The Private Life and Public Work of Nellie Y. McKay

Follow the UNC Press Blog for a celebration of women’s histories and women historians throughout March.

The following preview excerpt is taken from the introduction to Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay by Shanna G. Benjamin, available April 2021

Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay traces twentieth-century Black literary history through McKay’s life to reveal her role in field formation. As a scholar, McKay achieved remarkable professional success. From her groundbreaking feminist analysis of the life and work of Jean Toomer, author of the imagistic prose poem Cane (1923), to her coeditorship of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and her authorship of introductions, forewords, and afterwords, McKay helped codify Black literary studies, especially at predominately white institutions. Black literary studies were already alive and well at many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and in Black periodicals such as Black World—facts McKay readily acknowledged—but McKay’s work is noteworthy because it justified the work to white scholars and insisted on the centrality of Black literary studies in English departments nationwide. “The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature,” McKay wrote, was “the white literary establishment’s final endorsement of this field” and, as such, “was one of the single most significant events in the history of black studies.” Where there was once only a smattering of books by Black critics, McKay and her peers created new shelves of knowledge to hold what they created as well as what they imagined would come.

In addition to her field forming work in Black literary studies, McKay was also a foremother of what we now call Black women’s studies. By recovering and publishing literature by Black women, writing about the texts, collecting them in anthologies, and teaching them in college and university classes, McKay and a critical mass of Black women literary scholars theorized a tradition of Black feminism. McKay and others woke a sleeping tradition of Black feminist thought reaching back to Victoria Earle Matthews, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, and others dating from the late nineteenth century. McKay published essays, which focused on how to read Black women’s literature, how to understand the state of the field, and how Black women experience white universities; she contributed to the efforts of other Black women scholars, Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Barbara Smith, Patricia Bell-Scott and Gloria Hull, for example, and together, as scholars and editors, advanced the study of Black women as writers and intellectuals in books, symposia, and public-facing work. The intellectual genealogies of Black women and their contributions to Black literary studies still remain in the shadow of their male counterparts. Half in Shadow highlights McKay’s influence to bring Black women’s role in African American literary history to the fore.

I am certainly not the first scholar to take an interest in the history of Black literary studies or in McKay’s role in it. In 2004, Farah Jasmine Griffin published a review of “Thirty Years of Black American Literature and Literary Studies,” which traced key moments in the recovery, teaching, institutionalizing, and publishing of Black literature and identified historical movements, scholars, and particularly formative texts published between 1974 and 2004. Griffin followed “Thirty Years” with her 2007 essay “That the Mothers May Soar and the Daughters May Know Their Names: A Retrospective of Black Feminist Literary Criticism,” which maps the contributions of a number of scholars—Barbara Smith, Ann duCille, Toni Cade, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Mary Helen Washington, Michelle Wallace, Frances Smith Foster, Deborah E. McDowell, Hortense J. Spillers, and Hazel V. Carby, to name a few—by illuminating how their intellectual contributions “influenced their disciplines even if they did so from the margins.” Griffin dedicated her essay to McKay, a “pioneering feminist critic, inspiring teacher, and devoted mentor.” Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960 (2011) reaches back to the generation prior to capture what we learn when we look at specific groups of Black writers, such as those who produced during an era when integration, assimilation, and “a myth of liberal America” impacted what they wrote and how they were received, effectively staging the singular story I seek to tell. Half in Shadow drills down, adding specificity to the comprehensive analyses offered by Griffin and Jackson, and lifts up the name of one critic—Nellie Y. McKay—to unravel the rich life she lived and name specific sites of institutional impact, so that the daughters, too, may soar.

Shanna Greene Benjamin is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, North Carolina.