Celebrating a new year in January never made sense to me. As a child, and even now as a long-ago-graduated adult, new beginnings      are the stuff of fall -- new school years, new clothes, fresh books and a renewed sense of learning. Crisp fall breezes conjure thoughts of the   good books I want to hunker down with during the indoor months ahead and  the journaling that has accumulated over the summer.  And not least, I consider what new skills and knowledge  I want to acquire as the thrill of Wisconsin winters is tempered by having  endured so many below-zero days and once-fun fall football evenings dressed  in the skimpy garb of a band color guard member trying to nurse the feeling back into my toes and fingers. If only I'd known then that basal body  temperature has a memory!
       But this year, my memory turns to the fall of 1979. It  was the year I'd been officially admitted to the University of  Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism, and along with the opening courses that would pave the way for my ardent desire to become a professional  journalist, I could finally make my own choices among the marvelous array  of courses designed to build a balanced liberal arts education. Pouring over the course catalog -- yes, a catalog on paper was the starting point for the pre-computer-age tradition of  picking up paper forms from the Stock Pavilion and trekking from building  to building to register for each course in person,  I saw a course listing that seemed a little odd, yet fascinating to a young wannabee  writer from Beloit, WI.  It was an African American literature course  focusing on the Harlem Renaissance. It was literally the first time  I'd ever seen a course of any kind outside of the required elementary school Black History Month programs that was about Black people. I hustled  over to the Humanities Building to sign up, then hurried to the University  Book Store, where the shelf for the course's books was posted with  "On Order" tags.  When I first saw Professor Nellie McKay, I was struck  by the calm, confident and strong presence this petite African American  woman with a close-cropped afro had in the room. To this day, it's impossible to imagine McKay raising her voice, yet somehow, her words  commanded attention. In her quiet voice, she explained how we would examine one of the greatest formative periods of Black history in America through the literature of Harlem's heyday -- a rare time and place  when African Americans purposefully gathered to define themselves, their  history and their culture through insightful literature, dance, art, and  the creation of an intellectual community.
      Then, McKay explained how she couldn't get copies the books she wanted us to read "some of the greatest literature  ever written by our people less than 50 years earlier. The books, McKay  explained, were out of print. But she had arranged to have her personal  copies reproduced at Bob's Copy Shop across from Union South. We were to go there and buy the Xeroxed pages of  "Native Son" and  "Black Manhattan."  And she ask us to hurry because she didn't want to have to leave her only copy of what was now rare literature there to get lost.
      I now know that it was a pivotal moment in  our nation's history: These were the opening events that would drive McKay and her colleague Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to compile the  award-winning comprehensive anthology of African American literature. McKay, of course, already knew that no one can teach what has been lost and  that African American history and culture in the words of those who  artfully live and interpret it was, and still is, a fragile commodity.
      At that same time, McKay was in the throes of making  her own stand for history, having walked away from opportunities to teach  at well-heeled traditional east coast colleges and universities, where her very subtle eastern linguistic patterns would have blended marvelously with the echos at Harvard, Yale, Boston, and Cambridge. Instead, she taught the handful of faithful, wide-eyed undergraduates in the drafty halls of the UW-Madison Humanities Building, laying the groundwork for a department and area of study that might not have existed without her persistence and dedication, given the ethnicity and interests of a land-grant agricultural college in Wisconsin.
      For the remainder of my undergraduate years, I signed up for more of McKay's classes and was among those students who came early and stayed late as we poured over Black and feminist literature and pressed our professor for more insight, another interpretation, a deeper understanding of  "Coming of Age in Mississippi," 'The Bluest Eye," and "The Amen Corner."
      Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen would speak to us first hand about their worlds. I found these stories of Black culture -- without the moral shading of wider society and odd assumptions of teachers seeking to interpret a culture and mindset they could never understand -- absolutely fascinating. And for the first time ever, I wasn't the only Black student in the class, nor the only student who'd suddenly had a new window to American history --  my history --opened. My soul knew without a doubt that my dream and desire to be not only a writer -- but a Black writer -- was      realistic, tangible, and achievable. Over the past 25 years, I've nabbed and squirreled away copies of those great Black-authored books I first coveted in Xerox form. I have them all now -- and chuckled quietly less than a year ago when I saw stacks of Richard Wright's "Native Son" on a table at Barnes & Noble. And I've also felt a little guilty when my daughters have come home from historically Black colleges and spying choice picks among my book collection, whisked them      away to read. But I didn't feel guilty for chiding them to make sure they put the books back, or better yet to buy their own copy for the future.
      You see, I was one of those students Nelly McKay wanted to reach when she came to Madison in 1978 and stayed until her death last spring. I don't care what the prognosticators or biographers have to  say about why she was here or why she stayed. She gave me one of the greatest unsolicited academic gifts I could have ever gotten and nothing can ever replace what I learned about myself, my people, or the found memories of Professor McKay, who clearly enjoyed those hours in the classroom with the least of us -- the undergraduates who cherish these lessons in Black history that just wouldn't have come up in a Madison context and pass them on to our children and grandchildren.
      So as the skies turn deep blue and we launch the fresh academics of fall, I just want to say Happy New Year, Professor McKay. And,  thank you.
Prof. Nellie McKay:
A great academic gift

by Valeria Davis
Prof. Nellie McKay
September 6 Archives