Founding Director

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Dr. Neal A. Lester

Neal A. Lester, PhD, is Foundation Professor of English and Founding Director of the multiple award-winning Project Humanities initiative at Arizona State University. With expertise in African American literature and culture, Dr. Lester has authored or edited seven books and myriad essays and chapters on topics ranging from the race and gender politics of hair, Black masculinities, and African American folklore, to Toni Morrison’s children’s books. In addition to his publications on ntozake shange, Alice Walker, Sapphire, and Zora Neale Hurston, Dr. Lester has done pioneering work on the Nword, having created and taught the first college course on the Nword in the US.

His expertise on cultural appropriation, on everyday lessons in privilege and bias, and on humanities and entrepreneurship is nationally and internationally recognized. His expertise has led to interviews with CNN, USA Today, Good Morning America, The Special Report with Reva Martin, Newsweek, Your Teen (for Parents), Arizona Horizon, Raising Arizona Kids, Arizona Republic, Ahwatukee Foothills News, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He has lectured in Ghana, Pakistan, China, Mexico, Italy, and Korea.

An award-winning teacher and popular radio guest, moderator, and panelist, Dr. Lester is editor of a forthcoming collection on global social justice, to be published in 2023 by the Modern Language Association, and guest editor of the special issue of Humanities on the topic of “African American Children’s Literature.”

In January 2022, Dr. Lester received Arizona State University’s inaugural Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Servant-Leadership Faculty Award, an accolade that follows other such MLK recognitions from the City of Tempe (AZ), the City of Phoenix (AZ), the Town of Paradise Valley (AZ).

In April 2023, Dr. Lester became the 21st recipient of the Gary Krahenbuhl “Difference Maker” Award, presented by the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, for his sustained and impactful work as a faculty member whose teaching, research, and service center social justice and its connection to humanity.

Longer Bio


Dr. Lester Introduces African American Literature I (Beginning to Harlem Renaissance) via Short Videos

Collections & Videos

Explore the collections and stories within Dr. Lester's office.

Research by Dr. Lester

As a scholar of African American literature and culture, Dr. Lester is often called upon by local, national and international media and communities to offer commentary on the state of US race relations, past and present. Such commentaries cover such topics as the race and gender politics of hair, the Nword, cultural appropriation, and privilege and bias. 

General categories of his research expertise are: Race Relations in America, Cultural Appropriation, the Nword, Politics of Hair, and Social Justice through Things and Stuff.

Race Relations in America


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Dr. Neal Lester reflects on being honored with the 2022 ASU MLK Faculty Servant-Leadership Award

16 Jan 23

Interview with Neal Lester : Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia

14 Sep 16


Educators craft, promote Black studies as other states limit how it’s taught 01 Feb 23
MLK Day a busy time for Ahwatukee professor at ASU 12 Jan 23

Abolitionist Newspaper Revived as Fight Over CRT in Schools Intensifies

23 Feb 22
Dr. Neal Lester Interview on Critical Race Theory 22 Sep 21
ASU academics work to dispel critical race theory myths 02 Sep 21
ASU Project Humanities event dispels myths about critical race theory 26 Aug 21
Facebook post sparks discussion of racism here 24 May 21
ASU professor’s project upholds MLK’s legacy in political climate, society 18 Jan 21
Lessons from the Past: Reflections on the Life and Work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for our watershed moments 14 Jan 21
Systems of Privilege: A Conversation with Dr. Neal Lester 27 Jul 20
Digging up the roots of racism's serviceability 09 Jul 20
Polititeen: "Awareness to Action": Filling the Gaps in Our (Im) perfect Union ft. Dr. Neal Lester on Apple Podcasts 08 Jul 20
What should we do to fight racism? We are asking the wrong people 04 Jun 20
“No, I'm not okay" 03 Jun 20
America’s past and present: parallel plagues 14 Apr 20
What meeting Toni Morrison taught me 14 Aug 19
400 Years Forward Organizers Seek To Move The Conversation Beyond Enslavement 13 Aug 19
ASU scholars reflect on Toni Morrison's impact on literature 07 Aug 19
7 Metro Phoenix Creatives Share Reflections on Writer Toni Morrison 07 Aug 19
Gillibrand’s Racial Elephant in the Room 05 Aug 19
Schools keep teaching slavery and civil rights history in ways that traumatize black students 19 Apr 19
Schools Keep Defending Racially Insensitive Classroom Activities In A Worrisome Trend 18 Apr 19
BASIS teacher had class shame a black student for lesson on school segregation, mom says 15 Apr 19
Classrooms and race: “What about the children?” 16 Mar 19
'No Black bucks for Starbucks': Protesters at Phoenix Starbucks call company racist 21 Apr 18
‘Putting out a fire’: Racial-bias experts say Starbucks training is only a start | AZCentral 17 Apr 18
Black Male Literary Scholarship and African American Children’s Literature: An Interview with Dr. Neal A. Lester of Arizona State University 03 Apr 18
Arizona ranks fourth in the nation for racial integration, study finds. | KTAR News (Transcript) 10 Jan 18
Moore: Gender-equality movement could help spark new push in sports 06 Jan 18
ASU professors choose must-read books for college students 15 Nov 17
ASU Professor Discusses Criticism Over Slavery Computer Game 12 Oct 17
Parents Outraged After Phoenix Elementary School Students Instructed To Play Slavery Simulation Game 12 Oct 17
Slavery-simulation game causes outcry at Phoenix elementary school 11 Oct 17
Dr. Lester interviewed regarding "Children’s Literature and Race,” by Richard E. Ashby, Jr. | Your Voice Your Choice, MPI-TX 02 Mar 17
University of Georgia visiting scholar 18 Sep 17
Obama Strikes 'Negro' and 'Oriental' from Federal Documents - Iowa public radio 31 May 16
Confederate flag debate reaches Arizona 22 Jun 15
Neal A. Lester on Once Upon a Time in a Different World 01 Jun 2008

