Gavin Ferriby, Sacred Heart University librarian; Suzanne Edwards, associate professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Lehigh; Mary Foltz, associate professor of English; and Michelle Loris, associate dean of Sacred Heart University's College of Arts & Sciences

Gavin Ferriby, Sacred Heart University librarian; Suzanne Edwards, associate professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Lehigh; Mary Foltz, associate professor of English; and Michelle Loris, associate dean of Sacred Heart University's College of Arts & Sciences, stand with boxes from the Gloria Naylor archive. The materials have been loaned to Lehigh for professional digitization and conservation. (Sacred Heart University photo by Tracy Deer-Mirek)

A More Accessible Archive: Showcasing the Work of Writer Gloria Naylor

A long-term interdisciplinary archival project will make Naylor’s collected papers, on loan from Sacred Heart University, accessible to scholars and fans alike. 

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Gloria Naylor is perhaps best known for her debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, which won the National Book Award in 1983 and was later adapted into a television mini-series by Oprah Winfrey. Naylor's novels, which focus on African-American women, engage deeply with literary history—from contemporary works by Toni Morrison, Ann Petry and Ntozake Shange to canonical texts by Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Her work, says Suzanne Edwards, “is really attentive to the ways that elite academic spaces have historically excluded African American writers and African American readers, as well.”

This dynamic is inspiring how an interdisciplinary team of faculty, staff and graduate students will arrange, digitize and honor Naylor’s archive, on loan to Lehigh from Sacred Heart University. 

Edwards, an associate professor of English and director of the Humanities Center, was working on a paper about Naylor’s fourth novel, Bailey’s Cafe, when she discovered that the writer’s archive was located on Sacred Heart’s Fairfield, Conn., campus. Edwards obtained a Faculty Research Grant and made the trip. 

“When I saw [the archive], I was blown away by what was in there,” she says, her eyes lighting up with the memory. 

Gloria Naylor handwritten manuscripts in Naylor archive

The Gloria Naylor archive includes drafts of Naylor’s novels; research materials; journal entries; notes; photographs; and unproduced screenplays and unpublished writing. (Sacred Heart University photo by Tracy Deer-Mirek)

Edwards perused Naylor’s extensive correspondence with some of the major writers of the 20th century, including Julia Alvarez, Nikki Giovanni and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; the drafts of Naylor’s novels; the research materials that she used in crafting her novels; journal entries; notes; photographs; and unproduced screenplays and unpublished writing. Edwards considered how fortunate she was to be able to make the trip to Sacred Heart, realizing that not everyone would have that same opportunity. 

“It’s this incredible resource,” says Edwards, “but it was also a resource that I didn’t see people engaging with in scholarship on Naylor. The materials weren’t easily accessible, and Sacred Heart didn’t have the staff or resources to digitize it.” 

And so Edwards proposed a collaboration between Lehigh and Sacred Heart that would “make the archive more accessible to fans of Naylor’s work, to teachers who are teaching her novels at the college level, on the secondary level, and to scholars who might find it difficult to make a trip to Fairfield.”

Gloria Naylor archive project team sits around table at Lehigh University

The Lehigh team received a $100,000 Accelerator Grant from the Office of Research and Graduate Studies to “build an archive that’s consistent with Naylor’s own aesthetic, political, intellectual values.” (Photo courtesy of Heather Simoneau)

At Lehigh, Edwards partnered with Mary Foltz, associate professor of English; Natanya Duncan, assistant professor of history and Africana Studies; Stephanie Powell Watts, associate professor of English; Kashi Johnson, professor of theatre; Melpomene Katakalos, associate professor of theatre; William Crow, director of Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG); Mark Wonsidler, curator of exhibitions and collections for LUAG; Lois Black, curator of Special Collections; Julia Maserjian, manager of the digital scholarship team; Heather Simoneau, humanities librarian; and Jasmine Woodson, education and learning design librarian, to receive a $100,000 Accelerator Grant from the Office of Research and Graduate Studies. The grant supports the team’s efforts to “build an archive that’s consistent with Naylor’s own aesthetic, political, intellectual values.” The team, Edwards says, plans to bring the archive to life “with an eye toward accessibility and collaboration across elite academic spaces like Lehigh and audiences who might not otherwise have access to these materials.” 

