Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Nellie McKay: The Open Door

Craig Werner writes:

Nellie McKay’s door was always open.

Part of me wants to leave it there. The students whose voices grace the branches of this tree of words know what I mean. In an academic world all too often fixated on individual stardom, she devoted herself to community, to nurturing the next generation of African Americanists, the students she called her “children.” Nellie often came to campus before the first ray of light lit the Wisconsin winter sky and stayed past sundown when she called Union Cab for her evening ride to her refuge on West Lawn Avenue. She helped students grapple with the complexities of Beloved and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, figure out ways to teach Baldwin and Faulkner to students from the farm towns and suburbs as well as the invisible ghettoes of Madison and Milwaukee, and imagine ways of entering the profession without surrendering their sanity or integrity. If there was a path through the swamp, a way out of no way, Nellie would make sure her students found it.

Or, to phrase it in a way that reminds us that she was a part of the Civil Rights Movement, one of the courageous foot soldiers who marched into spaces where black people were most definitely not welcome, she made sure students kept their eyes on the prize. Nellie understood what she was doing as a response to the call of the elders and the ancestors, those who had come through the unimaginably dark and lonely and hopeless-seeming nights of Middle Passage and slavery and white supremacy in its myriad forms. She understood herself—and, crucially, her students—as part of the tradition forged by Phillis Wheatley and W.E.B. DuBois and Anna Julia Cooper and James Baldwin and June Jordan. She kept faith with the ancestors and now she has joined them. Their call to us is forever altered and enriched.

African American students had a special place in her heart, but her door was open to everyone who shared the vision of a better, more democratic world. She could be tough, demanding, even (as I’ve heard more than one student say) intimidating. She brooked no nonsense, accepted no evasions. She sympathized with students’ struggles, but the point would come when she would say: “yes, but you have work to do.” The work got done.

The real tribute to Nellie McKay lies precisely in the work that her students have done and will do. The books and essays are part of it. Their teaching—both inside and, especially, outside the walls of academia—is part of it. But the tribute that would have made her smile her wonderful smile will be the way her students, those whose words you’ve just read, are weaving the values she lived by into their everyday lives. Most of all, it will come when her children’s children find themselves lost and despairing, and come to an open door.

This essay is the final piece of special section of tributes to Nellie McKay that will appear in an upcoming issue of African American Review. McKay, one of the leading scholars of and advocates for African-American literature, died in January 2006.