This article originally appeared in Isthmus on Jan. 31, 1997.
"Caller from Mukwonago, go ahead."
"I'm so honored to speak to you," says the woman to Nellie McKay, the guest on this morning's radio show. "I've been getting up early, making a fire and reading 'Slave Girl.' I'm going to use it and read it aloud to my grandchildren."
"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," the first slave narrative written by a woman in the United States, is one of the seminal works included in the newly published Norton Anthology of African American Literature, the subject of today's show. The anthology, co-edited by UW-Madison professor McKay and Harvard star Henry Louis Gates Jr., has been an instant success. Norton anthologies usually head straight to the classrooms, but this one took a detour. It is being read -- devoured is more like it -- by an enthusiastic public. The hardcover edition sold out its first printing of 30,000 before students ever got a chance at it. This popular success surprises no one more than McKay.
"I call it a wayward child who has gone in a direction its parents never could have imagined," says McKay, who teaches American and Afro-American literature and chairs the UW's Afro-American studies program. "It's taken on its own life and making of itself this very public figure...something that everybody out there wants to read."
The anthology, spanning more than 200 years, includes the works of 120 writers, 52 of whom are women. Poetry, novels, drama, journals and autobiography, as well as examples of the oral tradition, are represented in the 2,650-page, 2-1/2-pound volume. It contains sections on the "Literature of the Reconstruction," "The Harlem Renaissance" and "The Literature of Slavery and Freedom," complete with introductory essays, bibliographical information and footnotes. (A compact disc that comes with the paperback version contains spirituals, ballads and blues works performed by the likes of Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong.)
The sheer breadth and size of the book has had an impact, says McKay. "A lot of people just never imagined the quantity and particularly the quality of African American expressive culture." Especially for black people, she adds, the book represents "astonishing evidence of the existence of a tradition in black America that makes them proud."
It's a tradition that developed in response to a prevailing view of African Americans as a subhuman species. "There was a need to produce literature as a way to prove one's humanity," says McKay. In the early years, this meant "writing about the self and establishing the self as a viable human entity."
Harriet Jacobs' "Slave Girl," written in 1861, is a prime example of this approach. It's a heartrending account of a slave fugitive who, before finding her way to freedom, hid for seven years in a crawl space above a storeroom in her grandmother's house. Her two children frolicked outside, unaware of their mother's whereabouts:
"I hardly expect that the reader will credit me, when I affirm that I lived in that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years. But it is a fact; and to me a sad one, even now; for my body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment to say nothing of my soul."
The caller from Mukwonago is clearly touched by the piece. She calls the collection a marvelous "connector" and a blessing: "There's a wonderful humanity that comes through in the words."
The anthology is a crowning achievement for McKay, one of the pioneers who helped establish African American studies in academia. Putting the book together raised tough philosophical and literary issues and was a major learning experience for all involved. McKay says she didn't understand the significance of the project until she held the finished product in her hands. Now, she says, "I'm just lost in wonder and awe at the existence of all of this material."
McKay got to know co-editor "Skip" Gates back in the mid-1970s at meetings of the Modern Library Association in Chicago. "It's where everybody goes to get themselves seen as professionals in the field," explains McKay.
At the time, McKay and Gates were part of a small group of black scholars among the association's largely white and male membership. Scattered at various institutions around the country, these scholars looked forward to annual reunions at the library association meetings. "We partied, sat around drinking wine, beer, talked, complained and supported each other," says McKay. "It was a wonderful kind of sub-organization."
In the early '80s, when Gates was still a relative unknown at Cornell University, he broached the idea of a Norton anthology of African American literature to his colleague, M.H. Abrams, who had worked on several Nortons. There were existing anthologies of black literature -- indeed, several early African American works survive today due to the fact that they were included in collections -- but most were slim and specialized volumes.
A Norton anthology, by contrast, would be a scholarly landmark. Norton collections of American and English literature have come to define the "canon" and are widely used in college classrooms. More than 15 million are in print today. A Norton anthology, Gates knew, could revolutionize the teaching of African American studies and black literature.
Says McKay of Gates: "He dreams big and ahead of his time."
But when Abrams pitched the idea to Norton in 1984, the publisher was reluctant to proceed without doing extensive market research.
"They spent almost two years trying to determine whether or not they would be able to sell 12,000 copies over the course of two years," says McKay.
When Gates got the go-ahead from Norton in 1986, he asked McKay to co-edit the volume. Together they came up with a list of editors -- all of whom knew each other from the MLA gatherings -- who would be in charge of the various periods chronicled in the anthology.
"Everyone who was invited knew each other and were comfortable with each other," says McKay. "We knew we could work with each other and that this was a project we were all very excited about. We imagined it would take us five years. We also thought we would have a book of 1,250 pages. That is not what happened. It took us 10 years and it's 2,650 pages."
