Nell Irvin Painter


Miscellaneous Writings:
The Praxis of a Life of Scholarship:
Three Nellie McKay Letters from 1995.
In Nellie McKay–A Memorial.
Africian American Review, Volume 40, Number 1, Spring 2006:9–12.

The life of scholarship entails an enormous amount of writing, and not simply for teaching and publication. Getting through academic life on a daily basis demands emotional support, expecially when one works in a new field or in communities with challenging demograhics, as did Nellie McKay. Nellie's letters to me, a record of intellectual life and development, document the praxis of a life so dedicated to her field. Personally I thank her for the psychological support she offered me over the long term. History will appreciate her documentation of a life of the mind.

As many of our colleagues know, Nellie and I exchanged letters on a very regular basis for more than a quarter century. We met in the fall of 1969 for the first time at Harvard as first-year graduate students, she in English, me in History. We didn't really get to know one another well until 1976, when whe stayed with me in Philadelphia; I was an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. (An aside: I bought my house on Pine Street for $25,000 in 1974 and sold it for $75,000 in 1980, when I moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thadious Davis, now at Penn, tells me that house was listed for sale last fall for $675,000.)

In 1976 Nellie had come to Philadelphia to interview the second wife of the subject of her dissertation, the reluctant Harlem Renaissance novelist Jean Toomer. Coincidently, I was paying my first visit to the subject of my second book, Hosea Hudson, who lived in Atlantic City. Nellie accompanied me to Atlantic City, getting in on that project on the ground floor. She also rode across the country with me in 1977 in a research trip that took me to Hudson's Birmingham, Alalbama, iron works. Nellie couldn't drive, so she also couldn't navigate. She also couldn't keep up with the finances. But she could always tell when we'd arrive at our each night's destination.

We were both fellows back at Harvard in 1976–1977. She was a dissertation fellow at the Du Bois Institute, which Preston Williams was heading at the time. I was at both the Charles Warren Center and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe. We hosted dinners together in the basement of Robinson Hall for interesting people and had a pretty good time. When she moved to Wisconsin the following year, a friend and I drove her moving truck from Cambridge to Madison, with Nellie crying all the way. She recovered in time to serve as my maid/matron of honor when Glenn and I married in Princeton in 1989.

Our correspondence probably dates from 1977 or 1978, but I honestly don't remember a time when I wasn't writing to Nellie. I miss that correspondence terribly, a lack already felt in 2004, a grievous silence now. This correspondence currently resides with my papers in the John Hope Franklin collection at Duke University. Because it's all in North Carolina, I had access at home only to what I had saved on floppy disks. I want to share with you excerpts from Nellie's letters to me in the first half of 1995. Most of what we wrote dealt with the details of the every day. The everyday included, of course, texts and friends we shared. Someday, someone with a lot of patience will go through this correspondence for its social history of the late 20th-century black women scholars. But until that day, what I share here will be more personal than public.

The first letter comes from 3 January 1995 and begins with our discussion of Cornel West's Race Matters, which I find highly censorious of educated black people. Nellie wrote:

One thing I was going to say was that I recall your sentiments about Race Matters from a long time ago when you did quote it to me. I think a lot of white people like that book because it probably says things they say too. I did not mean to aggravate you by mentioning [a colleague's] great praise of it, but I think it is also important to know who among our friends likes that kind of stuff. I still have not read it and probably won't until I have time on my hands.

I saw Thad [Davis] in San Diego, and had dinner with her and Hortense [Spillers]. [Thad] is excited abouty going to Vanderbilt but also noted that she is aware that you don't think it's a good choice for her. You also know that your strong black women friends will do whatever they want to do.

The second letter, from 3 February 1995, describes a talk she had given to a group of retired people in Madison. Nellie spoke autobiographically to very good effect, words that acquire more weight, given what we now know of her own autobiographical fictions:

Today was interesting. In some past long gone, I promised to give a talk, a 2-hr talk to a group of retired people, many of them former professors of this university. A few weeks ago someone called to remind me. I had completely forgotten and for some reason it was not on the calendar. In any case, I had also forgotten what I had agreed to talk on, and made a mental note to myself a few nights ago to call the contact person and find out what I was supposed to do. But then I forgot to call, until last night when it was too late.

