Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay

Univ. of North Carolina. Apr. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781469662534. $24.95. LIT
This biography is an incomplete account of McKay’s life (1930–2006), but a thorough assessment of her academic career as an undergraduate at Queens College, City University of New York; a graduate student at Harvard University; and professor of African American Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1978–2006). McKay was an early and consistent advocate for the representation of Black women in the academy and of Black women writers in the canon and curricula of African American Literature. She also played a decisive role as editor, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. After her death, friends and colleagues discovered that McKay had been married with two children and claimed to be a decade younger. Her motivation remains obscure since her family declined interviews, though independent scholar Benjamin relies on personal archives and correspondence to make the case that the motivation was out of necessity, in order for a Black working-class woman to succeed in the white-dominated academy. However, it would have been helpful if Benjamin offered more insight on Jamaica, McKay’s place of birth, her adolescence, and her marriage.
VERDICT McKay’s life remains in shadow; her legacy awaits a comparative assessment of the contributions of her contemporaries to Black feminist studies and African American literature.
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