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Into the Light with Life Writing: Nellie Y. McKay and the Literary Legacies of Black Feminism
April 12, 2021 @ 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Nellie Y. McKay (1930–2006)
was a pivotal figure in contemporary American letters. The author of several books, McKay is best known for coediting the canon-making Norton Anthology of African American Literature with Henry Louis Gates Jr., a collection that helped secure a place for the scholarly study of Black writing that had been ignored by white academia.
However, there is more to McKay’s life and legacy than her literary scholarship. After her passing, new details about McKay’s life emerged, surprising everyone who knew her. Why did McKay choose to hide so many details of her past?
In her book, Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay, Shanna Greene Benjamin examines McKay’s path through the professoriate to learn about the strategies, sacrifices, and successes of contemporary Black women in the American academy. Benjamin shows that secrecy was a tactic McKay, a Black, working-class woman chose to employ to succeed in the white-dominated space of the American English department. Using extensive archives, personal correspondence, and autobiographical vignettes, Benjamin brings together McKay’s private life and public work to expand how we think about Black literary history and the place of Black women in American culture.
This public talk places Benjamin in conversation with two of McKay’s collaborators and contemporaries—Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Frances Smith Foster—as well as acclaimed biographer Cherene Sherrard-Johnson and poet Tyree Daye to consider how McKay’s formative work as a scholar, teacher, and mentor resonates still.
This event is co-sponsored by the Diversity & Inclusion Committee of the Department of English & Comparative Literature and is free and open to the public.