Cultural Appropriation



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Black man killed in Kansas City as assailant hurled n-word. That’s not a hate crime? | Opinion

02 Aug 23

Why shrugging off Joe Rogan's use of the n-word is so dangerous, CNN 

13 Feb 22

Classrooms grapple with racial slurs in classic American novels 

27 Jun 21   

Allen Johnson: White is Black, up is down and the n-word’s OK? 

11 Apr 21   

Students rally behind Black Tampa school cop fired for using racial slur 

23 Mar 21  

No Desis, you cannot say the N-word. 

14 Dec 20   

Academic freedom and the N-word, University Affairs 

21 Aug 20

Your big questions about race, answered 

14 Aug 20   

Ron Jans used the most loaded word in the English language 

17 Feb 20

What Do You Do When Your Young Child Uses the N-Word? 

10 Dec 19

Should Schools Have an N-Word Policy? Uproar Over Guard's Firing Forces Hard Questions 

31 Oct 19

Liberty schools officials must combat racism in the district | The Kansas City Star 

21 Jun 19

Recent Incidents Remind Us The N-Word Should Never Be Tolerated | Twin Cities 

09 Jun 19

Viral video of AU student using n-word prompts outrage from student body 

07 Apr 19

Ortiz: You have no business saying the N-word if you’re not Black 

25 Mar 19

History Behind N-Word Emphasizes Impact 

01 Feb 19

At the Intersection of Language and Culture: Rap and the N-Word | by Nathan Graber-Lipperman | UNPLUGG'D MAG | Medium 

23 Sep 18

Beyond Bob Lamey and John Schnatter: Why a racial slur with an ugly past continues to divide 

 18 Sep 18 

The G-L Review Ep. 15: Dr. Neal Lester On Rap, Culture, And The N-Word 

16 Dec 18

Workshop with Neal A Lester, PhD: Straight Talk About the NWord 

13 Sep 18

From Muhammad Ali to Charles Barkley, How the Use of ‘Ni**a’ in the Media Shows How Black America Lost Its Way 

06 Dec 17

Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, the Shadow of Racism and the Power of “the N-word” 

06 Dec 17

'To Kill a Mockingbird' banned in Mississippi school: ASU reacts 

26 Oct 17

School assignment on the 'N-word' angers parents 

17 Oct 17

Controversy Stirs Over Jackson Students' Photo 

14 Oct 17

Considering the N-word: To reject or reclaim? 

28 Sep 17

How a childhood friendship intersected at Georgia - UGAGS Magazine 

12 Mar 17  

Neal Lester discusses social consequences of the N-word 

19 Sep 16

Neal Lester visits UGA to speak about representation of black males - The Red & Black 

18 Sep 16

Straight Talk about the N-Word & related events at UGA 

17 Sep 16

Discussions on the N-word: Neal Lester to speak 

14 Sep 16

Talk about the 'N-Word': UGA Student Organizes Concerts, Lectures, and Discussions on Race 

14 Sep 16

Yes, I Want To Talk About The N-Word 

16 Aug 16

'Compared to IRA massacres N-word row can seem trivial' 

07 May 16

N-word controversy at Phoenix high school altered their senior year, changed district's efforts to combat racism 

02 May 16

How does the article "The N-Word: Connected Through Historical Disconnect?" relate to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in chapters 8-11? 

20 Apr 16

Straight Talk About the N-Word - Predictions, Prose, and Politics 

02 Apr 16

The N-Word Special Report: Chapter II 

30 Feb 16 

Lester: Yes indeed folks, in our own backyard... 

