Loose Canon

A graduate student discovers that a 19th-century novelist who has been hailed as an early black female writer was actually white.
February 24, 2005

Holly Jackson thought she had a straightforward writing project when she was assigned to write an entry on Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins for the African American National Biography, a project forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

But Jackson, a Ph.D. student at Brandeis University, ended up finding out that Kelley-Hawkins has no business being in the African American National Biography. The 19th century novelist was white. Jackson details her discovery in an article in The Boston Globe, which may prompt quite a bit of revision in parts of the literary world.

That's because Kelley-Hawkins isn't just an entry in a biography project. Two of her novels -- Megda and Four Girls at Cottage City -- are in the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, a major publishing project of the Oxford press. Four Girls at Cottage City is described on the press's Web site as "one precursor of the spiritual feminism that is currently resonating throughout contemporary Afro-American women's fiction."

And these works appear on scores of syllabi, in dissertation chapters, in scholarly works -- all analyzed as early black fiction. "I don't know what will be done now, but all kinds of chapters are now obsolete," Jackson said in an interview Wednesday.

In her Globe article, she recounts how she made the discovery about Kelley-Hawkins, about whom relatively little had been known. In short, a tip led her to records revealing the author's parents, and that in turn led to the discovery that several generations of her family about whom records exist were all white. (Jackson explored, and rejected, the hypothesis that the family was "passing" for white.)

The irony, Jackson and others said Wednesday, is that there were plenty of clues all along. For instance, to the extent that her characters are given physical descriptions, they all appear to be white. And racial issues don't appear in the novels.

In fact, at least one other scholar discovered the truth about Kelley-Hawkins two years ago, although her paper on the topic hasn't been published.

So what does it mean that a dead novelist turns out to be white?

In an interview, Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor of the Sc homburg series, said that he agrees with the new analysis of Kelley-Hawkins and that at the very least, she won't be in future editions. Gates, chair of the African and African-American studies at Harvard University, said that he doesn't know how Kelley-Hawkins came to be considered black, but that it goes back at least 50 years.

He said Kelley-Hawkins was a "mediocre novelist" and that he thinks the primary impact of the discovery will be that people won't write about her any more. There are so few black women authors in the 19th century that every single one matters, he says. "Anyone matters," he said.

But Gates said that he doubted that feminist scholars would now start studying Kelley-Hawkins, since there are so many better writers for them to examine in the 19th century. "It's less important to add one more white woman," he said.

Asked how he felt about finding out that some books in the series didn't belong there, he said: "We're scholars. We exist to pursue the truth."

The other person who has been tracking down Kelley-Hawkins is Katherine Flynn, an organic chemist at Procter & Gamble who has also become a genealogist and whose work has helped identify early black women writers. Flynn said Wednesday that she made the discovery two years ago, but only just finished work on a paper on the topic, which she is submitting to the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

"There is so much at stake here," she said, because of all the writing that has been done based on a false assumption about race.

Jackson, the Brandeis student, said that since she published her article, she has heard from several relatives of Kelley-Hawkins, and that they are white and that they had always been surprised to hear that some considered their family to be black. Jackson said that no one has disputed her findings.

She said that removing Kelley-Hawkins has a scholarly impact. "If you picture the tradition of black women's literature in the 1890s without her in it, the tradition looks a lot more radical by contemporary standards," she said. The other black women writers of these period were very focused on their identities and on "racial uplift."

The race switch for Kelley-Hawkins "raises questions about how we read race," Jackson said. Many scholars have struggled, she said, to explain the apparent disinterest of Kelley-Hawkins with racial issues, and those analyses won't make any sense. "It's like if you take Little Women or one of Faulkner's books and said, 'This was written by a black woman.' "

On one issue, Jackson disagrees with Gates. She thinks the works of Kelley-Hawkins will still be of interest to scholars, but because of the "enormous historical misconception" about them. And she has an idea for Oxford University Press: "Republish them with an introduction by me."


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