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Individual grants fuel diverse research, from break dancing to enslaved beer brewers

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The National Endowment for Humanities has announced more than $33 million of grants to fund 245 projects. A few museums got large amounts for physical improvements and digitizing collections. Some colleges received money to create new classes. We were curious about the smaller grants, though, ones for individuals which came to $6,000 each, and asked some of the recipients just how much of a difference that money may make.

JESSICA BLAKE: I'm going to go to Baton Rouge and look at local state archives there.

SIMON: Jessica Blake says she's excited. She's an assistant professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn.

BLAKE: I am writing an article on enslaved beer brewers in a region called the Lower Mississippi Valley.

SIMON: Specifically on enslaved women living in areas controlled by Spain and France in the 18th century. Enslaved women from this era did not write their own accounts of their lives, but by combing through old property records kept by slave holders, Jessica Blake believes she can discover what the lives of some of these women were like.

BLAKE: One woman named Martone passed away in 1774. She's a woman who doesn't own multiple pairs of shoes, and yet she's here investing in multiple kettles, multiple barrels of rice and, you know, a hand cart, a jug. Through what she left, I put together a portrait of a woman who tried to eke out a living by selling beer.

SIMON: Jessica Blake says the NEH grant will help fund her travel and her research.

BLAKE: So it's an interesting way of trying to bring women of color into the economy in new ways. And that's the goal of the project, to give women of color credit for the ways they contributed to the colonial economy through the brewing of beer.

ELIZABETH ESCOBEDO: What this means for me is that I will be able to work full time on the project during the summer months.

SIMON: And that's Elizabeth Escobedo, associate professor at the University of Denver. The $6,000 she's getting will support her upcoming book on the history of Latina servicewomen during World War II. She says Puerto Rican women demanded to be able to join the military, and once they were allowed to, many of them did so in segregated units. She says this time period was crucial for many Latino families, including her own Mexican American family, and it's important to hear those stories.

ESCOBEDO: And we also add a more inclusive perspective to the historical scholarship on Mexican American and Puerto Rican veterans that has focused largely on the male experience.

SEROUJ APRAHAMIAN: My name is Serouj Aprahamian. My dance name is Midas, so people know me as Midas as well.

SIMON: And he's adapting his Ph.D. dissertation on breakdancing into a book. During his time at grassroots dancing events, Midas would speak with some of the early practitioners of the art form and notice how some of their stories were at odds with the accepted history of breakdancing.

APRAHAMIAN: For example, the notion that people were involved in gangs and, you know, they put down their weapons and started dancing and, you know, solving their problems through expression - I mean, that didn't really happen. You know, it's kind of a "West Side Story"-ification (ph) of, like, breaking and hip-hop history. But more than that, I mean, very few people were really involved in gangs.

SIMON: And like the other grant recipients, he says the NEH grant will be a huge help to his project.

APRAHAMIAN: This grant comes in at the perfect time and is also kind of a morale boost to finish the project and do my due diligence to do as best a job as possible on it.

SIMON: So, researchers impelled by passion, take note. Get those proposals ready. Maybe next year you'll be the one on beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.