The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay: An Interview with Shanna G. Benjamin

Shanna G. Benjamin (Photo: Grinnell College)

In today’s post, Tyler D. Parry, the senior editor of Black Perspectives and Vice President of AAIHS, interviews Shanna G. Benjamin about her forthcoming book, Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay (University of North Carolina Press, April 2021)Benjamin is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a literary critic and biographer who studies the literature and lives of Black women. Her work has been published in African American Review, MELUS, Studies in American Fiction, Auto/Biography Studies, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, and PMLA.

Tyler D. Parry: What inspired you to research the life of Nellie Y. McKay? What does she represent in terms of broader contours of African American intellectual history in the latter half of the twentieth century?

Shanna G. Benjamin: I attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and McKay was my adviser. I was inspired to research her life shortly after she died and I learned about all that she withheld from her students, her colleagues, and her friends in the academy. The entire time we worked together, I thought that she was only ever married to her work and that her graduate students were her only children (after all, she called me and my cohort of Black women graduate students her “daughters”). With her passing, I not only learned that McKay had once been married, but I also learned that she was ten years older than we knew and a divorced mother of two: a son, Harry, and a daughter, Patricia, who she introduced and referred to as her sister. Of course, as her student, I didn’t expect to be privy to personal, private, or sensitive information about my adviser. But I needed to understand why she would keep what seemed, to me, innocuous details of her life, secret. With encouragement from colleagues and support from a scholarly women’s achievement group at Grinnell College, I began investigating the “Why?” behind McKay’s choices. It didn’t take long for me to realize that there was more to McKay’s story than her personal withholdings. While writing about her life, I developed a new understanding of field formation, how African American literature as an academic discipline came to be, and the role Black women scholars played in its emergence. The book is about McKay, but it is also about the literary origins of Black feminist thought and how I exist as a link in the chain of Black women’s intellectualism.

When I think about the broader contours of African American intellectual history in the latter half of the twentieth century and McKay’s place in it, I actually return to observations made by Hortense J. Spillers in 2006. Spillers noticed 1) Black people were being used as “raw material” for the intellectual pursuits of others and 2) the Black women of her generation, a generation that includes McKay, were left out of conversations about the feminist project that they had “historically initiated.” 1 What’s most germane to my project is the moment when Spillers names the violent yet genteel forces prone to forgetting or absorbing Black intellectual work. That forgetting, she explains, calls for an ongoing return to origins, a “rediscovery” of what came before, to simply push back against forgetfulness. 2

As an act of (re)membering, then, Half in Shadow returns to an era when Black women scholars created the vocabularies that formed the field of Black feminist thought, shaping the vocabulary Black cultural critics use, even now, to reckon with current events. I move McKay from the shadows into the light to reclaim her story for a generation of scholars that may not appreciate the effort that went into moving Black literary studies out of a strictly masculinist framework or understand the machinations that made Black literature indispensable to American literary studies. McKay and a coterie of Black women literary critics and Black feminist thinkers created the scholarship that informs so much of twenty-first century public-facing African American intellectualism. Consider the Black Feminist roots of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo and misogynoir and the work of Moya Bailey. Even Shardé Davis and Joy Woods’s #BlackInTheIvory extends a long tradition of Black women testifying about their experiences in the academy through autobiography and other first-person accounts (one of McKay’s early essays, “Black Woman Professor—White University,” is an example of this). Half in Shadow brings McKay’s story and an account of field formation to a contemporary audience to make legible the long arc of African American women as thinkers and thought leaders invested in a host of ideas.

Parry: How did McKay change the study of African American women’s literature in the 1970s and 1980s?

Benjamin: Women of African descent have been writing since the days of Lucy Terry’s “Bars Fight” (1746) and Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), but it wasn’t until Black women entered a predominately white professoriate in appreciable numbers that African American women’s literature became codified as a discipline. So one way McKay changed the study of African American women’s literature in the 1970s and 1980s was by having a hand in creating it, in forming the field. Before undertaking this project, I took so much for granted: Black feminism as my inheritance, so to speak, my right to put critical readings that centered Black women’s literature in print. The very documenting of Black feminist ways of knowing. I never considered my work risky. McKay’s life taught me that this was not always the case. Let me share one anecdote that really captures the stakes and names what McKay was up against as she initiated what she called her “project,” specifically, her turn toward Black women’s writings as an area of critical inquiry.

