March 1, 2005

Kelley-Hawkins fall-out: How'd that happen? . . .


“It would be wrong” to say the novels of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins were “terrible,” says Scott McLemee, “because ‘terrible’ makes them sound more interesting than they are.” But in the case of the supposedly seminal black, turn-of-the-century novelist who was last week revealed as white in a Boston Globe report by Holly Jackson, (previously on MobyLives), what is more interesting, says McLemee, is that “Without the academic labor required to interpret Kelley-Hawkins — to reconcile, in short, the extreme blondeness and pinkness of her characters with the presumed complexities of the author’s racial identity — there is no reason to read the novels at all.” In his column for Inside Higher Ed, McLemee traces how the writer Henry Louis Gates championed as the inspiration for his 30-volume Schomberg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers came to even be classified as a black writer, when the author photo in her books showed her as white, and there weren’t even any black characters in her books. And then there’s the occasional racial slur. But as McLemee traces the history of various scholars’ “impressive epistemological double-back flips” in writing about Kelley-Hawkins as an African-American writer, he finds that “Acknowledging her mediocrity would tend to distract everyone from finding subversive meanings.” In the end, he says, as when scholars describing the author’s photo stretch to describe her as African-American, it’s clear that “The urgent need to find some decisive trace of racial identity in the picture feels like a symptom of American racial paranoia, always on the hunt for signs of . . . well, something anyway.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.