Based on work of Brandeis doctoral student, author's work to be removed from prestigious collectionReleased on March 07, 2005
Contact: David Nathan 781-7360-4203
Correcting a case of mistaken identity
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff | March 5, 2005
The curious case of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins remains unsolved, but there is at least one outcome of the revelation by Brandeis graduate student Holly Jackson that the Victorian novelist, long thought to be African-American, was in fact white: Kelley-Hawkins will be removed from the prestigious Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.
''I am persuaded she was not black, and I welcome the finding," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard's chairman of African and African-American studies and the general editor of the Schomburg series. ''In the next edition we will delete her works."
Beyond the puzzle of how a white writer could have long been categorized as African-American, despite a lack of documentary evidence, the Kelley-Hawkins case points to the complex challenge of creating and authenticating a pantheon of African-American writers, especially those before 1900.
Jackson's discovery, based on genealogical research and published last month in The Boston Globe's Ideas section, agrees with that of Katherine Flynn, an independent scholar based in Cincinnati who has been researching a similar article on Kelley-Hawkins for the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. In a telephone interview, Flynn said that after extensive research she had two conclusions about Kelley-Hawkins: ''Though you can't prove a negative, it is extremely improbable that she was black," and ''she believed she was white and wrote as a white woman."
Kelley-Hawkins, who, according to Jackson's research, was born in Dennis, wrote two novels -- ''Megda" in 1891, under the name Kelley, and ''Four Girls at Cottage City" in 1895, under the name Kelley-Hawkins. The simple stories, which lack any black characters or racial content, have a moral, Christian evangelical theme. ''Megda" was a success and fairly well known; copies of ''Four Girls at Cottage City" became known to collectors only in the late 1970s.
But who decided she was African-American, and when?
''It wasn't me who identified her as black," Gates said in a telephone interview. ''She was identified as black for 50 years."
Indeed, Kelley-Hawkins appears in at least one well-known reference: Maxwell Whiteman's ''A Century of Fiction by American Negroes, 1853-1952, a Descriptive Bibliography," first published in 1955. Whiteman, who died in 1995, was a Pennsylvania-based book dealer, archivist, and author. Of the novel ''Megda," he wrote: ''A superficial novel about young people in a private school and their religious conversion. There is no suggestion of Negro characters."
It is not clear why Whiteman thought Kelley-Hawkins was black. She does not appear in earlier bibliographies, including the 1928 ''Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America," by Monroe Work, nor in Hugh Gloster's 1948 ''Negro Voices in American Fiction."Charles L. Blockson, curator of the collection bearing his name at Temple University and considered the dean of African-American bibliophiles, knew Whiteman well and says he discussed Kelley-Hawkins's books with him, but only their rarity -- not the author's racial identity. Blockson said: ''He had no question about it."
Some have suggested that Kelley-Hawkins's books were in the collection of Arturo Schomburg, the Puerto Rican-born African-American bibliophile whose vast collection is the foundation of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in the New York Public Library. But Schomburg, who died in 1938, apparently never owned Kelley-Hawkins's books -- ''Megda" was first cataloged in the collection in 1975.
Once included in a bibliography such as Whiteman's, an error can persist in later scholarship and commentary. Kelley-Hawkins is included in the highly respected 1975 ''Black American Writers, 1773-1949," edited by Geraldine Matthews, and in Carole McAlpine Watson's 1985 ''Prologue: The Novels of Black American Women, 1891-1965."
The introduction to the Schomburg edition of ''Four Girls at Cottage City" was written by Deborah E. McDowell, professor of African-American studies at the University of Virginia, and that of ''Megda" is by Molly Hite, a professor of English at Cornell. When contacted, both professors said they had not heard of Kelley-Hawkins before Gates asked them to write the introductions. ''There was no reason for me to investigate Emma," McDowell said.
Asked for his guess as to why anyone believed that Kelley-Hawkins was black, Gates offered what seems the simplest explanation. ''I think it was the picture," he said. The two novels show the author's shadowy photograph, which could easily be perceived as that of a light-skinned African-American.
''You put that picture up in my barbershop," Gates said, ''and I guarantee the vote would be to make her a sister."
Indeed, in her introduction to ''Megda," Hite wrote: ''The photograph of the author in the frontispiece to both the 1891 and 1892 editions clearly depicts an Afro-American woman."
Some have suggested that it should have been obvious from Kelley-Hawkins's subject matter that she couldn't have been black. But Gates and several other scholars dispute that strongly. ''Didn't she have the right to write what she wanted?" Blockson asked.
In Jim Crow America, just as there were benefits for African-Americans to ''pass" as white, there were advantages for authors to avoid racial identity or content.
''That alone would be no reason to be suspicious of her," said Maryemma Graham, a professor of English at the University of Kansas and director of the Project on the History of Black Writing. Graham says many black writers wrote so-called ''Sunday School literature" like Kelley-Hawkins's.
''Not all writers wanted the literature to be racialized," Graham said. ''They didn't want to be pigeonholed."
Even though mistakes in identity have been made, said Jean Fagan Yellin, a professor of literature emerita at Pace University, honor should be paid to the pioneering nonacademic collectors and bibliographers -- such as Schomburg and Whiteman.
In the early 20th century, said Yellin, whose biography of escaped slave Harriet Jacobs recently won the $25,000 Frederick Douglass Prize, ''there was a belief that there was no literature -- there was a dismissal of writers of color. The early work was done by self-trained people without the formal training we now think necessary. But they were doing the reclamation, and it's not surprising that mistakes were made."