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Nellie Y. McKay Lectures

The annual Nellie Y. McKay Lecture, co-sponsored by the Center for the Humanities, honors one of the foremost educators in the field of African-American Literature and Culture. Nellie Y. McKay (1930-2006) was the Bascom Professor of English and Afro-American Studies and an affiliate faculty member in the Women's Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught from 1978 until 2006. She held a Resident Fellowship at  the Institute in 1991-1992. A native of New York City, she earned her B.A. from Queens College in 1969 and her Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard University in 1978.

McKay was a leading scholar of 19th and 20th century African American literature, widely known for her book on Jean Toomer, her many essays and editions on black women writers, her national leadership in forging new directions for African American Studies, and her teaching and mentorship of generations of undergraduate and graduate students. As co-editor with Henry Louis Gates Jr. of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (nominated for the NAACP's "Image" award), she was instrumental in defining the canon of African American literature for the 21st century. Author of essays on black women writers such as Phillis Wheatly, Zora Neale Hurston, and Harriet Jacobs, McKay was one of the first scholars to bring sustained scholarly attention to Toni Morrison.

Recent Nellie Y. McKay Lectures

portrait image of Michelle Stephens wearing a blue shirt in front of a tan wall.
October 10, 2018 7:30 PM
Room L140 (Lower Level), Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, 800 University Avenue
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Michelle Stephens
Professor of English and Latino and Caribbean Studies and Dean of the Humanities, Rutgers University

The question of scale has always been central to island studies. Whether through an engagement with relational and archipelagic forces, the employment of fractals, or the prominent positioning of island studies within the Anthropocene, today questions of scale are receiving attention in new ways. In this discussion, Michelle Stephens explores recent work in this area, the different and overlapping ways through which we are rethinking the scalar and islands in the contemporary era.

Michelle Stephens is the Dean of the Humanities and a Professor of English and Latino and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Originally from Jamaica, West Indies, she graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in American Studies. Among other works, she is the author of Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914 to 1962 (Duke University Press, 2005), Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis and The Black Male Performer (Duke University Press, 2014), Archipelagic American Studies, co-edited with Brian Russell Roberts (Duke University Press, 2017), and the exhibition catalog Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, co-edited with Tatiana Flores (Duke University Press, 2017). She is a graduate of the Licensure Qualifying Program at The William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology, and a practicing psychoanalyst.

October 19, 2017 6:00 PM
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, L140
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Christina Sharpe
English, Tufts University

In In the Wake, Sharpe interrogates literary, visual, cinematic, and quotidian representations of Black life that comprise what she calls the “orthography of the wake.” Activating multiple registers of “wake”—the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, coming to consciousness—Sharpe illustrates how Black lives are swept up and animated by the afterlives of slavery, and she delineates what survives despite such insistent violence and negation. Initiating and describing a theory and method of reading the metaphors and materiality of “the wake,” “the ship,” “the hold,” and “the weather,” Sharpe shows how the sign of the slave ship marks and haunts contemporary Black life in the diaspora and how the specter of the hold produces conditions of containment, regulation, and punishment, but also something in excess of them. In the weather, Sharpe situates anti-Blackness and white supremacy as the total climate that produces premature Black death as normative. Formulating the wake and “wake work” as sites of artistic production, resistance, consciousness, and possibility for living in diaspora, In the Wake offers a way forward.

Christina Sharpe is Associate Professor of English at Tufts University and the author of Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subject and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Her research interests are in black visual culture, black diaspora studies, and feminist epistemologies, with a particular emphasis on black female subjectivity and black women artists.

September 14, 2016 7:30 PM
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building room L140, 800 University Avenue
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Christine Yano
Professor of Anthropology, University of Hawaii

Pink globalization, the spread of cute goods from Japan to other parts of the world, has been a stronghold of consumption in various parts of the industrial world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, particularly with Hello Kitty as its mascot. The Japanese icon that has gone global represents some of the most far-reaching aspects of kawaii (cute) soft power, creating what Yano calls an “empire of cute” that references the character’s global reach, as well as her broad power as a national (Japan) and ethnic (Asian American) icon. This presentation addresses ways by which kawaii (cute) presents a fraught regime in its infantilized familiarity, its unthreatening nature, and its “demand for care.” The critics’ voices rise from their own collective demographic of originary fans – Asian-American, female -- to complicate the picture. In short, the critics decry the stereotype that lives in part through the putative persistence of Hello Kitties in their midst, reinforced by the sexual politics of multicultural America. 

