Carrie Allen McCray Nickens
photo courtesy of Carrie Allen McCray
author Carrie Allen McCray begins her newest book, Freedom’s Child, with a description that is both provocative and, given the racial tensions it reveals, courageous. South Carolina
When we were very young, we lived in a big yellow house across the road from the campus of the Virginia Seminary in
. In Mama’s bedroom there was a huge four-poster bed, the “birthing bed” where all except one of her ten children were born. In that same room, on the mantelpiece over the fireplace, was a picture of a white man in a uniform. I don’t ever remember asking who he was. I don’t ever remember being told. In later years, my brother Hunter told me it was a picture of Mama’s father, a Confederate general named Jones. Somehow, I could never think of him as anything except my mother’s father, as if he had no connection to us children, nor to all the future generations of children yet unborn. (Freedom’s Child 3) Lynchburg, Virginia
With this paragraph, McCray begins her personal odyssey of discovery in a memoir that recreates the life of her mother, Mary Rice Hayes Allen, and uncovers for the writer and the world a relationship with a white Confederate general who fathered his black servant’s two children—the writer’s mother and uncle. Like many writers exploring the secrets of a family’s past, McCray confronts uncomfortable truths as she reconfirms the strength and beauty of the human spirit. Because race is the subtext that shapes the lives in this book, the book is more than family memoir. A gleaming tribute to McCray’s mother, the book is also part of the American literary tradition of personal memoir and equally part of the American social and literary tradition of confronting social injustice.
Carrie Allen McCray was born on October 4, 1913, in
Lynchburg, Virginia, where she spent the first seven years of her life and where she attended the . Her father, William Patterson Allen, was a lawyer; her mother, Mary Rice Hayes Allen, was a college teacher. McCray numbers as her siblings John, Minnie, Malinda, Gregory, Wilelbert, Hunter, Rosemary and Dollie, as well as one stillborn child. As the ninth of ten children, McCray recalls a Virginia Seminary Primary School childhood filled with warmth and busy-ness of a close community. When she was seven, the writer’s family moved to Virginia Montclair, New Jerseywhere she attended Spaulding Elementary School, Hillside Junior High, and . She received her bachelor of arts degree from Montclair High School Talladega Collegein 1935 and her master’s degree in social work from in 1955. McCray’s 1940 marriage to Winfield Scott Young, which produced her son and only child, the second Winfield Scott Young, ended in divorce in 1945. Her second marriage, to John H McCray, lasted until his death. She has made her home in New York University since 1986. Columbia, South Carolina
Asked what she remembers as the best of her childhood, McCray responds:
My seven years in
. . . the school there and running down the road to visit our playmates who lived in an old, run-down house, but the warmth within was enveloping. We would sit around an old pot-belly stove eating turnip greens and cornbread and their mama would sing with us and play games. Cracks were stuffed with paper in the sides of the house to keep wind out, but the love there kept us warm. Lynchburg
By contrast, McCray remembers the family’s move to
as edged with both unhappiness and fear. Asked for her “worst childhood memory,” she offers: New Jersey
When we moved to
, New Jersey—The threats to put us out of the white neighborhood. I was seven then and my father was receiving frightening calls and was warned about a possible cross-burning. Montclair
Despite the difficult beginnings of the Allen family’s life in
New Jersey, however, the parents persevered and created a warm and happy home for their children in . At the same time, the adults maintained a high level of civic and community involvement on behalf of both their own family and the larger African American community. Thus, McCray’s childhood became a splendid mix of the eminent and the down-to-earth. James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, among others, were guests in the Allen home, as were more unusual and less constrained figures who also came into the Allens’ lives. Montclair
The tensions of race and gender that defined McCray’s early life continued into her adult years. She relates that the most terrifying experience of her adult life occurred in the 1960’s, when she visited the South with Indira, a friend from
. They stayed with Indira’s cousin, who was attending India . Auburn University
While there, he took us to a restaurant he thought I would be accepted in. It turned out to be a frightening experience. They served everyone except me, and when we left, a truckload of men with rifles followed the car. We were saved because a train came. We got through. They didn’t.
