McKay, Nellie Yvonne 194(?)–
Nellie Yvonne McKay 194(?)–
Born to Jamaican parents and raised in the Harlem district of New York City, Nellie McKay and her two sisters grew up knowing poverty and racial discrimination. But for the McKays, “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, Nellie has chosen to become a part of the academic life of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“Mom taught us all to read before ever going to school. Our only job as kids was to go to school,” Nellie recalls. “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 all the McKays are avid readers and collectors of books, it was Nellie who went on to major in English literature and make a career of it. She earned her master’s degree (Harvard, 1971) and doctorate (Harvard, 1977) in English and American Literature, and has been teaching at the college and university level ever since. Nellie McKay earned several top honors from her academic peers for her authoritative collection and comprehensive scope of the Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature (1996). She was general co-editor of this 2665-page “Bible” wi+h Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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 said, “but then I couldn’t teach English. I declared my major when I figured an English major could always teach philosophy.”
Nellie McKay, the English major, might not have ended
At a Glance…
Born Nellie Yvonne McKay, c. 1940s, in the Harlem district of New York City; daughter of West Jamaican parents Harry McKay (a postal worker and taxi driver) and Nellie Robertson (ahomemaker Education : B.A. (cum laude with honors), Queem Colf ege, CUNY, 1969; Harvard University, M.A., 1971, Ph.D,, 1977.
Career: faculty, Simmons College, 1971-78; faculty, UW-Madison, 1984-; dept chair, African American studies, UW-Madison, 1994-97.
Selected literary contributions: advisory board of Black American Literature Forum, 1986-92; editorial board of Genders: A Journal on Sexuality and Cender in Literature, Art, Film, and History, 1987-90; editorial board of American Literary History, 1987-; associate editor, African American Review, 1992-; author, Jean Toomer—the Artist, 1984; editor, Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, 1988; co-editor, Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 1996; co-editor, Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, 1997; plus numerous scholarly essays, entries, articles, and papers on the literature of Black women in America, 1977-; major work in progress, Narrative and Identity in Contemporary Black Women’s Autobiographies, 1920—1970.
Selected awards: Phi Kappa Phi, 1989; UW-Madison Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching award, 1992, Outstanding Contributions to the System award, 1996; MELUS award for Contributions to Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S., 1996.
Selected memberships: American Studies Association, College Language Association, Modern Language Association, Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Addresses: Office— Afro-American Studies Dept., 4133 Hellen C. White Hall, Madison, Wl 53705.
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.”
The other consciousness-raising, career-shifting experience happened to McKay while studying at Harvard University in the early 1970s. As she tells 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.”
But McKay outlasted her white peers. “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, Nellie 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—the Artist: a Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936.
Simmons, a small, all-women’s college in the Boston area, gave Nellie Yvonne 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.
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.
McKay’s most significant academic contribution so far is her 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.” One reviewer in Booklist magazine called the Norton Anthology “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 “the golden reputation of all of Norton’s literary anthologies.”
In addition to her many literary contributions, Nellie McKay’s career as a professor and “cultural custodian” has been distinguished by her teaching methods and her passion in the classroom. 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.
Nellie McKay has had many opportunities to move on from UW-Madison, including the offer of a full professorship at her alma mater Harvard. She declines them all, preferring instead to continue writing, teaching, and “growing old” with her wonderful colleagues and students in Madison. Indeed, Nellie McKay is making converts along the way, teaching her students to study and respect the Black tradition as never before.
McKay’s hope is that her students will “succeed in whatever field of endeavor they choose” and lead “useful lives”—that is the most satisfying part of Nellie McKay’s distinguished teaching career. “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.”
Booklist, January 1, 1997, p. 809.
The Nation, May 12, 1997, pp. 42-46.
National Review, March 10, 1997, pp. 50-53.
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