McKay, Nellie Yvonne
Nellie Yvonne McKay
Nellie Yvonne McKay "was the central figure in the establishing of black women's studies as a presence in academic and intellectual life," declared Craig Werner, her colleague at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to the New York Times. Known among her colleagues for her intellect, she did not focus on winning personal accolades, although she garnered many during her career. "She could have been an academic superstar," Werner told Barbara Wolff reporting for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Web site at the time of McKay's death. "She chose instead to build a community."
Used Education to Escape Poverty
Nellie Yvonne Reynolds was born to Jamaican parents and raised in the Harlem district of New York City. She kept the details of her age private, but her friends and colleagues estimated she was most likely born in the late 1930s or early 1940s. She and her two sisters grew up knowing poverty and racial discrimination. McKay explained to Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that "education was their religion"—their way out of difficulty, their way to dignity. While her two sisters chose to go into banking and teaching in a public school, McKay chose to become a part of academic life.
"Mom taught us all to read before ever going to school. Our only job as kids was to go to school," McKay told CBB. "Mom and Dad provided enough so that that was all we had to do. We never got caught up in other distractions, not even TV. We stayed home and read books aloud to each other, and on our own. To this day we all collect books." While her entire family were avid readers and collectors of books, it was McKay who went on to major in English literature and make a career of it.
From the time she was a little girl, Nellie McKay had always wanted to teach. But she had imagined herself teaching at the kindergarten level, not in college. Her ability to teach higher education was confirmed by two college professors, Michael Cooper (in English, a Shakespeare scholar) and John McDermott (in Philosophy, a William James scholar). Both men took her under their wing and encouraged her to give wings to others. "I could have come out a Philosophy major," she told CBB, "but then I couldn't teach English. I declared my major when I figured an English major could always teach philosophy." She earned her master's degree at Harvard in 1971 and a doctorate in 1977. She majored in English and American Literature, and spent the rest of her life immersed in teaching at the college and university level.
Inspired by Civil Rights Movement
McKay might not have ended up specializing in African American literature and women's studies if it were not for two traumatic events in her formative years in college. A race riot during her junior year at Queens College opened her eyes to the problem of racial injustice. She came to better understand the struggle for equality when 100 Blacks from the Bronx came on campus in the fall of 1967 to stir things up and mobilize student support for the civil rights movement. McKay started out as a Shakespearean English major, but the civil rights movement jolted her out of her apathy about race. "Before then I never quite understood how terrible and serious the race problem was, how it penetrated all of society, not just individual hearts," McKay recalled to CBB.
The other consciousness-raising, career-shifting experience happened to McKay while studying at Harvard University in the early 1970s. As she told the story, "Back then, Harvard was not a very hospitable place for the handful of women or minorities who were allowed in. Admitting a few Blacks was a self-protective and self-congratulatory gesture. Others, especially white males, didn't think we really belonged there. Harvard took the cream of the crop but did not want too many Blacks, which would upset the institution." McKay kept her eyes open and learned a lot at Harvard.
McKay outlasted her white peers at the university. As she shared with CBB, "The attrition rate, once you got in, was much higher for whites than for Blacks. The rich white folk could just go home and find someplace else to go or something else to do; their family would still support them, no matter what. But we had no choice. How do you go home and tell your grandma, who knew the value of hard work and had just spent her life savings to get you into college, that you found college life 'hard'? You can't! You just stuck it out." Thanks to her parents' abiding belief in her unlimited potential, McKay was able to persevere beyond these racial underpinnings at Harvard, earning her Ph.D. in English and American literature. Her doctoral thesis, on the Black male and modernist writer Eugene Toomer, was published in 1984 as her first book, Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894–1936.
Found Life's Work in Teaching
Simmons, a small, all-women's college in the Boston area, gave McKay her first full-time, long-term teaching position in 1973. Simmons was, and still is, noted for educating working class women committed to earning a living in traditionally female professions (nursing, grade school teaching, etc.). The school stood in contrast with rest of the "Seven Sister Schools" in New England, (Barnard, Mount Holyoke, Pembroke, Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley), which were largely dedicated to teaching the "daughters of the rich and the intelligentsia," according to McKay. Always committed to helping others, McKay chose to dedicate herself to giving wings to working class women who shared her roots and aspirations during her five years at Simmons.
At a Glance …
Born Nellie Yvonne Reynolds, c. 1930s or 1940s, in the Harlem district of New York City; died on January 22, 2006; daughter of West Jamaican parents Harry Reynolds (a postal worker and taxi driver) and Nellie Robertson (a homemaker); divorced; children: Patricia, Harry. Education: BA (cum laude with honors), Queens College, CUNY, 1969; Harvard University, MA, 1971, PhD, 1977.