A Collaborative Celebration of Naylor

Digitizing the archive is the major goal of the project, but the celebration of Naylor’s work does not stop there. In addition to a Humanities Seminar, a graduate seminar in the English department, other potential courses and cross-disciplinary research, the team plans public-facing events and activities, such as theatrical stagings of Naylor’s correspondence, journal entries or plays. 

“Gloria Naylor was a gifted storyteller who wrote about the beauty and complexity of black women lives—stories that would otherwise go unheard,” says Kashi Johnson, professor of theatre. “The archive is an exciting opportunity to showcase Gloria Naylor’s multifaceted work, and will perfectly illustrate the myriad of reasons why her work is counted among the catalog of exceptional black women writers, poets and playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange.”

An MFA student at Sacred Heart will produce a film using material from the archive, and the team is planning an exhibition at Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG) that will not only feature primary sources from the Naylor archive, but will also create opportunities for community engagement. “By inviting a spectrum of participants to respond to Naylor's work in the exhibition, as well as through dynamic and participatory education programs, we will extend the project's impact and underscore how a range of diverse perspectives contribute to a shared process of meaning-making,” says William Crow, director of LUAG.

The team is also planning a 2021 symposium that will introduce various constituencies to the archive. 

“We have such incredible people working on this project, all of whom have their own frames and their own relationships to their research,” says Edwards. 

Planned research projects include Mary Foltz’s study of Naylor’s bibliographies, which, she says, “tell us the sources that she found to be most important during the process of writing her novels. A focus on her bibliographies will shift scholarly conversations that already are centered on her practice of engaging with canonical literary texts.” 

The collaboration with Sacred Heart, Edwards says, is also a key element to the project. “For the most part, institutions have thought about archives in a custodial way: They don’t want to invest time and financial resources when they don’t own the materials. But the approach we’re taking is that owning the materials is less important than making the materials accessible to everyone. And we’re fortunate that Sacred Heart, which does own the materials, has been willing to partner with us.” 

Adds Michelle Loris, professor and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart: “Sacred Heart University is delighted that Lehigh will be digitizing Gloria Naylor’s archive and that Sacred Heart and Lehigh are collaborating on a variety of potential projects to making this rich archive of materials available to a large community of teachers, scholars and students. I know that Gloria Naylor wanted her work to be shared widely and so I know she would be extremely pleased with this project.”

The main focus, however, is a celebration of Naylor herself, exposing more readers and researchers to a significant collection of her writings—and keeping her vibrant storytelling in the public imagination for years to come. 

“To my mind, the Naylor archival project will change the next decade of Naylor scholarship,” says Foltz. “With the incomplete manuscript that focuses on Sapphira Wade [a character referenced in early work]; letters to prominent writers, intellectuals and readers; typed bibliographies of works referenced during her writing process; and many other provocative remnants from her life, scholars have fodder for years and years of research on this important author. By making the archive accessible for scholars and fans alike, we will spark new directions for Naylor criticism that will bring her back into the spotlight, a position that she so richly deserves.”

Foltz, who currently serves as a reviewer for The Year's Work in English Studies, says she has found that women writers receive less critical attention than male writers. She and the team hope to remedy that with the Naylor archive project.  

“Because scholarship tends to accrue around figures that already receive quite a bit of attention, it is crucial for feminist literary critics to produce not just our own scholarly works on women writers, but to create networks of scholars that amplify the import of women writers that we know to be important figures in U.S. literary history,” Foltz says. “We hope to create this network of scholars, librarians, archivists, students and fans by creating spaces for many to engage with Naylor's papers and to come face to face with her brilliant investigations of the twentieth-century U.S. with a focus on black communities.”

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

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