When McKay joined the Afro-American Studies faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Herbert Hill—a labor historian and friend of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison—served as chair of McKay’s tenure and promotion committee. It was the late 1970s and she was like any other early-career faculty member adjusting to a new place while juggling her research, teaching, and service commitments. But unlike her white male counterparts, both her presence and her perspectives were constantly called into question. McKay was hard at work finishing her Jean Toomer book and thought that her monograph would be enough to fulfill Madison’s research requirements for tenure. She was wrong. Soon after Hill let her know that she’d need more than her book, McKay decided to interview Toni Morrison. In McKay’s mind, the interview was the key to a new way of knowing: “We’ve been trained to read and criticize Faulkner and Shakespeare” she observed in a letter to longtime friend and historian Nell Irvin Painter, “but none of us were told how to look at Toni Morrison or Sarah Wright.” Hill advised against the interview because he thought it was a distraction from the “real work” McKay was supposed to be doing. Imagine her choices. On the one hand, if McKay yielded to Hill, she would miss out on the opportunity to pursue work that was meaningful and affirming to her; on the other hand, if she defied Hill, she might risk her tenure case. (Remember: Morrison had been nominated for a National Book Award for Sula but had not yet penned Beloved nor won the Nobel Prize.) McKay interviewed Morrison anyway.

McKay’s published interview was a hit (even her review chair was impressed) and both the backstory—and her review chair’s response—captures how Black women were incredibly brave when they centered Black women and Black texts as sites of critical inquiry. It also illustrates how Black women’s professional futures were subject to the whims of institutions ill equipped to evaluate the strength of their scholarship. Third, it gestures toward the moment when Black women’s literature, in the words of Ann duCille, became an “occult.” The same folks who decried the work of Black women began deploying Black feminist modes of analysis when it became the new hot thing, and in the process erased Black women from the fields they had toiled to form. In her Morrison interview and in her scholarship and teaching, McKay claimed the sovereign value of Black women’s literature. She was certainly not alone in this, but I would say that this was the most significant way McKay changed the study of African American women’s literature in the 1970s and 1980s.

Parry: What audiences do you want to read this book?

Benjamin: Of course, I want everyone to read Half in Shadow! It’s accessible and will appeal to both scholars and the general public. I consider myself a storyteller and teacher, so the book is readable and informative. Black women especially—those in the academy and those outside of it, those who are my peers, the elders and ancestors who cleared a path—will see themselves in McKay’s life, as will any woman who has overcome barriers beyond their control to pursue a dream. Those who teach or study Black literature will enjoy my slightly different take on literary history. The chapters themselves focus on McKay’s life, but I also include what I call “scenes,” autobiographical vignettes that precede the chapters, so readers can see how my personal story functions as a counterpoint to McKay’s. I talk about McKay’s experience at Harvard, her early days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and how she negotiated the “gender trouble” associated with The Norton Anthology of African American Literature and contributed to the burgeoning field of Black feminist thought, so anyone interested in the evolution of higher education post Brown, or Black women’s experiences in the professoriate, will learn from Half in Shadow. It is a biography, after all, so those interested in constructions of the self and Black women’s interior lives will also enjoy the book.

I want everyone to read Half in Shadow, but I should also say that I had a very particular vision of who I was writing to when I was writing the book. In the early stages, when I couldn’t seem to get words on the page, my dear friend, Grinnell College sociologist Karla Erickson, encouraged me to picture someone and write to them as a way to get past my writer’s block. That advice cleared the fog and when the person I was writing to came into view, I knew it right away. I was attending a UNCF/Mellon conference in Atlanta I think, and the brilliant Ashanté Reese crossed the room to sit beside me. She doesn’t know this story. I was in such a funk—feeling discouraged about my writing and completely overwhelmed by all of the source material I was sorting through and struggling to make cohere. But when Ashanté sat down and cast her light, I had clarity. I knew exactly who I needed to write to. I was writing to her.

When I wrote Half in Shadow, I was writing to my sister scholars: Black women like the graduate students or early career faculty I’ve coached or mentored during my career. I felt like the lessons of McKay’s generation were not coming full circle. I’m consistently struck by the conversations Black women in the academy are still having—conversations about marriage and children, conversations about the life we want vs. the life others say we can’t have, conversations about ambition and drive, innovation and voice—and these are the very same conversations McKay and her peers were having when they entered the professoriate. Yes, we can talk about the persistence of racism, patriarchy, et cetera, but I believe McKay and others sacrificed so we could have a different set of personal and professional choices. I asked myself, “How do we push back against limiting beliefs?” As I wrote, I thought about Black women and the desires of our hearts. I thought about my grandmother, who figures prominently in my prologue—the grandmother who was advised to learn to sew or learn to do hair when marriage became a possibility, but who, deep down inside, wanted to be a math teacher. She never got to pursue that passion. McKay pursued hers, but at a cost. I wanted Black women to know, that the price has been paid. Ours is an inheritance that is profoundly intellectual and deeply personal. It’s high time we claim it all.

  1. Hortense Spillers, quoted in Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan, “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’—Revisiting ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35, no. 1/2, The Sexual Body (Spring-Summer 2007): 300.
  2. Ibid., 301.
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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Assistant Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.