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Who and Whose We Are: Nellie Y. McKay and the Legacies of Black Women’s Intellectualism

April 28, 2021 @ 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm

Image description: This is an image of Shanna Greene Benjamin. She is standing up looking straight at the camera. She has on a black shirt and her arms are crossed across her chest. She is wearing black glasses.Spring 2021 Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities:

Shanna Greene Benjamin

Independent Scholar


Curious about how there came to be a place for me, a Black woman scholar of African American literature, in the American academy, I wrote Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay, a biography that traces the life and legacy of University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Nellie Y. McKay. In a book driven by interlocking personal and intellectual commitments, I make visible the hidden story of McKay, the literary scholar who made an indelible mark on higher education by creating space for Black literature, Black scholars, and Black feminist thought. I also position myself as a link in the chain of Black women’s intellectualism through a series of autobiographical “scenes,” where my life experiences serve as counterpoint to McKay’s personal story. In this talk, I recount McKay’s beginnings to map how she realized her vision of a life beyond the one prescribed for Black women born in the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, I chart my inheritance through a matrilineal line where the work of McKay and other Black feminist literary scholars becomes my intellectual birthright.


Shanna Greene Benjamin is a biographer and scholar who studies the literature, lives, and archives of Black women. She has published on African American literature and Black women’s intellectual history in African American Review, MELUS, and PMLA, Studies in American Fiction. She lives with her family in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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