Monday, April 26, 2021

Shanna Benjamin discusses her book Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay

On Sunday, April 18, the UNCF/Mellon Programs sponsored a conversation between Shanna Benjamin  and me about her book Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay. I enjoyed talking with Shanna about what I view as an important contribution to African American literary studies, black women's professional and intellectual history, and biographical studies. 

At this point, the legendary Cynthia Spence, director of the UNCF/Mellon programs, and her trusted assistant, the good sister Ada Jackson, have brought so many folks together so often over the decades that we've simply run out of superlatives to capture what they do. Wonderful. Incomparable. Next level.  They keep doing it. We just witnesses.  

Shanna's book highlights this crucial figure in the growth of African American literary studies as a distinct field. McKay is perhaps most well known as the lead co-editor, along with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. What Shanna's book reveals, though, is that McKay had this extraordinary backstory, and contributed to other defining moments in the academy. 

She was instrumental in the development of Afro-American Studies, as it was called, at the University of Wisconsin. She also maintained friendships with a variety of leading scholars such as Frances Smith Foster, William Andrews, and the Nell Irving Painter. Notably, Painter and McKay kept up a more than thirty-year letter correspondence with each other. 

The title Half in Shadow speaks in part to some tremendous secrets that McKay held for much of her professional life. For decades, the woman people thought was McKay's sister, was in fact her daughter. Shanna sheds light on why McKay, as a black woman entering the academy when she did, felt the need to keep aspects of her personal life in the shadows so to speak. 

The book is fascinating as well, because Shanna weaves in her own story in these interludes along the way of charting McKay's history. Shanna was one of McKay's students at the University of Wisconsin, so it is fitting that she intersperses this personal touch in the book. Shanna is an eloquent writer too, so reading was an enjoyable experience. 

We covered a wide range of topics during our conversation. I asked Shanna to discuss what she would tell her former self--the writer-researcher as she began this project many years ago. We discussed the plot twists that came up as Shanna researched McKay's life. The barriers. The new opportunities. The seeming superpowers of her subject, as well as how McKay, and really all of us, struggle with self doubt. I learned quite a bit. 

At one point during the talk, Shanna gave a shoutout to Lucas Church and the University of North Carolina (UNC) Press. She noted that Church, her editor at the press, guided her through the process and continually expressed support for her vision. I think UNC Press has always had a solid reputation, but as Shanna discussed the support she received from Church, you could feel the press rising even higher in the hearts and minds of folks in the Zoom room. 

Shanna's overall knowledge of her subject as well as ease conversing on an assortment of topics made the event fun and informative, scholarly and soulful. 


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