Today I’m thinking fondly of Carrie Allen McCray—and the calmness, lit with joy, that she brought with her whenever she walked into a room. During the early years of this century I saw her mostly at SC Poetry Initiative events in Columbia. Ninety years old in 2003, she was beautiful, poised, smart, talented—and strong. Anyone who knew her would tell you that there was an aura about her, and you felt it when she first greeted you. We all thought it remarkable that she hadn’t started writing seriously until she was seventy-three years old.
My best memory of Carrie is one from March 10, 2006. On that Friday afternoon she and her sister Rosemary, whom she called Rose—also beautiful and gifted with her own talents, also in her nineties—drove from Columbia to our house in the Givhans community so that Carrie could give a reading and talk for the Poetry Society of SC in Charleston that evening. The two of them spent the night with my husband Blue and me, and we had a delightful visit. Rosemary brought us some homemade date nut bread, and she and Blue enjoyed talking about cooking while Carrie and I caught up on literary news. Carrie was writing poems about Ota Benga, an African Pygmy her family had befriended in the early twentieth century after he was rescued from being displayed at the Bronx Zoo. Though she was always willing to talk about her own work, she never failed to ask what I was working on and how my writing was going. We shared a mutual interest in each other’s endeavors.
Late that afternoon I drove Carrie and Rosemary into Charleston, where we met Marjory Wentworth for a light supper before the Poetry Society program. Carrie’s talk that night was called “Literary Figures I Have Known”—and she had known quite a few. Both James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes had been guests in her parents’ home. Needless to say, the audience hung on her every word, whether poetry or remembrances of family life and literary connections. The audience loved and revered her. All of us in the state’s literary community did. The overwhelming admiration for her, for her writing talent, and for her dedication to the arts is one of the reasons that her legacy lives on. Lucky SCWW, to have had such a singular woman as a founder and board member!
The Carrie McCray Award seeks to honor the life of one of the founders and the first board member of the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop: Carrie Allen McCray. Her published works include Ajös Means Goodbye (1966), The Black Woman and Family Rules (1980), and a memoir she wrote about her mother that remains largely her story as well, Freedom’s Child: The life of a Confederate General’s Black Daughter (1998). Her poetry has appeared in such magazines as Ms. and The River Styx. She died on July 25, 2008, at the age of 94, but continues to live in our memory through this award. Click here for more information.
Susan Laughter Meyers, of Givhans, SC, is the author of three poetry collections: My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass (2013), winner of the Cider Press Review Editors’ Prize; Keep and Give Away (University of South Carolina Press, 2006), winner of the SC Poetry Book Prize; and the chapbook Lessons in Leaving (1998), winner of the Persephone Press Poetry Book Award. Other honors include the 2013 NCLR James Applewhite Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from the SC Academy of Authors and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A long time writing instructor, she has an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. For further info: http://susanmeyers.blogspot.com