Today I showed up at the hour, 10:00 a.m., and had to ask my Introducer exactly what I was doing. It was something about the Evolution of the Black Woman writer in America.

But flushed with victory from my King Day talk, I decided to go the path of my own autobiography and to talk about how I got to be doing the work I do. So out came another romantic version of my growing up years and how the riots at Queens College [of the City University of New York] in 1967 led to my decision to study American Literature (that's absolutely true). Also true was the part of how important my folks thought education was and how all of their daughters lead successful lives (also true).

What I really did however, was to spin a tale that I consciously knew I was trying to weave to show that there were black people, still are, who are not from the slums and ghettoes, whose values are very middle class whether they have money or not, and who, to a large extent are "just like white people." It was all in the casting. The story was basically true but the emphasis pointed to something that was romantic and propagandistic. I found it very interesting. Autobiography is a construction (as we've known for somtime) and how one shapes it makes all the difference. I found myself enjoying the yarn I was spinning, and when I concluded after moving away from me to a mini lecture on black women writers from Lucy Terry to Toni Morrison, I noted that the writings of these women have focused on building the internal core of the black person/community rather than on the victimization of racism, and after all, that was what the dinnertime conversations were all about in my growing up years: giving us the chance to build up strength to deal with the problems of the world outside…

The last letter I want to share, from 30 May 1995, depicts the satisfactions of long friendship and settled achievement. The two women figuring in this excerpt, Frances Foster and Thadious Davis, were with Nellie when she died last January. Nellie speaks of a conference in Baltimore.

…An hour later everyone left except Thad and me, who hung out together for the remainder of the day. We had lunch, talked more, browsed in the stores close by, then returned to her hotel which was about 12 minutes away. There we put our feet up and talked some more. Much later we realized we had not had dinner but by then it was close to 10 p.m. We'd planned to try out a good restaurant we'd heard about. But it was late and the restaurant was far away, so we settled for dinner in her hotel, then I went home.

We'd been together from about 9:30 a.m. until past 11 p.m. And we talked about everything and everyone. Hurston would have used us for the example of how at the end of the day the tired folks sat on the steps and "ran the world through their tongues." It was such a good day and I realized how much we think alike about some things. If I had my choice of any two black women literary critics to have as colleagues in my own university, my choices would be Thad or Fran Foster.

As far as I can tell, the three of us appear to be the ones with the least amount of competition between us and everyone else; the ones who are genuinely happy for the success of others and who wear our own like loose robes. I detect no malice in either of these two women, and when we talk about the others it is often with a sigh of disappointment rather than with envy over what they have.

Thad put it well when she observed that we who are in mid-career now do little to celebrate ourselves as a group, and that we need more genuine celebrations. Since most of us have known each other now for more than 20 years, we have essentially "grown up" together. In the early days, when we were all nobodies, we cared about each other differently. We've lost that along the way to fame and success. Maybe those of us who wanted to keep things as they were simply expected too much.

But it was great to be with Thad. It's the longest time I've spent with her alone in her company since we lived in Boston. I predict she'll do well in Nashville. She told me she's thinkiing about doing a biography on Hurston and I told her she should. She wondered about the other wirters on whom there is no biography. I replied that there are multiple [of] biographies on Du Bois and Hughes for instance, so there is no reason not to have another good biography on Hurston. I've been worried (and shared this with her) for sometime that someone incapable of doing the kind of biography Hurston deserves will do one. People have been asking for years now when a black woman is going to do one. Hemenway's is excellent, and will always serve a function, but there is need for a new perspective on Hurston given all that we know now that Hemenway did not know. I think Thad is the right person to do this one, not some new Ph.D. who has no long experience with literary studies. So I hope that she does it…

These are just three excerpts, glimpses of our everyday musings, from letters in turn part of a massive correspondence. Nellie did not leave me with any guidelines regarding limitations on the use of this correspondence. I welcome your advice, remembering that most of the people she and I discussed are alive, kicking, and perfectly able to read. We spoke candidly to each other, so our letters are nobody's puff pieces, not even our own.

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