29 Jan 16

Is it 'just a word'? Questions, comments about the N-word controversy at Desert Vista, also in USA TODAY 

28 Jan 16

ASU professor weighs in on DVHS Controversy 

26 Jan 16  

WTHR BLOG:  Why is the "N-word" still offensive? 

25 Jan 16  

Has the N-word lost its meaning to kids? 

23 Jan 16  

BSA, students discuss the ‘N’ word 

18 Nov 15

The N-word in America: a term loaded like no other 

26 Jun 15

The "N-word" for "negro", the most taboo word in the United States 

25 Jun 15

The 'N-word' is 'the most powerful word in the English language' 

25 Jun 15

Obama’s use of N-word raises a question: Is it ever OK? 

23 Jun 15

How do African Americans in South Jersey feel about the n-word? 

22 Jun 15

Prediction, Prose and Politics: STRAIGHT TALK ABOUT THE N-WORD The Connotations of Thug, the N-Word, and Other Racial Slurs - Breaking Bias 

02 Apr 15

The Connotations of Thug, the N-Word, and Other Racial Slurs - Breaking Bias

29 Mar 15

What Am I Saying When I Say 'Nigger'? 

23 Mar 15

Straight Talk About the ‘N-Word’: Arizona State Professor Brings His Message to Nearby Oak Park Library 

01 Oct 14

Sticks and Stones: When kids use the N-word 

25 Jul 14

The N-Word: Connected Through Historical Disconnect? 

21 Apr 14

Professor puts the ‘N-Word’ under microscope 

13 Mar 14

The N-word Loses Another Follower 

13 Feb 14

ASU professor: N-word transcends history 

13 Feb 14

Straight Talk about the N-Word,” with Dr. Neal Lester 

09 Feb 14

What’s Up, My ’N’ positive discourse on a negative word 

07 Feb 14

Our conversation about a word that starts with ‘N’ 

29 Jan 14

Why Do Some People Use The N-Word? 

23 Jan 14

The N-word and the American psyche 

10 Sep 13

Lester: The infamous N-word continues to wreak havoc on American popular psyche 

10 Sep 13

Syracuse fires DPW worker for calling himself the N-word 

13 Aug 13

How Would You Kill The N-Word? : Code Switch: NPR 

13 Aug 13

Hair and the 'n-word': Connecting with Neal A. Lester 

16 Jul 12

N-word 101: College class studies story behind the slur 

30 Sep 11

Nigger - Analyzing Fences 

01 Aug 11

12 Most Controversial College Courses Ever Offered 

17 Mar 11

Coming to a college course this fall: “The N-Word" 

22 Jun 10

Sticks and stones may break my bones...: Airbrushing the Ugliest of Ugly in African American Children's Books

01 Sep 01

Politics of Hair


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Gov. signs executive order banning hair discrimination

- Additional Coverage: 

                  Governor Hobbs Signs Order Banning Hair Discrimination | 12News/ Arizona 17 Mar 2023
                  Governor Katie Hobbs Signs Executive Order Race-Based Prohibiting Hair DiscriminationAZGovernor.Gov 17 Mar 2023
                  Gov. Hobbs signs order banning discrimination based on hair textures, styles | AZFamily 17 Mar 2023
                  Arizona governor signs executive order banning hair discrimination | Fox10 Phoenix 17 Mar 2023
                  Arizona Governor Signs Order Barring Hair Discrimination | Tucson.Com 18 Mar 2023
                  Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs Signs Order Barring Hair Discrimination | Arizona Daily Star 18 Mar 2023
                  Hobbs Signs Order Banning Hair Discrimination in Arizona Agencies She ControlsThe Daily Independent  19 Mar 2023
                  Gov. Hobbs Signs Executive Order against Hair Discrimination towards Black Arizonans | 20 Mar 2023
                  Arizona Governor Signs Executive Order Banning Discrimination Based on Hair Style or TextureCronkite News/ PBS 20 Mar 2023
                  Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs Signs CROWN Act-inspired Executive Order Outlawing Discrimination Based on Hair | LocalToday 20 Mar 2023
                  Katie Hobbs Signs Executive Order Prohibiting Hair Discrimination The Lumberjack, Northern Arizona University 23 Mar 2023
                  Local Prof Hails Governor’s Hair Discrimination Ban | Ahwatukee Foothills News 25 Mar 2023
                  CROWN Act prevents discrimination based on natural hair or texture | Arizona PBS 30 Mar 2023


