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Lost in time: scholars react to a doctoral student's discovery that a "pioneer" of African American women's literature was not black at all.

LATE-1800S AUTHOR EMMA DUNHAM KELLEY-HAWKINS'S NOVEL FOUR Girls AT Cottage City inspired the Oxford University Press's Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. This is what Henry Louis Gates Jr. once said of the 40-volume set published in 1988.

Yet there was something odd about Kelley-Hawkins's 1895 novel set in New England: The characters were blond, blue-eyed girls, who never suggested they were mulattoes, using cunning and stealth to live on the other side of the color line.

In fact, Kelley-Hawkins was true to herself; she was a white woman, writing about her white experiences.

A stunning piece of detective work this year by Holly Jackson, a doctoral student of English at Brandeis University, revealed that based on superficial evidence [a photograph] and wrongheaded assumptions [that Kelley-Hawkins was a light-skinned black "passing" for white, an obsession of that era] scholars incorrectly assumed the author's racial identity. Somehow, numerous scholars over decades had perpetuated colossal errors of identity and facts.

Jackson's February 20 article in The Boston Globe was headlined "Mistaken Identity: What If a Novelist Celebrated As a Pioneer of African-American Women's Literature Turned Out Not to Be Black at All?"

Jackson wrote: "Here at last, Gates explained in his foreword, were the literary ancestors of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. With one exception, all these works had been previously out of print, making it difficult for scholars to track down copies. In fact, it was Gates's discovery of one such 'lost' novel, 'Four Girls at Cottage City' [1895] by Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, that prompted him to put these neglected texts back into print--'in part,' he wrote, 'so that I could read them myself.'"

So with the mystery about Kelley-Hawkins's identity apparently solved, what will the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture do?

"That's a good question. We haven't addressed it," Diana Lachatanere, curator of manuscripts, archives and rare books division at the center in Harlem told Black Issues Book Review. "We haven't pulled her books from our shelves. We need to look at the article and have a conversation with a few scholars and go from there."

Lachatanere, in a June telephone interview, said she was aware of the mistaken ID assertion but had not seen the article. Lachatanere then said she did not know Jackson and wanted to know "what 'Skip' Gates and other scholars think [before we do anything]."

BIBR pointed out that Jackson made the discovery while essentially doing a project for Gates. We e-mailed The Boston Globe article to the curator. Ten days later, Lachatanere's e-mail response to a follow-up inquiry was "I read it and have no additional comment."

Jackson had been contracted to write a biography of Kelley-Hawkins [1863-1938] for the African American National Biography (AANB), affiliated with Gates's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.

"I assumed she [Kelley-Hawkins] was black myself, but it became abundantly clear that she was white. I was surprised as anyone," Jackson said.

When completed, the AANB "will present history through a mosaic of the lives of 10,000 individuals, some known throughout the world and others all but forgotten, illuminating the abiding influence of African Americans on the life of this nation through the immediacy of personal experience," notes the online home page [].

Jackson, who expects to finish work on her Ph.D. two years from now and teach American literature in a college, said her entry would not be included in the AANB.

The Brandeis University English and American Literature Web site acknowledged Jackson's Boston Globe article []. The piece was also discussed on the History News Network Web site

Cracking the Case

Biographically, Jackson wrote in the Globe, Kelley-Hawkins was a cipher. There was no acknowledgment of when she was born or when she died, or her family history, although she was identified as an African American writer in numerous accounts dating to the early 1970s.

Jackson went about her spadework and dug for facts. Massachusetts Vital Records produced an Emma D. Kelley, born November 11, 1863, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Powerful evidence, but not absolute proof that she was the author. A rare books librarian at Brown University provided Jackson with a true first-edition copy of Kelley-Hawkins's Four Girls at Cottage City.

Gates, who said he discovered a copy of the out-of-print book, had what appeared to be a second-edition copy printed three years after the original by a different publisher, said Jackson.

Jackson went on to cobble together other essential biographical facts: Emma D. Kelley married Benjamin A. Hawkins in 1893. Four Girls at Cottage City was published two years later. She had published another novel, Megda, in 1891. She later named one of her two daughters Megda.

Jackson also found documentation on all four grandparents of Kelley-Hawkins. She established the author's date of death, October 22, 1938, in Central Falls, Rhode Island.

Richard Noble, the rare books librarian at Brown, also noticed that a Megda Hawkins was listed at the church he attended in Providence, Rhode Island. He found a 1984 obituary that confirmed that the woman was the daughter of Emma D. Kelley-Hawkins. Kelley-Hawkins's husband and second daughter are also deceased.

Emma D. Kelley-Hawkins, wrote Jackson in the Globe, "Never fit comfortably within the African American canon. Most puzzling has been the apparent whiteness of her characters, who are repeatedly described with blue eyes and skin as white as 'pure' or 'driven' snow--a conundrum that critics have largely sidestepped by arguing that these women would have been understood as 'white mulattos,' or very light-skinned women of color by Kelley-Hawkins's original audience of black readers."

What made critics draw these conclusions? Exhibit A was the photo of the author on the cover of her novel Megda. Jackson told BIBR, "People read the photo as black and took that to be evidence. Now, when you look, it's a little more ambiguous. It may be the quality of photo, all of this is speculative."

Another detail that apparently made scholars stubbornly assume that Kelley-Hawkins was black was that Cottage City, the name in one of the author's titles, is part of what is now known as Oak Bluffs, the black vacation community on Martha's Vineyard.

There is a big problem with that assumption: Kelley-Hawkins wrote Four Girls at Cottage City about 17 years before blacks began coming to Martha's Vineyard in significant numbers.

Gates told Jackson that he did not know how Kelley-Hawkins came to be identified as African American. "I'm intrigued by the idea, however, that so many scholars have concluded that this woman was black, and it certainly will be interesting for us to figure out why," he said.

Family Knew of the Mix-Up

Jackson said there are no direct descendants of Kelley-Hawkins. After her Boston Globe piece was published, however, she spoke to two different branches of the family, including the family of the author's sister Alice.

"They were excited and happy with my article and aware of the mistake," said Jackson. "They were excited that someone was tied up in the detective work.

"They did not make attempts to come forward and correct the mistakes," Jackson explained. "They did not have anxieties about people thinking they were black or white. They trace their genealogy to English, Welsh and Irish settlers in Cape Cod. They know their family history very well."

So a caution for future literary scholars should be to verify, verify and verify biographical details rather than make judgments based on appearances or attitudes of an era.

"I still think her novels are of huge historical interest," said Holly Jackson of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins. "Reconsideration of her place in literary history is appropriate."

Black Biographies Editor Applauds Discovery

John K. Bollard, executive editor of the African American National Biography, provided BIBR with a response that was originally offered to The Boston Globe, but wasn't published. Log on to to read it.

Wayne Dawkins is author of two books on the National Association of Black Journalists and founder of August Press LLC in Virginia.
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Author:Dawkins, Wayne
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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