Blogs > Cliopatria > Race and Kelley-Hawkins

Dec 6, 2005 7:29 am

Race and Kelley-Hawkins

Earlier this week, I posted at Mode for Caleb on Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, the late nineteenth-century novelist long presumed to be an African American but now believed to have been white. The post followed up on Scott McLemee's column at Inside Higher Ed and Ralph Luker's post here at Cliopatria.

One of the things I suggested was this:"There seems to have been an enormous rush to judgment that the evidence provided by Holly Jackson, the Brandeis graduate student aforementioned, is straightforward proof about Kelley-Hawkins' race." That was a sloppy sentence, because it implied that I think Jackson might be wrong about Kelly-Hawkins' whiteness. McLemee, who generously linked to my post from his main page, responded thus:
As for CM's idea that there is a"rush to judgment," that certainly crossed my mind. But Holly Jackson actually makes a strong case for EDKH as white, while nobody has any solid evidence that she was black -- and when you read the scholarship, you notice people bending themselves out of shape to find some reason to think that she was. (I could have said more about that in the piece, including one case that verged on outright dishonesty, but that seemed like overdoing it.)

I agree completely that Jackson's evidence on the matter demolishes the traditional story about Kelly-Hawkins, since the traditional story is now apparently supported by no evidence at all. But if you look closer at my original statement on the"rush to judgment," what I wanted to question was not Jackson's particular evidence about Kelley-Hawkins, but rather the general presumption that certain kinds of historical evidence about race are inherently more decisive than others.

The idea that Kelley-Hawkins was black seems to have rested largely on the ambiguity of a photograph that appeared in one of her novels. Jackson's case for her whiteness rests, on the other hand, on family memories and documentary sources like the census. What I wanted to offer, however, was a cautionary warning that documentary sources about race are not necessarily less ambiguous than pictures. For instance, I wondered in the post about how nineteenth-century enumerators recorded" color" or"race." If, in some cases, determining a person's"race" was left to the enumerator's discretion, then a"W" in the census is not necessarily less ambiguous than a picture. It could simply record what a contemporary saw when he looked at Kelley-Hawkins. Does the census always offer us more information about race than meets the eye, or simply the same"information" provided from a contemporary perspective and packaged in documentary form? Such, at least, is a question I thought worth asking about Jackson's evidence. (An article by Martha Hodes in the February 2003 American Historical Review raised these questions about another Massachussetts family in the nineteenth century.)

At Coffee Grounds, Evan Roberts replied with an extremely helpful post about census procedures, which includes links to instructions that were given to enumerators. This information supplemented comments that Julie Meloni made on my original post, drawing on her own experiences using the census for genealogical research.

I highly recommend Evan's post, and I entirely agree with this sentence:"What I think is significant is that Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins and her ancestors are always described as white. That is firmer evidence of being white, whatever 'being' and 'white' mean." What I wanted to say in my post was that we should continue to add that final clause to whatever we say about race in the nineteenth century. This does not mean that we cannot make judgments, on the basis of contemporary descriptions, about the"race" of historical actors. But it means we must always keep in mind how ambiguous and arbitrary such descriptions about race could be and still are. And we must careful not to assume uncritically that certain kinds of evidence -- like the census -- somehow offer glosses of what"being" and"white" meant that are more determinate than other kinds of evidence -- like photographs. (Incidentally, Coffee Grounds also has two recent posts on the distinction between"quantitative" and"qualitative" sources that might be relevant here. I'm suggesting that even"quantitative" sources like the census were"qualitative.")

That's why I also suggested that the scholarship that has been done under the assumption that Kelley-Hawkins was not white should not simply be thrown out with the bathwater as a bunch of political misdirection. By presuming that Kelly-Hawkins was a black author creating aggresively white characters, that scholarship had to wrestle with what"being" and"white" meant. Without having read any of the scholarship that McLemee profiles, I think its insight that race can be malleable and strategically deployed is a valuable one. Although in this case scholars turn out to have been barking up the wrong tree, the bending themselves out of shape that they had to do is the kind of exercise that now makes us more limber as historians of race. In that limited sense, the underlying assumptions and theoretical underpinnings of that scholarship were not worthless. And it would be a shame if the conclusion that people drew from Kelley-Hawkins' case was that any scholarship on the cultural construction of"whiteness" and"blackness" is simply the product of postmodern mumbling and political correctness.

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Ralph E. Luker - 3/5/2005

Actually, I think you're articulating your position very well, as usual. What was driving my original posting about Gates/A Bondswoman's Narrative/Kelley-Hawkins is that Gates's sloppy scholarship misled a dozen years of scholarship. And we don't need to be too naive about all this. Gates bought the manuscript of A Bondswoman's Narrative through an agent at public auction. He had a clear financial interest in promoting it as the blah, blah, blah by an African American woman. He did that -- against all the evidence turned up by his own research project -- using other people's money to pay for the research. His failure to ask hard, obvious questions about Kelley-Hawkins is a second instance of sloppy scholarship. I think that we've been signified and that the civilities of academic collegiality and determination to save our own dignity keep us from acknowledging it.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/5/2005

Jackson convinces me that there is no primary evidence to support the idea that Kelley-Hawkins was "passing" as white, although my original post might have confusingly suggested otherwise.

So I agree with Ralph that there's no reason to hold on to the scholars' error that Kelley-Hawkins either described herself or was described by others as African American. That idea is, if I may, Henry Louis Gates' "baby." My only point was that we should hold on to the "bathwater" -- that race is always an ambiguous concept, and attempts to make it concrete and easily determined usually say more about the historian than they do about history.

I may be teetering on the abyss, though, because by suggesting that race is culturally and socially constructed, I may seem to be pulling the rug out from under the conclusion that Kelley-Hawkins was white. I'm trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to hold on to a moderate position that allows us to decide (with careful qualification) whether historical actors were black or white without reifying either term. I feel confident that others can articulate that position better than I'm doing here.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/5/2005

Oscar, I think you're still ignoring the fact that there is _no_ primary evidence to imagine that she was of _any_ African American descent. It's only the scholars' error that raises the question. Why hang onto it?

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/5/2005

This author and this scholarship are entirely new to me; so I can nothing about the Kelly-Hawkins "true race" or its impact upon literary criticism.

I do find intriguing that no one knows what race she thought she was (unless the family memories indicate that in some manner). I agree that census reports are not conclusive, given the problems Caleb mentions.

I would add that there was extraordinary incentive then to say "white." Everyone new the penalties of being considered black. Therefore, it is highly unlikely for a census taker in that time to assume non-white without what he considered firm knowledge to the contrary or a firm admission on the part of the individual.

Also if she had "black blood" within her, there is no reason to assume that her self-identification did not shift in some manner over time.