Humanities initiative and for this community awareness campaign about the N-word. Project Humanities received the Juliana Yoder Friend of Humanities Award from the Arizona Humanities in November 2104 for promoting humanities efforts across the state of Arizona. In January 2015, Dr. Lester received the Francis March Andrew Distinguished Service Award from the Modern Language Association/Association of Departments of English for his extensive professional service to English Studies, and in February 2015, received the Invisible Heroes’ “UMOJA” award from the United Gay Informed Men of African-Descent. In April 2016, Dr. Lester received the Faculty Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Award from the ASU Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. Most recently, Dr. Lester was named to Echo Magazine’s Class of 2016 Hall of Fame for his support of and programming around LGBTQ communities. The April 2016 issue of Ion Magazine features Dr. Lester among those whose “Community Outreach” positively impacts Arizona’s LGBTQ communities. As a recipient of the City of Tempe 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Diversity Award, Dr. Lester will have his portrait permanently displayed in the Tempe History Museum. In February 2020, Dr. Lester received two community service awards: “Unity in the Community” Service Award from the Holy Trinity African Methodist Church (Mesa, AZ), and the “Living History Award” for his contributions to the Art of Academia from Jack & Jill of America, Inc. Phoenix Chapter in collaboration with the Phoenix Chapter of The Links, Inc., and Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity's Gamma Mu Boule of Phoenix. His Project Humanities initiative received the 2021 City of Tempe Martin Luther King, Jr. Excellence in Diversity Award for Education.

  • Founding Director of award-winning university initiative Project Humanities, Foundation Professor of English, Dean’s Distinguished Professor of English, Parents Association Professor of the Year, and Arizona Humanities Distinguished Public Scholar.
  • Research interests include African American literature and culture: children’s literature, folklore and popular culture, Black/white interracial intimacies in American culture, African American women writers, black masculinities, the Nword, cultural appropriation, privilege and bias, and the gender and race politics of hair.
  • Has published on such subjects as Disney representations of female characters, and Black masculinities; on such authors as Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Sapphire, and Ntozake Shange.
  • Has authored, edited, or co-edited 7 scholarly books.
  • Has written over 50 scholarly essays for a range of academic journals, including Journal of American CultureCommunication and Critical/ Cultural StudiesJournal of Praxis in Multicultural EducationSocial IdentitiesChildren’s Folklore Review, Humanities, Arizona Reading Journal, African American Review, Valley Voices, The Lion and The Unicorn, Humanities, and The Western Journal of Black Studies.
  • Has contributed over 50 pieces of public scholarship via blogs and op ed pieces: Teaching Tolerance [now Learning for Justice] (Southern Poverty Leadership Center), Detroit Smart PagesAhwatukee Foothills NewsUSA TodayArizona Republic, and Essence.
  • Has achieved local, national and international acclaim for lectures and keynotes on race and privilege, namely: “Straight Talk about the Nword,” “Are We Losing Our Humanity?”  “Nappy Edges and Goldy Locks: Identity Politics and Hair” and "Rethinking 'Diversity': Everyday Lessons in Privilege and Bias"
  • Has been interviewed by over 300 radio and television media outlets locally, nationally, and internationally.
  • Nominated for and/or received some 50 honors and awards for public scholarship and professional service.
  • Has lectured internationally: China, Russia, Korea, Ghana, Italy, and Pakistan.

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Selected Media