Presented in partnership with the Burdick-Vary Lecture Series: Asian Americans and the Pleasures of Fantasy.

Christine R. Yano, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, has conducted research on Japan and Japanese Americans with a focus on popular culture.  Her publications include Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song (Harvard, 2002), Crowning the Nice Girl; Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Hawaii’s Cherry Blossom Festival (Hawaii, 2006),Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways (Duke, 2011), and Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty and its Trek Across the Pacific (Duke, 2013). She curated a major exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, “Hello!  Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty,” which ran from 2014 to 2015, and continues to travel.  During 2014-2015, she served as Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University, resulting in a book project with Asian American undergraduates there entitled Straight A’s: Asian American Academic Achievement

February 23, 2016 5:30 PM
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building room L140, 800 University Avenue
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Earl Lewis
Historian, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Earl Lewis is President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. A well-regarded social historian, he has been a champion of the importance of diversifying the academy, enhancing graduate education, re-visioning the liberal arts, exploring the role of digital tools for learning, and connecting universities to their communities. Before joining the Mellon Foundation, he served as Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies at Emory University, and as vice provost and dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan. He held faculty appointments at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan. The author and co-editor of seven books including the eleven-volume Young Oxford History of African Americans, he has written numerous essays, articles, and reviews on different aspects of American and African American history. His recent books include The African American Urban Experience: Perspectives from the Colonial Period to the Present (2004), and Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (2004).

October 9, 2014 7:30 PM
L140 Elvehjem Building, 800 University Avenue
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Saidiya Hartman
Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Drawing from her new book project, the lecture examines the social upheaval and radical transformation of everyday life that took place in the American slums between 1890-1920.

Saidiya Hartman is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and has served as the director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality. She is the author of Lose Your Mother (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2007) and Scenes of Subjection (Oxford University Press 2007). She has published several articles on slavery, including "Venus in Two Acts" and "The Time of Slavery."

April 24, 2014 7:30 PM
L160 Conrad A. Elvehjem Building
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Anne Cheng
English and the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

What do sushi, food, race, and anthropology have to do with each other? Taking a scene of sushi eating in David Wong Louie's short story "Bottles of Beaujolais" as a spring board into a larger meditation on the "nature" of human eating, this paper traces the often unspoken racial logic that subtends and connects the question of who is human and what is it that we eat.

Anne Anlin Cheng is Professor of English and of the Center for African American Studies. She specializes in race studies, aesthetic theory, film and psychoanalytic theories, working primarily with twentieth-century American literature with special focus on Asian American and African American literatures. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Assimilation, Psychoanalysis, and Hidden Grief and Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. Recent articles by Cheng include: “Sheen: On Glamour, Race, and the Modern,” PMLA; “Skins, Tattoos, and Susceptibility,” Representations; “Psychoanalysis without Symptom,” Differences; “Skin Deep: Josephine Baker and the Colonial Fetish,” Camera Obscura; and “Ralph Ellison: Melancholic Visibility and the Crisis of American Civil Rights,” Journal of Law, Philosophy, and Culture.

March 7, 2013 4:30 PM
L140 Conrad A. Elvehjem Building
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Eddie Glaude, Jr.
William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University

In his lecture, Glaude explores how "whiteness" continues to distort American democracy, disfiguring our precious ideals into unsightly and dangerous justification for ugly practices that ultimately cast away democratic principles, and eventually, people. This distortion requires a response, specifically from those who are disproportionately affected by the unseemly machinations of whiteness in our politics. Those who suffer injury, in part because they are not white, must give voice to the distinctiveness of their experiences in order to expand democratic possibility. Black politics, at its best, has done precisely this. No matter the specific demands of the black freedom struggle throughout our history, the one constant has been a complete and unequivocal rejection of the oxymoronic idea of "white democracy." But the public expression of black suffering has become increasingly difficult today, because "white democracy" trades in the language of color-blindness and the political idea of Black America has collapsed in the face of internal differences unleashed in what can be called a post-soul era.

Galude confronts a possible paradox: that the current expression of "white democracy" requires a response in the form of black identity politics, but the political idea of Black America has collapsed in the face of fragmenting black communities, where the once powerful ideal of black solidarity crumbles under the weight of internal class and generational differences. Glaude answers the paradox with a call for a more robust form of black identity politics attuned to the differences within black communities and rooted in a grassroots democratic ethos that exposes the continued political and moral work of "whiteness" in America.

