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Mulberry native Maxine Montgomery has received $200,000 in the Collaborative Grant program from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize the late novelist Gloria Naylor’s unpublished work. Montgomery, professor of English at Florida State University, will work on the project with two professors at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
“I’ve published quite a bit on Gloria Naylor. So, I have a national reputation as being a Naylor scholar. On the basis of that reputation, they reached out to me to ask whether or not I wanted to be a part of that project and right away I said yes,” said Montgomery, 62, who holds a doctorate in English from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. .
Naylor is the author of the novel ''The Women of Brewster Place.'' She left letters, pictures and unfinished novels to Sacred Hart University, which later transferred the material to Lehigh University. The grant allows Montgomery to travel between FSU and LU to supervise the digitization project so people can access Naylor’s work online. It will also culminate with a two-volume essay collection based on the relationship between Naylor’s archival material and her fictional works.
The project is titled “Engaging Black Women’s Archives: Gloria Naylor and Twentieth-Century Literary History.” It is one 1 of 13 projects nationwide to receive a collaborative research grant.
“To be perfectly honest, I was surprised we were able to get the grant. I knew that it was a lot of work involved in writing the grant application. I knew that the NEH received tons of applications across America,” Montgomery said.
“The old saying goes that you miss 100% of the basketball shots that you don’t take. I said at the very least we’d be able to get feedback from the reviewers so we could incorporate that information and apply it next year with a stronger application. But I was quite pleased that they chose to fund our project the first time around,” she added.
Gloria Naylor is one of Montgomery’s favorite authors, the other being Toni Morrison.
“There’s something about both Naylor and Morrison in their works that speaks to the complexities of the Black female experience in terms of issues in gender, sexuality, race and class that I think resonates not only on a personal level but also for me professionally in terms of finding my own voice as Black female professor and certainly as Black female literary critic. There’s something about their writing that says something about the importance of the Black female voice,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery is a 1977 graduate of Mulberry High School. She later received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in English from Florida State University. By the age of 24 she received her doctorate.
As an undergraduate student she thought she wanted to study psychology but found herself drawn to English literature courses and was performing better in the literature courses.
“I thought psychology would allow me to gain insight into the human experience and human behavior so I kind of gravitated toward that discipline. But once I started taking classes in psychology I didn’t feel as engaged or interested in those classes as I did in classes on Shakespeare, or poetry, fiction or novel or certainly classes that dealt with Black women writers. It was something about those classes in English that kind of spoke to my personal experience in ways that courses in psychology did not,” Montgomery said.
Neither of Montgomery's parents finished high school. Her father, Samuel Montgomery, was the first Black city commissioner in Mulberry. Her mother, Molly Montgomery, worked in the lunchroom at Mulberry High School.
“Both of my parents emphasized the importance of education. I’ve always loved school,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always been good in language, in writing. I’ve always had an interest in creative writing. When I was in kindergarten, I would try to write books. Little did I realize at that time it was a God- given gift that was expressing itself at an early age.”
Montgomery has published seven books. Her most recent, ''The Postapocalyptic Black Female Imagination,'' was published in July.
“What I do in that book is take a look at representative works by Black women with a view to understanding the ways that catastrophe or disaster figure into those works. It could be an earthquake, a flood, a hurricane but there is something about that disaster that marks the end of an old era and the beginning of a futuristic era, a new world order, where Black women assume an essential role in societal and domestic affairs,” Montgomery said.
The NEH grant is for one year grant. It began October and is set to be completed in September. A Gloria Naylor Symposium at Lehigh University was held recently. Montgomery hopes to have a public performance of Naylor’s plays in Tallahassee.
Throughout the year there will be seminars and other interrelated projects for scholars to engage with Naylor’s archived material.
Breanna Rittman writes news features for The Ledger. Send your feature ideas to BRittman@gannett.com.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Dr. Maxine Montgomery receives National Endowment of Humanities grant.