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Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay

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Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay is an intellectual biography that traces twentieth-century Black literary history through McKay’s life to reveal her role in field formation and to document the strategies Black women employ to live out their dreams. When McKay began her graduate studies at Harvard University in 1969, African American literature did not exist as a widespread field of study. By the time McKay had co-edited The Norton Anthology of African American Literature with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1997, it had been institutionalized as a discipline. How did this happen? Who were the players? What did they sacrifice? Half in Shadow examines McKay’s path through the professoriate to lay bare the sacrifices and successes of Black women in the American academy as they rejected the masculinist impulse within African American literary studies and built the field of Black feminist thought. This book also rewrites African American literary history to include the underrecognized Black women who played a crucial role in its development.

Through autobiographical vignettes, Half in Shadow also offers my professional trajectory as a counterpoint to McKay’s life story. These vignettes highlight the persistence of particular issues facing Black women in the academy—issues of equity and access, questions of recognition and oversight, concerns around overwork and wellness—to make clear that McKay’s achievements, however profound, were hard-won and costly.


For every barrier she faced in her graduate career and on the tenure track, McKay instituted programs and practices that would improve the experience of scholars following in her wake. Why, then, are Black women in the academy fighting so many of the same battles that Black women of McKay’s generation fought? Half in Shadow shows how one person can have a profound impact on individual lives and institutional structures, but it also reveals the parts of McKay’s professional project that require our ongoing attention. McKay’s life is a call, a reminder to readers, that there’s still work to do. 

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Sonya Bonczek

Director of Publicity

The University of North Carolina Press


Illustrating the challenges and exclusion often experienced by Black women in academia, Shanna Greene Benjamin has written this compelling and unexpected biography of Nellie Y. McKay, a formidable scholar of contemporary literature and women’s studies.” —Ms. Magazine



“Half in Shadow is a significant contribution to the intersecting fields of African American and women’s studies and stands as a lasting tribute to a devoted mentor. Shanna Benjamin paints a compelling and convincing portrait of Nellie Y. McKay as a complex mentor, an ambitious single mother, and a discipline-defining scholar. The result is a fascinating exploration of a life told with sensitivity rather than sensation.”
—Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Shanna Benjamin has written the kind of book so many of us have longed to read: a history concerning Black women scholars who significantly shaped African American literary studies. The project highlights aspects of a scholar who was widely known yet remained Half in Shadow. Though this book primarily concentrates on a single person, we see the stakes in the field for women, especially Black women, in the academy. Benjamin does essential work here.”—Howard Rambsy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

“Shanna Benjamin's biography of Nellie McKay is a remarkable portrait of a Black feminist literary scholar who helped to craft the influential field of Black Women's Studies and made significant contributions to African American literary studies. Very compelling as well is Benjamin's unusual method, which weaves her own personal narrative as a literary scholar into the extraordinary, complex life of her former professor.”
—Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Spelman College

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