All along the way, says McKay, Norton complained and rebelled over the manuscript's size. After the publisher objected to the final 3,000-page manuscript, she and Gates got out the red pen one last time. "We went through a very painful cutting process, and we just felt we couldn't cut anymore. We handed it to them and said this is it."
Even so, some authors inevitably got left out; McKay touts the volume as comprehensive, not definitive. The editors had to hash out what would make the cut, and naturally there were disagreements.
If McKay had had her way, for instance, rap would not have been included in the section on the vernacular tradition. "I hate the stuff," she says. "I certainly find a certain portion of rap lyrics and music degrading to women.... It's also advocating behavior that I'm not willing to tolerate." In the end, however, she gave in to the arguments of others. "I had to recognize that since I'd fought all these battles about inclusiveness, I had to practice what I was preaching."
One of those battles was over Lucy Terry's "Bars Fight," reputed to be the earliest poem written by an African American. "It's not great poetry," admits McKay of Terry's rhymed retelling of an Indian ambush on two white families in 1746. "But it is the oldest living piece of writing that we have. It establishes precedent and stands as the historical evidence that these things have been happening over more than 200 years and they're not just a recent phenomenon. So I can say to my students that black fiction didn't originate with Alice Walker."
One of the book's more exciting "finds" is Victor Séjour's "The Mulatto," originally published in French in 1837. Born in Louisiana, Séjour left the States at 19 to settle in Paris. His short story was known only to a few antiquarian scholars, but period editor William Andrews, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and former UW professor) tracked it down for the anthology.
"It is the earliest known work of African American fiction," he says. "It's also remarkable because it's a story that almost certainly could not have been published in this country given the subject matter.... It was just too strong in terms of its treatment of race, color and, well, sex."
Andrews puts Séjour in the tradition of black expatriates like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes, who moved to France for greater freedom. "These were all writers who felt they had a better chance to say what they had to say by moving to France than if they'd stayed here."
While tracking down obscure work in foreign libraries is hard enough, anthology editors would probably agree it's still not as hard as dealing with living writers. Some authors wanted control over which piece is included; others haggled about the price (Norton spent more than $300,000 on permissions for the book). 1993 Nobel laureate Toni Morrison refused at first to have Sula, her second novel, included in the anthology.
"I remember talking to the vice president in charge of the project at Norton," says Andrews, "and saying there's only one person involved in this project who can get Toni to change her mind. It's not Skip [Gates], it's Nellie. So I said, 'See if you can get Nellie on this because her powers of persuasion are virtually irresistible.' And we have Sula."
The anthology presented other thorny issues for writers. Albert Murray, an essayist and poet, struggled with the idea of being labeled a "black writer" instead of simply a writer.
"He was both pleased and had ambivalences about being included in the anthology," says McKay. "My own feeling is that you're both. They belong to a black tradition which is different from the white tradition, but they also belong within the white tradition because they contribute to -- and are nurtured by -- that tradition."
Criticism of the anthology has been minimal. In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Julius Lester, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, charges that period editor Houston A. Baker Jr. comes close to "justifying," rather than explaining, the anti-Semitism in some works of the black arts movement of the 1960s. McKay acknowledges there was some conversation about the section, but Baker prevailed in keeping it as written.
Is it ironic that black scholars are creating a canon, given that these same scholars have spent most of their careers breaking down other canons because of their implications of patriarchy? "You can't break one if you don't have one," responds McKay. The job for young scholars, she says, is to break this one.
It's moments before Nellie McKay takes the floor at Canterbury Booksellers Coffeehouse to discuss the Norton anthology. Every seat is already filled, and people are scurrying to find a place to roost. A Canterbury rep asks McKay if she should hold up the reading for a couple of minutes.
"No," says Mckay, softening her firm retort with a smile. "Let's get this over with."
McKay's stage jitters seem to disappear, however, when she starts talking, like a proud mother, about the anthology. "I'm usually quite modest about my scholarly activities," she says, "but about this one I have no shame."
She reads a passage from Cain, the groundbreaking, racially charged book by Jean Toomer, an author on whom she has written a biography:
Her skin is like dusk,
O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk,
When the sun goes down.
McKay also reads a selection from Langston Hughes, one of the only African American writers she says she knew about before college. Hughes wrote a column in the 1940s for the New York Post, and McKay would read the paper when her dad brought it home from work.
McKay's parents emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in the 1920s and settled in Harlem, where she was born. She recalls her childhood as relatively "privileged," with stable parents who stressed the importance of education. Her mother, in particular, nurtured an interest in literature by reading constantly to McKay and her two sisters: "I don't remember a time when there hadn't been a love of literature for me," she says.
