Carrie Allen McCray Nickens

Carrie Allen McCray, picture sent by Ms. McCray for use on this Page

                                                                                                                    photo courtesy of Carrie Allen McCray

South Carolina 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.
 

When we were very young, we lived in a big yellow house across the road from the campus of the Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. 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)

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 Virginia Seminary Primary School.  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 childhood filled with warmth and busy-ness of a close community.  When she was seven, the writer’s family moved to Montclair, New Jersey where she attended Spaulding Elementary School, Hillside Junior High, and Montclair High School. She received her bachelor of arts degree from Talladega College in 1935 and her master’s degree in social work from New York University 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 Columbia, South Carolina since 1986.

Asked what she remembers as the best of her childhood, McCray responds:
 

My seven years in Lynchburg . . . 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.

By contrast, McCray remembers the family’s move to New Jersey as edged with both unhappiness and fear. Asked for her “worst childhood memory,” she offers:
 

When we moved to Montclair, 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.


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 Montclair.  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.

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 India. They stayed with Indira’s cousin, who was attending 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, Montclair, NJ, 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 South Carolina 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.

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 South Carolina 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 Charleston, 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 South Carolina stories.


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 California and with her grandson, Tod Young and his daughter, Amiah, whose name means  “Woman of Peace.
 

                                                                      Phebe Davidson, English, USC Aiken, phebed@usca.edu

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).

 

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last updated 4/15/2003