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Donna Harper Celebrates Langston Hughes' Literary Legacy

July 2016

faculty_akibaharperDonna Akiba Sullivan Harper, Ph.D., Fuller E. Callaway professor of English at Spelman and a founding member of the Langston Hughes Society, recently joined other Langston Hughes scholars from around the country for panel discussions in Lawrence, Kansas, Hughes’ boyhood home.

The scholars shared insights on the renowned poet, playwright, essayist, short story writer and novelist. The talks, sponsored by the Dream Documentary Collective and the Lawrence Arts Center, were streamed live on Facebook on June 20.

Scholars Support "I, Too, Sing America"

Langston Hughes Scholar Donna Akiba Harper The sessions were held to raise awareness of plans to make “I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled,” a two-part documentary on the life and writings of Hughes.

According to the organizers of the project, "The scholarly attention given to Hughes’s life and art over the years has resulted in a number of interpretations of his public and private selves that have implications for humanistic study, several of which have been the focus of documentary films.  And yet, the general impression that Hughes’ was just another, if foundational, Harlem Renaissance poet remains."

The Dream Documentary Collective was formed to "dispel the overly simplistic representation of Hughes’s career in the mainstream media." In collaboration with the Lawrence Arts Center, the National Endowment for the Humanities, WNET, and Hughes scholars from across the nation, the Dream Documentary Collective proposes to "explore the multiplicity of ways in which Hughes constructed his identity, participated in the international arts scene, and engaged with the American dream.

Harper's "Not so Simple" Stories

Akiba Harper Plans Langston Hughes TributeThe "Simple" stories, Langston Hughes's satirical pieces featuring Harlem's Jesse B. Semple, have been lauded as Hughes's greatest contribution to American fiction. In Not So Simple, Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper provides the first full historical analysis of the Simple stories.

Harper races the evolution and development of Simple from his 1943 appearance in Hughes's weekly Chicago Defender column through his 1965 farewell in the New York Post. Drawing on correspondence and manuscripts of the stories, Harper explores the development of the Simple collections, from Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) to Simple's Uncle Sam (1965), providing fresh and provocative perspectives on both Hughes and the characters who populate his stories.

Harper discusses the nature of Simple, Harlem's "everyman", and the way in which Hughes used his character both to teach fellow Harlem residents about their connection to world events and to give black literature a hero whose "day-after-day heroism" would exemplify greatness.

She explores the psychological, sociological, and literary meanings behind the Simple stories, and suggests ways in which the stories illustrate lessons of American history and political science. She also examines the roles played by women in these humorously ironic fiction. Ultimately, Hughes's attitudes as an author are measured against the views of other prominent African American writers.

Demonstrating the richness and complexity of this Langston Hughes character and the Harlem he inhabited. Not So Simple makes an important contribution to the study of American literature.

More About Dr. Harper

Donna Akiba Sullivan HarperDonna Akiba Sullivan Harper, the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of English at Spelman College, was educated at Hampton University, Oberlin College (B.A.), and Emory University (M.A. and Ph.D.). A founding member and past president of the Langston Hughes Society, Harper edited four collections of short fiction by Hughes in addition to authoring Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes (1995). She has published numerous articles and book reviews and has given lectures and conference presentations throughout the U.S. and in special presentations in Wuhan, China (2007) and Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey (2010).

She is a life member and the current vice president of the College Language Association and a past member of the Executive Committee of the Association of Departments of English of the Modern Language Association. Passionately committed to increasing the ranks of the professoriate, she coordinates the UNCF-Mellon Undergraduate Fellowship Program at Spelman and directs the UNCF-Mellon Summer Institute at Emory University during the month of June.

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