In Black and White

Just because an African-American author turns out to be white doesn't mean that scholarship on her is any less creative....

March 1, 2005

Literary rediscoveries form a routine part of cultural life. They have a certain protocol. A given author has been "unfairly neglected." The reissue of a book is "long overdue." The rescue from oblivion is, in effect, the righting of a wrong.

The most striking thing about the case of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins is that, for once, the process is running in the opposite direction. Now that it's clear the author was not African-American, her novels seem destined for something for which we lack a familiar language -- or even a name. Kelley-Hawkins is now due, for want of a better term, to be reforgotten.

It would be wrong to say Megda (1891) and Four Girls at Cottage City (1898) are terrible novels, because "terrible" makes them sound more interesting than they are. They are, simply, dull and inane. In each novel, a small circle of upper middle-class young ladies undergo utterly stereotyped crises of conscience on the road to matrimony and Christianity. The writing is pedestrian. The most important difference between the books is that Four Girls has more sermons.

Without the academic labor required to interpret Kelley-Hawkins -- to reconcile, in short, the extreme blondeness and pinkness of her characters with the presumed complexities of the author's racial identity -- there is no reason to read the novels at all.

And yet there is a certain amount of drama, irony, and paradox surrounding the books, if not between their covers. Over the past few days, I've spent some time exploring the history of Kelley-Hawkins scholarship. It is a world of unreliable narrators and deliberate leaps of the imagination, in which critics kept striving to suspend their own disbelief.

Let's begin near the end -- with Holly Jackson's riveting account in The Boston Globe of her research into the author's genealogy. Jackson quotes a response from Henry Louis Gates: "I'm intrigued by the idea," says Gates, "that so many scholars have concluded that this woman was black, and it certainly will be interesting for us to figure out why.''

That is not quite disingenuous, but neither is it exactly candid. Most of the scholarship on Kelley-Hawkins appeared only after 1988, when Gates included her fiction in the Schomberg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers -- a series of 30 volumes that he edited for Oxford University Press.

In an essay introducing the series, Gates made clear that the author of Megda was not just one figure among others included in the series, but something like its muse. As Gates stated in 1988: "When I discovered still another 'lost' novel by an Afro-American woman, (Four Girls at Cottage City, published in 1898 by Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins), I decided to attempt to edit a collection of reprints of these works and to publish them as a 'library' of black women's writings, in part so that I could read them myself."

Gates never indicates how he came to identify the novelist as African-American. The earliest work I have located that does so is A Century of Fiction by American Negroes, 1853-1952, an annotated bibliography by Maxwell Whiteman first published in 1955. The entry on Megda called it "a superficial novel about young people in a private school and their religious conversion." The bibliographer gives no grounds for including her in his list of black authors, but he does note that the novel contains "no suggestion of Negro characters."

Likewise, in Arlene A. Elder's The 'Hindered Hand': Cultural Implications of Early-African American Fiction (Greenwood, 1978) Kelley-Hawkins is mentioned only for her peculiarity in writing fiction containing no black characters.

But then something interesting began to happen in the 1980s: Scholars begin writing as if the characters are mixed-race. The first sign of this appears to be a passing reference to them as " 'white' mulattoes" in Carole McAlpine Watson's Prologue: The Novels of Black American Women, 1891-1965 (Greenwood, 1985). But it is with the reprinting of her novels by Gates in his series for Oxford University Press that readings of Kelley-Hawkins begin really to proliferate -- and to grow increasingly imaginative.

In the introduction to Megda, Molly Hite writes that characters are "not only white, but very white" -- which serves to foreground "tantalizing indications that, on the contrary, no one in the world of Magda is Caucasian." Within a few years, Claudia Tate would write in Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century (Oxford, 1992) that the novelist "avoid[ed] racial despair by suppressing entirely or partially the discourse of race," thus creating a fictional world "under the auspices of equal opportunity in a meritocracy."

