Symposium to honor memory of women’s studies pioneer

March 21, 2006

by Barbara Wolff

Photo of Nellie McKay.

Nellie McKay, a pioneer in the field of Afro-American studies, was Bascom Professor of English and Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison. McKay died Jan. 22.

Photo: Michael Kienitz

It’s only fitting that the life of Nellie McKay, lost Jan. 22, be celebrated with a national symposium.

McKay, a professor of Afro-American studies and English since 1978, was well known worldwide as one of the principal founders of African American women’s studies.

“When she came here there was not a single university that was paying any attention to black women’s literature. Now, there isn’t a single university that isn’t,” says colleague Craig Werner, professor of Afro-American studies and interim chair of the department.

McKay also was a renowned scholar on 19th and 20th century literature in her own right. Since earning her Ph.D. from Harvard University, McKay published more than 60 essays, book and journal articles on such writers as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Jacobs, Jean Toomer (who attended UW in 1914-15) and others. With Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, she edited “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature,” a seminal volume first published in 1988. Consequently, faculty in the departments of Afro-American Studies and English will host a major symposium in her honor on Saturday, April 1. Speaking will be a stellar cast of scholars from Princeton, Duke, Rutgers, Brandeis, the University of North Carolina, New York, Emory, Spelman College, the Smithsonian Institutions and many more.

A highlight of the symposium will be a showing of the Pete McPartland Jr.’s film, “Remembering Nellie McKay” and dramatic readings from “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry. McKay was instrumental in establishing UW-Madison’s Lorraine Hansberry Visiting Professorship in the Dramatic Arts in 1998.

The symposium will examine McKay’s scholarly contributions, her role in mentoring graduate students and her pioneering efforts in the service of African American women’s studies and the field’s role in contemporary intellectual life. There also will be literary readings in her honor.

William Van Deburg, Evjue-Bascom Professor of African American History says he is looking forward to remembering McKay through this celebration of her scholarship.

“Over the past quarter century, she has provided this historian with a variety of invaluable insights into American American scholarship,” says Van Deburg, author of the seminal book, “New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975” (University of Chicago Press, 1992). “But more than this, she served as a most wise and gracious sounding board for new ideas, a voice of reason in matters of institutional affairs and politics, and a window on the world of black studies beyond Madison. Her sage counsel has saved me from numerous gaffes and infelicities. She is greatly missed.”

Adds Henry Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of African and African Diaspora Arts, “I always will remember her courage, quiet determination, concern for her students and her friends ... and her laughter.”

“Nellie was always in her office from sunrise to well past dusk, every day, nurturing students and colleagues, building the models that will shape her disciplines for decades to come,” Werner says. “She could have been an academic superstar. She chose instead to build community.”

The panel discussions are free and open to the public. They will begin at 10 a.m. in 1100 Grainger Hall. Visit the Afro-American Studies website for more information, or contact Werner at