McCray Nickens was very much 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 two marriages.
Poet, memoirist. Nickens 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. Nickens numbered as her siblings John, Minnie, Malinda, Gregory, Wilelbert, Hunter, Rosemary, and Dollie, as well as one stillborn child. As the ninth of ten children, Nickens recalled a Virginia childhood filled with the warmth 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. Nickens’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 in 1987. In November of 2007, she married long-time friend, John Nickens. She died on July 25, 2008 at the age of 94; a year later, she was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Since 2009 the Academy has sponsored an annual poetry fellowship in her name.
Asked, in a 1999 interview, what she remembered as the best of her childhood, she pointed to the following: “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 potbelly 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, she recalled the family’s move to New Jersey as edged with unhappiness and fear: “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 early difficulties of the Allen family’s life in New Jersey, the parents created a happy home for their children in Montclair. At the same time, they maintained a high level of civic and community involvement on behalf of their immediate family and the larger African American community. Thus, McCray Nickens’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.
The tensions of race that had defined the writer’s early life continued into her adult years. She is explicit about an experience that occurred in the 1960s, when she travelled to the South with a friend from India to visit the friend’s cousin, a student at 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.”
McCray Nickens was very much 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 two marriages. Later, she would become aware of similar tensions in her role as a writer and community worker. In 1999 she stated: “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 of her generation, Carrie Allen McCray Nickens came to writing relatively late in life, after the obligations of family and career had been met. Nevertheless, her list of publications is substantial, including “Ajös Means Goodbye,” published in John A. Williams’s 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 was also used in a theater production by Luna Theater, Montclair, New Jersey, and reprinted in an anthology for classroom use published by McDougal, Littel in 1989. Other published works are an 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, devoted to reconstructing her mother’s life, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 1998, and her last book, Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, is a rendering in powerfully moving poetry of the experience of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy once exhibited in the Museum of Natural History in New York and then in the Bronx Zoo, who was taken in by the Allen family in 1910. Her early poems about Ota Benga were featured in performance at the Columbia Museum of Art in 2007.
Always generous to beginning writers, Carrie Allen McCray Nickens consistently urged others, “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.” Ever quick to credit the friendship and influence of other writers, she acknowledged, in particular, contemporary poets Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Susan Ludvigson, Sonia Sanchez, Toi Derricotte, and many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
McCray, Carrie Allen. Freedom’s Child: The Life of a Confederate General’s Black Daughter. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1998.
–––. Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.
McCray, Carrie Allen. Personal Interview. 17 May 1999. Obituary. Columbia State, July 28, 2008.