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Mar 2, 2005 9:31 pm

The Signifyin' Scholar ...

It took a few days to percolate, but Holly Jackson's"Mistaken Identity" in the Boston Globe has set off a fascinating discussion on the net about literary historicism. Scott McLemee's"In Black and White," at Inside Higher Ed led to Tim Burke's"Impersonation," at Easily Distracted,"History Rerevised," at Begging to Differ, Henry Farrell's"Black and White" at Crooked Timber, and"Mediocre Novelists" at The Reading Experience.

The facts seem simple enough. A rather hum-drum late nineteenth century novelist, Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins (1863-1938), finds late twentieth century cachet when she is identified as an African American author. Identified as such as early as 1955, she was known only for Megda (1891). Early in the 1980s, when Henry Louis Gates, the African American literary scholar, found a second novel, Four Girls at Cottage City (1895), it inspired him"to edit a collection of reprints of these works and to publish them as a 'library' of black women's writings, in part so that I could read them myself." It became Oxford University Press's 40-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, published in 1988.

Holly Jackson's discovery shows that Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was white. Her family knew that all along. Her novels included no people of color. Only the scholars believed Kelley-Hawkins was an African American writer and that her novels betrayed no race consciousness became a matter for interpretation. But why would scholars not have taken the relentlessly white novels of Kelley-Hawkins as a signal that she was white? Did we read them and do the archival research about her or did we simply rely on an earlier authority's word for their author's ethnicity?

Whispered behind this discussion is the fact that this may be the second time that Henry Louis Gates has identified the literary work of a white woman as that of an African American woman. Two years ago, he published The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave, Recently Escaped from North Carolina to great fanfare. Its publication was featured on the front page of the New York Times; it was excerpted in the New Yorker; and Warner Books promoted it as"the first known novel written by an African American woman who had been a slave." As John Bloom has shown, the problem is that all of the research by Gates and his staff to identify Hannah Crafts and prove her authorship of the text was fruitless. It simply was more likely that the text was written by a white female abolitionist. Gates rejected that conclusion out of hand. There are at least ten novels written by white authors who pretended to be African American slaves, but he argued that there was no commercial advantage to be gained by the pretense, considerable stigma assumed by it, and, so, it was safe to assume that a writer who claims to be African American probably was an African American.

The discussions at the Boston Globe, Inside Higher Ed, Crooked Timber, Easily Distracted, Begging to Differ, and The Reading Experience pose interesting and important questions, but in this case I think that it's fair to ask:"Who is signifying who?" Gates is at Harvard and has a powerful presence in American academic life, but who is the trickster? Who asks the obvious, hard questions and allows the research to speak for itself? Is this HenryLouisGate? We've seen all the hype. Where's the beef?

On a Lighter Note: Don't miss Discover Your Momma's Network, a proper answer to David Horowitz's Discover the Network. Alas, the Cliopatriarchs didn't get listed by either of them. We're just out of the loopy, I suppose.

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Jeff Vanke - 3/2/2005

I wish I had time to read those discussions right now. Basically, I have found literature scholars too willing to take a few historical fragments in favor of their theories at face value. It doesn't take a history degree to be critical of sources, but it does take a broad perspective and a minimal degree of empirical skepticism (that is skepticism of claims, not of empiricism).