Blogs > Cliopatria > The latest on Emma Dunham Kelley Hawkins

Jun 7, 2006 3:20 pm


The latest on Emma Dunham Kelley Hawkins



Early in 2005, as you may recall, there was a ripple of press interest in nineteenth-century author Emma Dunham Kelley Hawkins.

For years, Hawkins had been considered an African American author, and her novels were spotlighted in the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. But on February 20, 2005, Holly Jackson, a graduate student at Brandeis University, published an article in the Boston Globe revealing that Hawkins never identified herself as an African American, and was consistently identified as white in contemporary census records. Hawkins' inclusion in the black literary canon now seemed to hinge on a single piece of evidence: a photograph in the frontispiece of her first novel, Megda, in which she appeared to have a dark complexion. Pressured by Jackson's findings, Gates readily conceded that a mistake had apparently been made regarding Hawkins' identity:
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."

When I posted on the Hawkins story here and here, I received a comment from Katherine Flynn, an independent researcher who reported that she had the goods on Hawkins before Jackson and was proofreading a peer-reviewed article on the subject when the Boston Globe piece came out. (Flynn's work was also cited by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed.) This news made my fellow Cliopatriate Tim Burke"desperate to know what Katherine Flynn's article is going to say when it comes out."

We need wait no longer. Dr. Flynn was kind enough to mail me an offprint of her article,"A Case of Mistaken Racial Identity: Finding Emma Dunham (nee Kelley) Hawkins," which appeared in the March 2006 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Flynn's article is a heroic piece of detective work, which includes all the decisive census data that Jackson cited and much more besides. Flynn has traced more than four generations of Hawkins' family through census, probate, and newspaper records, definitively establishing that there is no evidence to believe that Hawkins ever identified as an African American or had ancestors who did. And in case Professor Gates is still looking for a photograph to test in his"barber shop" experiment, the cover of the Quarterly also features another more light-complexioned photograph of Hawkins in Flynn's possession.

Flynn also includes her painstaking research into the origins of the idea that Hawkins was an African American author, some of which I'll quote below without Flynn's extensive footnotes:

Who first identified Emma as African American and when? The presence of an original copy of Megda in the Schomburg Collection is often noted. [From Flynn's footnote:"The Schomburg Collection was founded by the 1926 donation of the personal collection of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg."]

Flynn was unsatisfied by that answer, not only because Schomburg and other" contemporary black bibliophiles" like Alain Locke never mentioned Hawkins in their writings, but also because there is no conclusive evidence that the original Schomburg donation included Megda. Citing correspondence files from the Schomburg's archive and conversations with archivists, Flynn reports the following:

The Schomburg's oldest extant catalog is dated 1962 with supplements in 1967, 1972 and 1974. Not until the 1975 update, published in 1976, were Megda and Emma Dunham Kelley indexed with the annotation"Negro author."

The Schomburg reported no acquisition record extant for its original copy of Megda, which lacks the distinctive bookplate for Arthur Schomburg's personal collection. The volume bears the bookplate for the"Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture," a name not used until 1972. A bookplate for one of the Schomburg's previous names is not evident.

Emma Kelley is also absent from studies of African American literature through 1948. Her earliest appearance in this context is in the 1955 first edition of the landmark chronology, A Century of Fiction by American Negroes 1853-1952: A Descriptive Bibliography, by Maxwell Whiteman. Whiteman's letters to Schomburg Collection curator Jean Blackwell ask for feedback on an early draft of this book. It is highly likely that it was Whiteman who first assigned Emma Kelley to the African American canon after finding the 1892 edition of Megda in 1953. It may be Whiteman's own copy of Megda that is in the Schomburg Collection today. Whiteman's papers at Temple University are sealed and documents by and about [Jean] Blackwell Hutson yield no further clues.

Although identified as a black author in 1955, Emma's place in the canon was not secure until Megda was accessioned into the Schomburg Collection in 1976. Emma's second novel, Four Girls at Cottage City, was unknown to African American literature studies until its discovery in 1983 by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and ironically it inspired the compilation of the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers. To scholars the actual setting of the novel was another coded clue to the black heritage claimed for Emma. Cottage City, on Nantucket [according to an enclosed errata strip, this should read"on Martha's Vineyard"], had been a popular resort for the rising black middle class. That demographic shift did not begin until the 1920s, however, more than thirty years after Kelley wrote her novel.

There you have it. The idea that Hawkins was a black woman can be traced to one Whiteman.

The whole story inspires newfound appreciation for good librarians and archivists, since it shows how damaging an ambiguous accession record can be to scholarship. One mistake is hard to root out of the literature and even harder to root out of popular consciousness. Indeed, despite all the media attention to this story last year, and despite the claim of Brandeis University's PR people that Jackson's work had inspired the removal of Hawkins' work from the Schomburg collection, the mistaken identity of Hawkins lingers on the Internet. Flynn's footnotes also alerted me to the fact that the digital edition of the Schomburg Collection still features The Photograph of Hawkins on its splash page. And the online Collection also still includes Megda. Granted, the webpage reports that the digital collection was copyrighted in 1999, before all this news broke. But it may be time for an update.

(Cross-posted at Mode for Caleb.)


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More Comments:


Timothy Burke - 6/13/2006

Yes, exactly. This seems to me to be how history ought to work.


Oscar Chamberlain - 6/7/2006

Thanks for the update. Although I was (and remain) unfamiliar with Hawkin's work, the detective work that both corrected the misidentification and uncovered the way it happened is fascinating and worth celebrating

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