About Dr. Neal Lester

Interview (Fall 2020)


Neal A. Lester, PhD, is 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 Montevallo (AL) and at the
University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) where he was the first African American faculty member
tenured in the Department of English.  Dr. Lester earned his BA in English and was
Valedictorian 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. His areas of specialization are African American
literature and cultural studies.

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A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents  (1999)-- Dr.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; 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 African
Americans and hair. His course, "The Nword: 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 lay persons 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. He is currently editing a special
volume on global social justice pedagogy for the Modern Language Association, the leading
professional humanities organization in North America; and serving as the Guest Editor for a
Special Issue on “African American Children’s Literature” for the international journal

A popular public speaker, frequent radio guest, regular  op ed contributor, newspaper columnist and blogger, and discussion facilitator, Dr. Lester has an extensive record of  lectures and keynote addresses, local and national media interviews, guest speaker events, scholarly consultations, conference presentations, and editorials. 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 extensive public service and administrative experience includes six years on the Board of Directors for the Arizona Humanities Council--two 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 multiple 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 2014 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 Nword. 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 (http://echomag.com/neal-lester/). As a recipient of the City of Tempe 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Diversity Award, Dr. Lester’s portrait is permanently displayed in the Tempe History Museum. The April 2016 issue of Ion Magazine features Dr. Lester among those whose “Community Outreach” positively impacts Arizona’s LGBTQ communities. In November 2018, Dr. Lester received a 2018 Diversity Leadership Alliance Award for his ongoing community engagement work, and in January 2019, Dr. Lester received two Martin Luther King, Jr. Diversity Awards from two different Arizona city municipalitiesCity of Phoenix and the Town of Paradise Valley. In February 2020, Dr. Lester received two community service awards: “Unity in the Community” Service Award from the Holy Trinity African Methodist Episcopal 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 as well as the 2021 Catalyst Award for diversity and social transformation from the Arizona State University Committee for Campus Inclusion, and the 2021 “Citizen of the Year” Award from the Phi Iota Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated. In January 2022, he received the inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Servant-Leadership Faculty Award from Arizona State University.

At a Glance

  • 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.

Selected Articles


Selected Media