New book brings Nellie McKay out of the shadows

The late UW–Madison professor’s groundbreaking work illuminated literature by Black women, but her own life was largely private.
Side by side images with author Shanna Greene Benjamin on the left and her book about Nellie McKay on the right
Courtesy of Shanna Green Benjamin.
New book "Half in Shadow" reveals the life and legacy of former UW–Madison professor Nellie McKay.

Nellie McKay spent much of her distinguished career at the University of Wisconsin–Madison charting and celebrating African American literature, in particular the work of African American women.

When McKay died, in 2006, a UW–Madison colleague, Craig Werner, told the New York Times that McKay “was the central figure in the establishing of Black women’s studies as a presence in academic and intellectual life.”

Yet details of McKay’s own life that emerged after her death mystified some who knew her in Madison. The woman people regarded as McKay’s sister was in fact her daughter. There was more.

Shanna Greene Benjamin was a graduate student at UW–Madison in the 1990s; McKay was her advisor. In 2009, Benjamin was teaching at Grinnell College in Iowa and invited an eminent African American literary historian, Gene Andrew Jarrett, to give a lecture.

Over lunch during the visit, Jarrett said, “What was up with Nellie?”

Benjamin spoke a bit about what she knew and suspected — why McKay might have kept aspects of her life to herself, as well as her growing appreciation of McKay’s seminal role in the study of African American literature. Grinnell had a teaching position specializing in it. Would that have even happened without Nellie McKay?

That day at lunch, Jarrett said, “You should write about this.”

“I had no idea it would take me as long as it did,” Benjamin said last week, chuckling, by phone from Charlotte, North Carolina, where she now lives and writes.

Her book, “Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay,” was published by The University of North Carolina Press in April 2021. It is both a biography of McKay and the story of how she and others brought a feminist perspective to the emerging field of African American literary scholarship.

“In the ‘70s and early ‘80s,” Benjamin says, “the focus on Black literature was through men.”

Born in New York City to Jamaican immigrant parents, McKay earned a bachelor’s degree from Queens College and then went to Harvard University, earning graduate degrees in English and American literature. She joined the UW–Madison faculty in 1978.

Two decades later, a collaboration with a Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. significantly raised McKay’s profile. They served as co-editors of the 1996 “Norton Anthology of African American Literature,” which was both a critical and commercial success.

According to Benjamin, McKay’s presence was vital to ensuring that the project recognized African American female authors.

“She saw to it that they were woven into the tradition,” Benjamin says, “and not just appendages to it.”

It was McKay’s subsequent collaboration with Gates on an extraordinary literary discovery that gave me the chance to interview her.

It was 2002. Earlier, Gates had unearthed and purchased at auction a handwritten manuscript titled, “The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave, recently escaped from North Carolina.”

If authentic, the manuscript might well be the first novel written by an African American woman. In 2001, Gates had sent McKay a copy of the manuscript, asking for her views on its authenticity and cultural importance.

Scientific examination dated the manuscript’s paper to the 1850s. McKay told Gates she believed it was authentic — and hugely important.

McKay’s name was mentioned in some of the national stories surrounding the novel’s publication in 2002, and I reached her by phone in her UW–Madison office.

“It was very exciting,” McKay told me, about first reading the manuscript. “The fact that it was a handwritten manuscript makes it unique. Everything else that we have recovered had already been printed. This is a first.”

Benjamin believes McKay’s decision to keep hidden (relatively — she was forthright in her application to Harvard) the fact she had been married, divorced, and had two children was related to how professional Black women were viewed as she was starting her career.

The widely circulated 1960s “Moynihan Report” on the crisis in African American families laid the blame “squarely at the feet of Black women,” Benjamin said. “Single Black mothers — the downfall of the Black community is because of this.”

Consequently, Benjamin continued, “the atmosphere for Black women strivers was not necessarily welcoming.” McKay hadn’t wanted to announce herself as a single mother, on top of that. “She didn’t need anything else to count against her,” Benjamin said. “Her race and gender were enough.”

Benjamin added, “Which is not to say she never talked about her daughter. She talked about Pat all the time. But she would say, ‘My sister.’”

In the prologue to “Half in Shadow,” Benjamin notes that she felt she needed Pat’s blessing to write the biography — to fully tell the story, she required access to information that wouldn’t be found in a university archive.

Pat Watson did not say yes immediately — she checked with her mother’s closest friends and colleagues, and word came back that Benjamin should make a fine biographer.

At the end of the prologue, Benjamin reminds readers how McKay broke ground that opened an entire academic field.

“McKay spent her life creating space for others. This book creates space for her.”

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