A Slight Mix-up

I know I shouldn’t laugh. But oh dear, it is funny. They must have worked up such a sweat trying to think up a good theoretical explanation – and all for nothing.

Literary rediscoveries form a routine part of cultural life. They have a certain protocol. A given author has been “unfairly neglected.” The reissue of a book is “long overdue.” The rescue from oblivion is, in effect, the righting of a wrong. The most striking thing about the case of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins is that, for once, the process is running in the opposite direction. Now that it’s clear the author was not African-American, her novels seem destined for something for which we lack a familiar language — or even a name. Kelley-Hawkins is now due, for want of a better term, to be reforgotten.

Yeah, that ‘unfairly neglected’ trope. I’ve been wrestling with that particular hydra for a long time. I went through a phase of reading a lot of rescued from oblivion novels by women, and some of them did have considerable historical and social interest. But it did finally dawn on me that in fact their consignment to oblivion had not been unfair at all, because they weren’t good enough. Some were abysmal, others were just mediocre; but what they were not, was Jane Austen-level or Emily Bronte-level good, ruthlessly tossed aside for no other reason than because the authors were women. They were like 99.9% of novels, by women and by men (and by any other category you can think of, too): just not very good, so displaced by newer not very good novels, which would soon be displaced by more not very good novels. That’s life. Fairness doesn’t come into it.

As this story* makes all too apparent. When scholars thought Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was black and hence one of the unfairly neglected crowd, she was worth reading – all the more because she mysteriously wrote about white characters. Food for theorizing there.

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.

Which cannot help but make one wonder if there ever was any reason.

Within a few years, Claudia Tate would write in Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century (Oxford, 1992) that the novelist “avoid[ed] racial despair by suppressing entirely or partially the discourse of race,” thus creating a fictional world “under the auspices of equal opportunity in a meritocracy.”

Ohhh, she suppressed the discourse of race – I see. That would explain it.

Now, there certainly were early African-American writers who were concerned with the ambiguities of “the discourse of race” and all its “codes of intelligibility.” The fiction of Charles Chesnutt, for example, actually contains all the irony and paradox that critics have laboriously contrived to uncover in Kelley-Hawkins’s novels, with their earnest tedium. Indeed, reading Chesnutt has a kind of boomerang effect. His fiction about African-Americans “passing” or otherwise reinventing themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is sometimes so intricate in implication that you only grasp what has happened in a story hours after you’ve finished it. There is nothing like that reading experience with Kelley-Hawkins. On the contrary, the critical literature since 1988 has often been at pains to avoid expressing irritation with her work. Acknowledging her mediocrity would tend to distract everyone from finding subversive meanings.

Maybe it will be a relief now, to be able to express that irritation. ‘So all those vapid white girls weren’t ironic evidence of the discourse of race, they were just vapid white girls! No wonder I always hated these novels!’

Even if Kelley-Hawkins were black, I asked, should she have been highly placed on those lists? After all, Shockley herself hadn’t been that enthusiastic about the novels.
“I had to struggle through a lot of work like that,” she said. “Some of it was quite boring, but it was worth it even to get one more black woman writer onto the list.”
It’s possible to see her point, but still to wonder. There is a passage in Four Girls at Cottage City that has been bothering me. One of the characters comments on the pleasure of going to the theater, even “if we do have to get seats in ‘nigger heaven.’”…Now if any part of Kelley-Hawkins’s work would seem to require careful analysis from scholars interested in race, that one would. Yet the critical literature tiptoes past, nodding at it but not saying much. Whatever the author’s own race, it would be crucial to understanding her world view and her work.
It is the passage in which form and content, aesthetics and ideology, are perfectly combined — a revelation that the fiction of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, trite as it may be, embodied the banality of evil. Perhaps we shouldn’t forget her just yet, after all.

*I know, it’s more than a month old, but I only saw it out of the corner of my eye then. My mistake.

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