20 Mar 23

Personal, Political And Professional: Everyone Has A Hair Story 

06 Jan 20

Professor explores hair’s cultural implications for African-Americans 

08 Aug 15

‘Classic’ invisibility: Illusory ‘universals’ exclude, marginalize 

29 Jul 15

Thieves Steal $50K Worth Of Weave From Chicago Beauty Supply | MadameNoir 

26 Jun 14

Special Issue, “The Why and the Where of Hair,”  The Lion and the Unicorn, Volume 37, Number 2 

01 Apr 13

Digging at the roots while going for gold -- Gabby Douglas’ hair 

11 Aug 12

These are some hairy times, The Washington Post 

02 Jun 11

Race Lecture Connects Hair Portrayals to Self-Image, The State Press 

10 Oct 10

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair 

13 Nov 09

Nappy Edges and Goldy Locks: African Americans and Hair 

26 Jul 05

Nappy Edges and Goldy Locks: African-American Daughters and the Politics of Hair, The Lion and the Unicorn 

01 Apr 00

Roots That Go Beyond Big Hair and a Bad Hair Day: ‘Nappy Hair’ Pieces, Children’s Literature in Education

01 Sep 99

Social Justice through Things and Stuff


Social Justice Featured 2
Vital Voices

Event Testimonials

Testimonials from Beyond Books: Social Justice through Things & Stuff- Carl Hayden Community High School

"Hi Dr. Neal Lester, I just wanted to start off this email by thanking you for coming to Carl Hayden Community High School and speaking to me...

"Hello Dr. Lester, . .[T]hanks for bringing the university to our students...

"Hi Neal, I am so glad you had a good experience with the students...

Testimonials from Beyond Books: Social Justice through Things & Stuff- Summer Institute for Culturally Responsive Education

"I would love to have the opportunity for our students to have a chance to explore Dr Lester's collection...

Testimonials from Diversity in the Workplace: Strategies and Strategizing- American Psychiatric Association

"I just wanted to reach out to say thank you for being our speaker yesterday...


Watch playlist on YouTube


Dr. Neal Lester Vital Voices: Beyond Books 19 Jan 23
Interactive exhibit demonstrates the effect 'stuff' can have on racial representation (By ASU News) 22 Oct 21

Curating Identities in the “Other” Office: My “Colored Museum” (By Dr. Neal Lester)

23 Jan 21

Learning for Justice (Blog, Southern Poverty Law Center)


“Boys Know What Girls Want”: Messages in Popular Music

  • Do boys know what girls want? You might think so if you believe everything you hear in pop songs.

Cheerios Ad Touches Racial Nerve

  • A recent Cheerios commercial reminds us of the historical roots of race in the United States. Those roots still cause social and political upset.

Classic Invisibility

  • Just because a bookshelf is full of "classics" doesn't mean it holds universal life lessons.

For White Allies in Search of a Solution to American Racism / When Folks of Color Are Exhausted

  • Racism, white privilege and white supremacy are challenges that people of color neither created nor should be expected to resolve. This scholar encourages white allies to step up.

“No, I Am Not OK.” Thanks for Asking.

  • As protesters across the nation rise up against police violence and systemic racism in support of Black lives, there’s something white allies need to recognize.

No Joking Matter: Words and Disability

  • While we are increasingly aware of the need to address racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist and classist language, ableist language is too often disregarded.

“Playing Black” for Laughs

  • A viral video sensation raises important questions about media constructions of “whiteness” and “blackness.”

Proposed Bill: An Ethnic Studies Ban "on Steroids"

  • Exploring our differences does not divide us; it highlights our identities and reveals our shared humanity.

'Redskins,' Names and Being Named

  • Controversy over a team name opens a national dialogue about race, identity and what’s in a name.

Teach the Talk, Don’t Ban the Book

  • In the past few weeks, we’ve included more than 20 articles in the Intellectual Freedom News about the To Kill a Mockingbird challenge/withdrawal/return-with-permission slips case in Biloxi, Mississippi.  None of those articles have taken up what I think is the central issue in this case: teaching students to talk about controversial issues in and through literature.

The Disturbing “Monkey Business” of U.S. Black-White Race Relations

  • Representations of black people as animals is both a past and present manifestation of the United States’ complicated history with race.

'Tis the Season: Christianity and Jesus in Black and White

  • What message does a white Jesus send to Christians who are not white?

The Infamous N-word

  • No matter the spelling or context, the n-word remains intertwined with American racial tensions past and present.

The N-Word: Connected Through Historical Disconnect?

  • Dr. Neal Lester talks about meeting folks across the country who want thoughtful, informed and critical conversation about the troublesome n-word.

To Know Our American History Is to Know Ourselves

  • What does the rise in hate groups and hate crimes say about our American history and American democracy when all lives should matter?

“You Guys”?

  • In a world where words matter, why is there little to no real critical conversation about the mixed-gendered use of “you guys”?