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From a young age, I’ve had a strong interest in African American literature and culture, and for that reason, I was extremely excited to work under Dr. Thadious Davis, who is an expert on African American and Southern literature. The original purpose of the project was to investigate how the writers of the Harlem Renaissance sought to combat scientific racism and negative stereotypes of blacks in their writing. As the project progressed, we looked more generally at how the authors’ scientific knowledge might have translated into their work.
The preliminary work consisted of reading several novels by the authors. There were five writers in total, and my partner and I researched two separately, and shared the responsibility for the most obscure one. The authors included Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, and Walter Thurman. Some of the aforementioned figures are widely known today, but others, albeit well known in their lifetime, are not as recognized now. Not all had strict science backgrounds—only two were professionals in the medical field. However, each had some clear-cut interest in various types of science. It must be noted that the our notion of science in this project encompassed psychology, spiritualism, anthropology, physical culture (similar to fitness), eugenics, and evolution theory, in addition to the traditional sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology. After reading the authors’ works, we learned about the early history of eugenics and scientific racism in America, as well as the opponents of such theories, like anthropologist Franz Boas.
My partner and I then focused our attention on getting a better idea of the scientific climate of the period from 1919-1935. Not too long into the project, we met with a librarian for advice on searching for articles and images. We became acquainted with ProQuest, ABI Inform, and Reader’s Guide Retrospective, databases on Penn’s library website that were useful in finding newspaper and magazine articles. We also photocopied pertinent articles in journals that would have been popular in the past, such as Scientific Monthly, Harper’s Monthly, and American Mercury. Some of the aticles were in microform, and it was an interesting experience learning how to use this format, as I didn’t have previous experience in microform. At the end of the project, my partner and I each made an in-depth PowerPoint and a Prezi presentation on one of our authors.
I believe the summer experience was a great way to extend my education outside of the traditional classroom. The project allowed me to get a better sense of the social currents of the era, which appeals to me as a History major. My knowledge about modern science has also grown significantly. My critical thinking, time management, and overall research skills were greatly improved upon. I am confident that what I have gained from PURM will aid me in pursuing a graduate degree, and in whatever career I choose.