African Humanities Folkloric Project Awarded Two Major NEH Grants

August 18, 2021
Wendy Belcher
Wendy Belcher, a 2021-2022 Old Dominion Research Professor in the Humanities Council, has been awarded two major NEH grants for digital humanities advancement. At right: detail of an illustrated manuscript from the Täˀammərä Maryam.

By Lisa Kraege, Humanities Council

Wendy Laura Belcher, Professor of African literature with a joint appointment in the departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies, has been awarded two major grants, totaling over $600,000, by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Both three-year grants will support the Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary digital humanities project (PEMM), a comprehensive resource for the miracle stories written about the Virgin Mary in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Egypt, and preserved in Gəˁəz (classical Ethiopic) between 1300 and the present.

Belcher is a 2021-2022 Old Dominion Research Professor in the Humanities Council. She will participate in the 15th Annual Humanities Colloquium, on “Humanities and Mobility,” to be held at 4:30 on September 23.

The NEH announcement included $28.4 million in grants for 239 humanities projects across the country. “The grants … demonstrate the resilience and breadth of our nation’s humanities institutions and practitioners,” said NEH’s Acting Chairman Adam Wolfson. “From education programs that will enrich teaching in college and high school classrooms to multi-institutional research initiatives, these excellent projects will advance the teaching, preservation, and understanding of history and culture.”

For the PEMM project, the NEH Scholarly and Scholarly Translations Grant of $297,256 will fund researchers with rare language skills to catalog stories in parchment manuscripts, translate them into English, and write short introductions. The NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant of $325,000 will fund a public-facing, open-access web application and data portal to share the stories, along with the images, translations, and scholarship that surround them.

“There are eight centuries of criminally understudied African written texts and this project is a big step forward in bringing attention to those riches,” Belcher said. The Marian stories are contained in a compilation text called the Täˀammərä Maryam (Miracles of [Saint] Mary). At least 100,000 Täˀammərä Maryam manuscripts exist worldwide, each with varying numbers of stories and versions, and yet only a handful of their 800+ stories have been cataloged or translated into English. The aim of the project, she said, is “to provide access to better information about this huge wealth of folklore.”

The project will provide students and scholars with web and print access to hundreds of the stories, which among their many themes take up healing, reparative justice, and personal ethics. By increasing access to early African texts in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, the resource will help ensure that humanities scholarship and curriculums are founded on a more global canon.

“We are excited that this important project on African culture and literary translation has received not one, but two, substantial grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities,” said Dr. Kathleen Crown, Executive Director of the Princeton University Humanities Council. “The Council has a long tradition of incubating research projects that go on to receive support at the national level. The NEH grants will allow PEMM to develop new directions in translation studies and have even greater global reach and impact.”

The PEMM project is currently a Global Initiative of the Humanities Council, where the research collaboration is in its fourth year, supported since 2018-2019 by a David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Grant for Innovation, as well as by the Stewart Fund for Religion. The Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) provided crucial start-up support in the form of a Dataset Curation and Public Humanities Grant, which provided guidance about best practices in working with data and data modeling, as well as a subsequent Research Partnership Grant. In addition, the Princeton Institute of International and Regional Studies and the Department of African American Studies provided substantial support in 2021. The University Committee on Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences funded the work of 12 Princeton undergraduates who wrote story summaries, provided keywords, and completed translations of the stories.

Detail of an illustrated manuscript from the Täˀammərä Maryam, a compilation text of miracle stories written about the Virgin Mary in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Egypt, and preserved in Gəˁəz (classical Ethiopic) between 1300 and the present.

“We are thrilled that the PEMM project is receiving well-deserved attention from the NEH,” said Meredith Martin, CDH Director and Professor of English. “The CDH charter process is based on NEH grant applications for precisely this reason; we want our collaborators to feel that the NEH or Mellon Foundation is a logical next step for them. We look forward to cheering Professor Belcher on as her team expands the project in new directions.”

“What Princeton enabled me to do is to develop this extraordinary team,” Belcher said. Along with Belcher, the primary team members are project manager Evgeniia Lambrinaki, and Gəˁəz language and literature experts Mehari Worku, Dawit Muluneh, and Jeremy Brown. “I’m so grateful to have funding to keep the team together. All of them have really unusual skills and I’m delighted to be able to fund them for their brilliant work,” she said. The project will now add two team members: web development team lead Jean Bauer and stack developer Henoke Alemayehu.

Belcher hopes that the project will not only generate information for researchers, but also will be utilized by members of the Ethiopian community in the U.S. and around the world. One of the project’s aims is to provide African-heritage students with the opportunity to study and work on their patrimony, and outreach to students in these communities is built into the project’s plan. PEMM offers “a way of connecting to that heritage,” Belcher said, and one that she hopes will inspire a new generation of humanists.

Learn more about this story at University World News or on the Princeton University homepage.

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