Career: Assistant professor of English and American Literature, Simmons College, 1973–78; professor, UW-Madison, 1984–2006; department chair, African American studies, UW-Madison, 1994–97; advisory board, Black American Literature Forum, 1986–92; editorial board, Genders: A Journal on Sexuality and Gender in Literature, Art, Film, and History, 1987–90; editorial board, American Literary History, 1987–2006; associate editor, African American Review, 1992–2006.
Memberships: American Studies Association, College Language Association, Modern Language Association, Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Midwest Consortium of Black Studies.
Awards: Phi Kappa Phi, 1989; University of Wisconsin at Madison Institute for Research in the Humanities, fellow, 1991; UW-Madison Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching award, 1992; University of Wisconsin, Outstanding Contributions to the System award, 1996; Multi-Ethnic Literature [Association] of the United States (MELUS) award, 1996; Phi Beta Kappa, 1999; Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, inductee, 2001; University of Michigan, honorary degree, 2002.
McKay found herself in a very different world when she joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a joint appointment to teach in both the African American studies and English departments in 1978; later this position was expanded into a partial third appointment to the women's studies department. The African American studies and women's studies departments were ten years old at the time and were struggling to hold their own. However, with McKay championing both departments, the UW-Madison quickly started growing national reputations in both areas. McKay belonged to a galvanizing feminist movement and a burgeoning generation of women scholars who were struggling against male domination; this domination extended to the field of African American literature, where women authors had only recently been considered as worthy of sharing the literary spotlight with their male peers.
Co-Edited "Bible" of African American Literary Tradition
McKay's most significant academic contribution was the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which she co-edited with Henry Louis Gates Jr. with the intent of redressing "the fragmented history of African American writing." Ten years of research resulted in what one reviewer in Booklist magazine called "a magisterial volume," not only for its formidable size, but also for the wide scope of its included works. This authoritative canon provides illuminating historical commentary, spanning 250 years of 118 poets and writers-including the oral roots of African American letters, a grand selection of spirituals, gospel, sermons, folktales, and blues, jazz, and rap lyrics. Most of these Black writers, male and female, write about the Black experience, which used to be mostly about being good and rebutting negative stereotypes. But by the end of the 20th-century, Black writers convey much more complicated images. In their aggregate, these works are considered to be "often pioneering, always exceptional" and "richly diverse," according to the Booklist reviewer. As such, McKay and Gates' work lives up to what Booklist called "the golden reputation of all of Norton's literary anthologies," which the New York Times noted "define the accepted norms for great literature." "Never again will anybody anywhere not be able to know about the existence of the African-American literature tradition," McKay said, as quoted in her obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "This is a bible, as far as I'm concerned."
In addition to her many literary contributions, Nellie McKay distinguished herself in academe as a passionate teacher and "cultural custodian." "Nellie was always in her office from sunrise to well past dusk, every day, with her door open, nurturing students and colleagues, building the models that will shape her disciplines for decades to come," Werner remembered to Wolff. McKay related in a 1998 interview with Contemporary Black Biography that the most satisfying part of her teaching career was the chance to help her students to "succeed in whatever field of endeavor they choose." She opened her students' minds to new possibilities by teaching African American studies. "They use it as a way of learning about people and cultures different than themselves, which helps them live useful lives in social work, political science, and the like." Her faculty peers elected her to Phi Kappa Phi in 1989; the UW-Madison Chancellor gave her the Distinguished Teaching award in 1992; and she received the Outstanding Contributions to the System award in 1996. For her work on the Norton Anthology, her colleagues around the country gave her the MELUS award, acknowledging in 1996 her tremendous contributions to multi-ethnic literature in the U.S. She was inducted into the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 2001, and presented with an honorary degree from the University of Michigan in 2002.
McKay never lost enthusiasm for her life's work. She stopped only when she succumbed to cancer on January 22, 2006. She is survived by her two grown children and the thriving intellectual community she nurtured.
Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work—1894–1936, University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Compiler, Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, G.K. Hall, 1988.
Contributor, Black Studies in the United States: Three Essays, Ford Foundation, 1990
Co-editor with Henry Gates Jr., Norton Anthology of African American Literature, W.W. Norton, 1996.
Co-editor with Kathryn Earle, Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, 1997.
Co-editor with Frances Smith Foster, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Contexts, Criticism, Harriet Jacobs, W.W. Norton, 2001.
Booklist, January 1, 1997, p. 809.
The Nation, May 12, 1997, pp. 42-46.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 24, 2006.
National Review, March 10, 1997, pp. 50-53.
New York Times, December 12, 1996; January 28, 2006.
"Online Newshour: African American Literary Anthology—March 7, 1997," PBS, www.pbs.org/news-hour/gergen/march97/african_lit_3-7.html (July 11, 2006).
"Online Newshour Forum: Nellie McKay—Norton Anthology of African American Literature—March 18, 1997," PBS, www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/march97/mckay_3-18.html (July 10, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a personal interview with Nellie McKay in January of 1998.
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