Professor Eddie Glaude's research interests include American pragmatism, specifically the work of John Dewey, and African American religious history and its place in American public life. He is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the 2002 Modern Language Association William Sanders Scarborough Prize for his book Exodus! (2000). He has also co-edited, with Cornel West, African-American Religious Thought: An Anthology (2004).

March 22, 2012 7:30 PM
Chazen Museum of Art, Room L160
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Thadious Davis
Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

In this talk, I am using a term, chaining, to signify the tight links, but open spaces in conceptualizing and articulating person and in recollecting and representing past in a grouping of African American texts, such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, Cane by Jean Toomer, Jazz by Toni Morrison, Magic City by Yusef Komunyakaa, and The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Chaining is an active way of constructing the working of space in the African American imaginary. The links form connective tissue carrying ideas both forward and backward along a time-space continuum, and the open space within each link forms the contained and shaped ideas that are pushed or pulled along with the motion of the links, or that remain static when the links are unmoving and stable. Within the structure of the chain, within the openings between the metal pieces functioning as fastenings and as restrictive bondage, there is what I am calling “black space,” encircled and partly determined in terms of referential shape by being enclosed, yet at the same time open and operative. This encircled opening is the part of the chain that is overlooked, ignored, obscured, because like air it is essential, crucial, and necessary, but unobtrusive and unseen. I derive black space from conceptualizing chaining and its three dimensionality as organic to a mechanism that touches the body, that is intimate and portable, moving with the body and reverberating with a multiplicity of bodies and bodily experiences, both material and psychological, and that carries through the tangible representation of the public past a wider or broader access to the multiple and vexed aspects of black life in the United States.

Davis's teaching areas include African American literature and Southern literature with an emphasis on issue of race, region, and gender. Her research interests are interdisciplinary: geography and African American writers; photography and Southern women; film and literary modernism; visual culture and the Harlem Renaissance; civil rights law and narrative fiction. Active in American Studies and Southern Studies, she has taught and lectured in Europe and Asia; most recently, she delivered papers in Tokyo, Japan, at Chuo University and at International Faulkner Symposium, sponsored by the Faulkner Society of Japan. As the Walt Whitman Chair in American Civilization, a Fulbright Distinguished Chair, at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, she participated in American Studies programs throughout Western and Central Europe. She has also held tenured professorships at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Brown University, and Vanderbilt University where she was the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English. Invested in contemporary archival work, she has been a fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Huntington Library in California where she held the R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Fellowship.

March 24, 2011 7:30 PM
Mills Hall, Mosse Humanities Building
Nellie Y. McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University

Professor Gates' talk will deepen the community-wide discussion of ethics and race launched this fall through the Go Big Read! program. Sponsored by the Center for the Humanities, the Institute for Research in the Humanities, the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate, the Office of the Provost, and the General Library System.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a literary critic, cultural historian, writer, editor, television producer, and public intellectual. He is the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research, and co-edited "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature" with Nellie McKay. In addition to his extensive scholarly publications, he has helped call attention to African American experiences through projects like his 2006 PBS documentary “African American Lives,” the first documentary series to employ genealogy and genetic science to provide an understanding of African American history. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American Studies and Africana Studies, and of "The Root," an online news magazine dedicated to coverage of African American news, culture, and genealogy.

February 7, 2008 7:00 PM
Wisconsin Historical Society
Nellie Y McKay Lecture in the Humanities
Frances Smith Foster
Charles Howard Candler Professor of English & Women's Studies and Associated Faculty in African American Studies and in American Studies, Emory University

Would it surprise you to learn that "Dear Abby" has an African American ancestor; that Freedom's Journal was the earliest African American newspaper but it was not an abolitionist newspaper; or that love, marriage and sexual morality were regular topics in the Antebellum Afro-Protestant Press? Foster will discuss these themes. Among Frances Foster's most recent publications are Love and Marriage in Early African America; Race, Region and the Politics of Slavery's Memory; African Americans, Literature, and the Nineteenth Century Afro-Protestant Press; Written By Herself; and Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892. She has co-edited Norton Critical Edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (with Nellie Y. McKay), Norton Anthology of African American Literature (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Nellie Y. McKay, et al), and Oxford Companion to African American Literature (with William L. Andrews and Trudier Harris).