At Queens College, McKay studied English literature; her goal at the time was to become a Shakespearean scholar and return to New York to become the first black professor to teach Shakespeare in the City University system. "I didn't study black literature because it didn't exist when I went to school," she says.
In her senior year she got involved in the civil rights movement; the death of Martin Luther King would change the course of her career.
"King was clearly someone for whom I had an enormous amount of admiration. When he was assassinated, I remember saying the next morning, 'How dare the sun to shine.'
"It was like everything that I had thought the world was about was not so and came together in the death of this man...this horrible death. I decided I did not want to be a Shakespearean. I needed to learn more about America and study it and try to understand what brought us to this point of violence at this time."
McKay was so sheltered, she says, that at the time she "didn't even know enough about slavery to understand the chain link from slavery to what was happening in the late 1960s to black people."
In 1969, McKay entered graduate school at Harvard in American literature. There she met a group of young black people who introduced her to black American literature. "We had no classes," she says. "We had each other. We discovered books and looked for books."
She recalls it as an extremely exciting time: "This was the generation that began what we call now the archeological project of the discovery of black writers from the past."
After receiving her doctorate from Harvard in 1977, McKay taught for a year at Simmons College in Boston. In 1978, she came to UW-Madison.
By this time, black studies programs -- which had sprung up across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- were at a crisis point; many were on the verge of falling apart. The UW's program, says McKay, was at a crossroads. "It had gone through its first decade with mixed success, and there was a real emphasis here to build a strong department.... That sense of a commitment to building a field has always been at the center of what this department is about, and it continues to make it an exciting place to be."
One of the main draws for McKay was the chance to create something from nothing. "One of the provisions of my hiring is that I would establish a literature curriculum for the department."
About seven years ago, Harvard tried to entice McKay back to her alma mater. She turned them down. "It was a difficult decision for me to make, but not for the reasons that many would think."
She felt pressure from family, and particularly from black friends, to go for the prestige of the Ivy League. "'Just think,' they said, 'you'd be the first black woman at Harvard.' But that had to be balanced by where I thought I could be most effective and where I thought I'd be happier doing the kind of work I do."
McKay also took into account quality-of-life issues -- affordability, safety -- and weighed the value of the good collegial relationships she'd developed over the years. That's not something to take for granted, she says, when operating in a fishbowl where "competition is so great between individuals that it's almost impossible to have secure personal relationships with your peers and cohort groups."
Despite her relative comfort, McKay has often meditated on the struggle of being a black scholar in the predominantly white academy and has written several journal articles on the subject.
"I think that the white academy still remains somewhat intimidating for young black scholars," says McKay. "Young black scholars often feel that they're not just representative of themselves but of their race, and that what they do -- how they succeed or fail -- has larger implications than just what happens to them." It is enough, she says, to give one ulcers.
McKay says she felt that pressure herself in her early years, particularly as a graduate student at Harvard, "a place that was not at all sensitive to either women or minority people. I want to stress it wasn't because of anything they did. It was the absence of sensitivity to the fact that people like me would feel like outsiders."
She says that such insensitivity remains a problem today. "The fact is we do not live in a colorblind society, and I doubt that we ever will. The majority culture always has to be cognizant that its behavior needs to be sensitive to those who are not like it. I think this is what a lot of white people simply do not understand."
McKay is looking forward to this summer. It will be the first one in 10 years when she won't be weeding through manuscripts for the anthology.
For now, she and professors in the UW education department are working on ways to introduce The Norton Anthology of African American Literature to local high school students. McKay sees the anthology -- with its rich chapter on the vernacular tradition -- as a good answer to the current controversy raging over the use of black English, or "ebonics," in the classroom.
"Black English has always appeared in the literature, which gives it a certain legitimacy and delegitimizes a lot of the arguments about it either not existing or not being anything of value."
But McKay does draw the line. "I am not interested in black English being used in the schools, where we are training young people who have to get out into the marketplace. You can't get a job at IBM, Microsoft or WHA radio if all you speak is black English."
McKay, who took over as chair of the Afro-American studies department more than two years ago, says she feels a "sense of wholeness" about her career. She's pursued her own scholarship, written two books, spearheaded the development of the university's African American literature curriculum and been a "good citizen" by participating on numerous university committees. She continues to enjoy teaching and nurturing graduate students, some of whom are a bit nervous these days.
"One student came by last week and said, 'Now that you have this big book, are you going to leave?' And I keep saying that when someone offers me a better job than I have I will leave. So far, nobody has offered me that."
With mixed feelings, McKay has moved into the role of an elder.
"My generation of scholars has put black studies on a very firm foundation within the intellectual community of the country. It's not that there isn't work still to do and that it won't still be hard, but I don't think people say anymore, 'What is black studies?' Looking back 25 years, it's been challenging, frustrating, disappointing at times, but it's been good. And we have made a difference."