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Neal Lester

Neal Lester

Foundation Professor of English, Department of English, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Department of English
Arizona State University
PO Box 870302
Tempe, AZ 85287-0302


  • Senior Global Futures Scholar, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory
  • Foundation Professor of English, Department of English, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
  • Founding Director, Project Humanities, Arizona State University


Dr. Neal A. Lester 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 B.A. in English and was Valedictorian at the State University of West Georgia (Carrollton). He took his M.A. and Ph.D. in English at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) and is the first African American to receive the doctorate degree in English at Vanderbilt.

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(1995) and Understanding Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents (1999) -- Dr.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 word "nigger" 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.

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 served 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, he sits 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 and integrate humanities research throughout the university. He also created and has directed at Arizona State University the highly successful and 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. 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 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.


  • PhD, English, Vanderbilt University
  • MA, English, Vanderbilt University
  • BA, English, State University of West Georgia


Journal Articles


Lester, N. A. 2014. Extensions and hair pieces: Disney's straight talk leads to Tangled feminist mess. Arizona Reading Journal 39(1):4-14.


Lester, N. A. 2013. The N-word: Lessons taught and lessons learned. Journal of Praxis in Multicultural Education 8(2):Art. 3. DOI: 10.9741/2161-2978.105. (link )

Lester, N. A. 2013. The why and the where of hair. The Lion and the Unicorn 37(2):v-xvi. (link )

Lester, N. A., D. Sudia and N. Sudia. 2013. Race, gender and the politics of hair: Disney's Tangled feminist messages. Valley Voices: A Literary Review 13(2):83. (link )


Lester, N. A. 2010. Can a ‘Last Comic Standing’ finally rescue Little Black Sambo from the jungle?. Valley Voices: A Literary Review 10(2):60. (link )

Lester, N. A. 2010. Disney's The Princess and the Frog: The pride, the pressure, and the politics of being a first. The Journal of American Culture 33(4):294-308. DOI: 10.1111/j.1542-734X.2010.00753.x. (link )

Lester, N. A. 2010. Play(writing) and En(acting) consciousness: Theater as rhetoric in Harriet Wilson's Our Nig. Western Journal of Black Studies 34(3):347-357.

Lester, N. A. 2010. The N-word: An anatomy of a course. Convergence Review, an Interdisciplinary Journal Summer:48-65.


Lester, N. A. 2007. (Un)happily ever after: Fairy tale morals, moralities, and heterosexism in children's texts. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education 4(2):55-74. DOI: 10.1300/J367v04n02_05. (link )


Lester, N. A. and M. Daly Goggin. 2005. In living color: Politics of desire in heterosexual interracial black/white personal ads. Communication and Ciritical/Cultural Studies 2(2):130-162. DOI: 10.1080/14791420500082668. (link )


Lester, N. A. 2002. "Lfe for me ain't no crystal stairway": Readin', writin', and parental (il)literacy in African American children's books. Children's Folklore Review 25(1-2):75-100. (link )


Lester, N. A. 2001. Beyond "bitches and hoes": Sexual violence, violent sex, and sexual fantasy as black masculinist performance in Richard Wright's "The Man Who Killed a Shadow". Richard Wright Newsletter 8(2):2, 3-17. (link )


Lester, N. A. 2000. Nappy edges and goldy locks: African-American daughters and the politics of hair. The Lion and the Unicorn 24(2):201-224. (link )


Lester, N. A. 1999. Roots that go beyond big hair and a bad hair day: Nappy Hair pieces. Children's Literature in Education 30(3):171-183. DOI: 10.1023/A:1022481118075. (link )

Lester, N. A. and M. Daly Goggin. 1999. 'EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it' Constructions of heterosexual black male identities in the personals. Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 5(4):441-468. DOI: 10.1080/13504639951437. (link )


Lester, N. A. 1998. Sounds of silent performances: Homoeroticism in Zora Neale Hurston's "Story in Harlem Slang: Helly's Tale". Southern Quarterly 3(10-20):.


Lester, N. A. 1997. 'Not my mother, not my sistern, but it's me, O Lord, standing...': Alice Walker's 'The Child Who Favored Daughter' as neo-slave narrative. Studies in Short Fiction 34(3):289-305.