And in a recent paper in the collection Women's Experience of Modernity, 1875-1945 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), Carla L. Peterson performs an impressive epistemological double-back flip. Kelley-Hawkins's fiction, she writes, "forces her readers to define the 'codes of intelligibility' at work that enable a proper reading of the visible signs of the characters' whiteness." In the very next sentence, however, she insists that "no such dilemma exists" for anyone looking at the photograph of Kelley-Hawkins appearing as the frontspiece to Megda. "The visible signs of the photographed figure," writes Peterson, "announce the author as black and the text as black-authored."

While puzzling through the fine semantic nuances of that last sentence, I looked once again at the picture of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins from Megda. Her face is turned, partly covered in shadows. The urgent need to find some decisive trace of racial identity in the picture feels like a symptom of American racial paranoia, always on the hunt for signs of ... well, something anyway. Examining her face, I find it hard to say much of anything about her, except that she was pretty in a modest way. (Her portrait also appeared in Holly Jackson's Globe article.)

Now, there certainly were early African-American writers who were concerned with the ambiguities of "the discourse of race" and all its "codes of intelligibility." The fiction of Charles Chesnutt, for example, actually contains all the irony and paradox that critics have laboriously contrived to uncover in Kelley-Hawkins's novels, with their earnest tedium.

Indeed, reading Chesnutt has a kind of boomerang effect. His fiction about African-Americans "passing" or otherwise reinventing themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is sometimes so intricate in implication that you only grasp what has happened in a story hours after you've finished it.

There is nothing like that reading experience with Kelley-Hawkins. On the contrary, the critical literature since 1988 has often been at pains to avoid expressing irritation with her work. Acknowledging her mediocrity would tend to distract everyone from finding subversive meanings.

Perhaps the last time a scholar wrote about Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins with much candor, so far as I can tell, was on the cusp of her large-scale rediscovery. In 1988, Ann Allen Schockley, now retired from her position as a librarian at Fisk University, published an anthology of African-American women writers that included an excerpt from Megda. Shockley may also have been the first scholar to track down Four Girls at Cottage City, with the help of legendary African-American book collector Charles Blockson. (We should leave it for historians to determine whether Gates or Shockley/Blockson deserves the questionable distinction of being honored for this discovery.)

In any case, Shockley was willing to describe Four Girls as "a plotless Christian moralizing story stretched through twenty-six unexciting chapters with white characters." It was a bracing thing to read, after all the subtle kerfluffle I'd gotten used to regarding Kelley-Hawkins.

On Sunday, I called Shockley up to ask what she thought of the research indicating that the novelist's ancestry was entirely Caucasian. She hadn't heard the news. She sounded surprised, but not terribly disappointed.

"It was important to find and preserve any black women writers from that period, because there were so few of them," Shockley said. "If it turns out she's white, well of course then her work will disappear from black lists."

Even if Kelley-Hawkins were black, I asked, should she have been highly placed on those lists? After all, Shockley herself hadn't been that enthusiastic about the novels.

"I had to struggle through a lot of work like that," she said. "Some of it was quite boring, but it was worth it even to get one more black woman writer onto the list."

It's possible to see her point but still to wonder. There is a passage in Four Girls at Cottage City that has been bothering me. One of the characters comments on the pleasure of going to the theater, even "if we do have to get seats in 'nigger heaven.' "

It's an expression from the era of Jim Crow, when black patrons were seated in the balconies. As it happens, in the Texas town where I went to high school, that practice continued at the local movie theater for some years after the civil rights movement started.

Now if any part of Kelley-Hawkins's work would seem to require careful analysis from scholars interested in race, that one would. Yet the critical literature tiptoes past -- nodding at it, but not saying much. Whatever the author's own race, it would be crucial to understanding her world view and her work.

It is the passage in which form and content, aesthetics and ideology, are perfectly combined -- a revelation that the fiction of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, trite as it may be, embodied the banality of evil. Perhaps we shouldn't forget her just yet, after all.

UPDATE: See this later column.


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