Certainly McCray had good reason to be aware of the complex demands made upon women in general and upon African American women in particular as she negotiated the demands of motherhood, higher education, and her career in the context of her two marriages. Later, she would become aware of similar tensions in her role as a writer and community worker.
As a woman [I’ve found that] sometimes men still don’t listen to us. I found this in a community development organization I belonged to: I mean in meetings, etc. There’s still a little hangover of the male superiority. As an African American [I find] there are still some obstacles, although certainly things are much better. I had a wonderful experience with Algonquin Books; however, I’ve heard many stories from African American writers who have had trouble because publishers want to put us all in one mold—more sex, more drugs, more crime—even when there was none.
Like many women who write, McCray came to this aspect of her identity relatively late in life, after the obligations of family and career had been met. Her list of publications is substantial, including “Ajös Means Goodbye,” published in John A. Williams’ Beyond the Angry Black (Cooper Square, 1966) where her work is anthologized with that of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and others. The story has also been used in a theater production by Luna Theater,
, and has been reprinted in an anthology for schools published by McDougal, Littel in 1989. Other published works by McCray are a sociology article, “The Black Woman and Family Roles” published in The Black Woman (Sage Publications, 1980) and the poetry chapbook Piece of Time (Chicory Blue Press). Her poems have also appeared in Ms. Magazine, The River Styx, Gloria Steinem’s book Moving Beyond Words, The Crimson Edge: Older Women Writing (Chicory Blue Press), The Montclair, NJ Collection, Point, Cave Canem I, and The Squaw Review. Her first person memoir, Freedom’s Child: The Life of a Confederate General’s Black Daughter was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 1998. South Carolina
Although she began to take her writing seriously at the age of 73, McCray makes it clear that only very recently has she been able to think of herself as writer in a professional sense.
I never thought of myself as a writer—only as a social worker and teacher who wrote and loved to write. For me, it had to be validated. It took Freedom’s Child to do that.
McCray is generous and encouraging to beginning writers, urging them to “write for the joy of writing. Don’t be anxious about publishing. It will come. Accept constructive criticism from seasoned authors. It helped me to develop my writing. Don’t let anyone discourage you.” McCray’s next project, she says, will be the story of her second husband, John H. McCray.
John H. McCray [was] a
journalist, civil and political rights activist starting way back in the 1940’s. He organized the Black Progressive Democratic Party to challenge the seating of whites because of discrimination. The party became a political force and was responsible for electing Olin Johnson over Strom Thurmond at one point. John grew up outside of South Carolina , and every Sunday his family had salt mackerel and grits. I carried on this tradition and it was during these meals my husband told me many Charleston stories. South Carolina
When she looks back at her writing career so far, McCray is quick to credit the friendship and influence of other writers. In particular, she cites poets Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds as significant mentors and influences, along with other contemporary poets Lucille Clifton, Susan Ludvigson, Sonia Sanchez, Toi Derricotte, and many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She is also conscious of the importance of Shannon Ravenel to her prose works. Ravenel, her editor at Algonquin Books, she says, “put me on the right path” in writing Freedom’s Child.
Despite the demands of her own writing, McCray still finds time to do poetry workshops in elementary schools and to indulge her other hobbies of bird watching, listening to music, reading, cooking, and “having small gatherings to share readings or other performing arts.” She enjoys visits with her great granddaughter Caroline Gabrielle Cantilla who lives in
and with her grandson, Tod Young and his daughter, Amiah, whose name means “Woman of Peace. California
Phebe Davidson, English, USC Aiken, [email protected]
Editor’s note: Carrie Allen McCray remarried in November of 2007. Her third husband was John Nickens, a longtime friend. Mrs. Nickens died on July 25, 2008. See also “McCray Nickens: A Storyteller with Grit and Grace,” by Jeffrey Day, the State newspaper at www.thestate.com (July 29, 2008).