McNeil, E., N. A. Lester, D. S. Fulton and L. D. Myles eds. 2012. Sapphire's Literary Breakthrough: Erotic Literacies, Feminist Pedagogies, Environmental Justice Perspective. Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN: 978-1137282217.


Lester, N. A. and M. Daly Goggin eds. 2008. Racialized Politics of Desire in Personal Ads. Lexiington Books. ISBN: 978-0739122082.


Lester, N. A. 2007. Once Upon a Time in a Different World: Issues and Ideas in African American Children’s Literature. Routledge. ISBN: 978-0415809108.


Curry-Evans, K., S. Krane, N. A. Lester, C. H. Nelson, K. Powell and P. Sneed. 2004. HairStories. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. ISBN: 978-0967026541.


Lester, N. A. 1999. Understanding Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Greenwood Press. ISBN: 978-0313302107.


Lester, N. A. 1995. Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays. Garland Science. ISBN: 978-0815303145.

Book Chapters


Lester, N. A. 2015. Arts and humanities: Essentials, not extras. Pp. 65-70 In: Moore, E. ed., The State of Black Arizona - Volume IV. State of Black Arizona. Phoenix, Arizona.


Lester, N. A. 2013. "Let the Music Play": Music, meaning, and method in Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Pp. 127-160 In: Green, T. T. ed., Presenting Oprah Winfrey, Her Films, and African American Literature. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 978-1137282453.


Lester, N. A. 2012. "Rock the Motherf***ing House": Guiding a study of Sapphire's PUSH. Pp. 211-226 In: McNeil, E., N. A. Lester, D. S. Fulton and L. D. Myles eds., Palgrave Macmillan. New York, New York. ISBN: 000-1137282215.

McNeil, E., N. A. Lester, D. S. Fulton and L. D. Myles. 2012. Introduction: PUSHing boundaries, PUSHing art. Pp. 1-12 In: McNeil, E., N. A. Lester, D. S. Fulton and L. D. Myles eds., Sapphire's Literary Breakthrough: Erotic Literacies, Feminst Pedagogies, Environmental Justice Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan. New York, New York. ISBN: 978-1-137-28221-7.


Lester, N. A. 2010. Of wigs and weaves, locks and fades: A personal political hair story. Pp. 129-144 In: Spellers, R. E. and K. R. Moffitt eds., Blackberries and Redbones: Critical Articulations of Black Hair/Body Politics in Africana Communities. Hampton Press. ISBN: 978-1572738805.


Lester, N. A. 2009. For All My Children, or approaching African American childrens picture books. Pp. 99-114 In: Pagni Stewart, M. and Y. Atkinson eds., Ethnic Literary Traditions in American Children's Literature. Palgrave Macmillan. New York, New York. ISBN: 978-0230618756.


Lester, N. A. 2003. Seasoned with quiet strength: Black womanhood in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisn in the Sun. Pp. 246-249 In: Fisher, J. and E. Silber eds., Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender. Greenwood Press. ISBN: 978-0313313462.


Lester, N. A. 1999. "Filled with the Holy Ghost": Sexual dimension and dimensions of sexuality in the theater of Ntozake Shange. Pp. 193-211 In: Marsh-Lockett, C. P. ed., Black Women Playwrights: Visions on the American Stage. Garland Publishing, Inc.. ISBN: 978-0815327462.


Lester, N. A. 1998. 27 wagons full of cotton and other one-act plays. Pp. 1-12 In: Kolin, P. C. ed., Tennessee Wiliams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Greenwood Press. Westport, CT. ISBN: 978-0313303067.

Lester, N. A. 1998. American blues. Pp. 13-21 In: Kolin, P. C. ed., Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Greenwood Press. Westport, CT. ISBN: 978-0313303067.


Lester, N. A. 1993. African American renderings of traditional texts. Pp. 239-253 In: Ward Lott, S., M. S. Hawkins and N. McMillan eds., Global Perspectives on Teaching Literature: Shared Visions and Distinctive Visions. National Council of Teachers of English. Urbana, Illinois.