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Remembering Nellie McKay
By Kendra Hamilton

Much of America learned of the death of Dr. Nellie McKay, the distinguished literature professor who died at the age of 75 after a lengthy battle with colon cancer, through reading the newspaper. But for many in the community of Black scholars and writers, the news came through a far more intimate source — the virtual grapevine that we know as the Web-based listserv.

One two such lists, one for historians specializing in Black history and another for professors of poetry, messages from across the nation poured in over the course of several days. They came from Washington University in St. Louis, Tufts University in Boston, New York University, Florida State University, Emory, Georgia Tech and many other locations.

Some of the posts lamented McKay’s passing as the latest loss in a generation of iconic African-American female scholars. Notable women like Claudia Tate, Barbara Christian, June Jordan, to name just a few, are now gone.

Others paid tribute to her signature work, her co-editorship with her friend, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. The anthology contains 2,600 pages and 200 years of Black experience, ranging from the spirituals and blues of our unlettered ancestors to the prose of Toni Morrison, the first Black Nobel Laureate in literature.

After reading the posts from former students, college professors and friends, I stood up from my desk to stretch my legs — and found myself standing at the foot of the stairs pulling my own dog-eared and coffee-stained copy of the first edition of the Norton from the shelves. Flipping through its pages, I saw the notations I had made in the margins that semester I dragged my first group of students kicking and screaming through the poetry of Phillis Wheatley.

Such a class would have been unimaginably difficult to teach before the publication of the Norton. Every generation of scholars had to “reinvent the wheel,” laboriously gathering together widely scattered and mostly out-of-print materials just to craft a syllabus. Indeed, McKay described this reality to The New York Times, saying it was “nearly impossible” to study African-American literature at the university level in the 1960s. Students scrounged for books and taught each other.

In 1997, with the publication of both the Norton and The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, that landscape changed forever.

Nellie Yvonne Reynolds was born in Queens, N.Y., to Jamaican parents. She earned a bachelor’s in English from Queens College in 1969, a master’s in English and American literature from Harvard University in 1971 and a doctorate in the same field from Harvard in 1979. She joined the University of Wisconsin faculty the next year and never left, although she was invited many times to go elsewhere.

After her death, Gates, chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard, told The (Madison, Wis.) Capital Times, “It’s a sad day for all of us who love African-American literature and culture. Without Nellie, that project would not have come to fruition.”

A memorial for McKay is planned for later in the spring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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