Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Radical Tea: Racial Misrecognition and the Politics of Consumption in Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins's Four Girls at Cottage City

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Radical Tea: Racial Misrecognition and the Politics of Consumption in Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins's Four Girls at Cottage City

Article excerpt

Speculations about the racial identity of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins have overshadowed the recuperative considerations of her work in the two decades following the publication of the Schomburg reprints of Four Girls at Cottage City and Megda. New evidence provided by independent researcher Katherine E. Flynn, confirming that Kelley-Hawkins was misidentified as a Black writer, complicates Kelly-Hawkins's place in the canon of nineteenth-century African American writing. (1) The readings and methodologies of scholars such as Jean Fagan Yellin, Claudia Tate, and Frances Smith Foster have profoundly and irrevocably altered perceptions of late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century women's literatures. Certain race-based speculations might now be unwarranted, but the impulse behind the desire to claim Kelley-Hawkins as "one of ours" is not. If we look to the text, a text that, if not authored by an African American woman, clearly partakes of a similar literary tradition, what we find is not overzealous criticism, but an illuminating application of critical frameworks derived from the study of nineteenth-century Black women's writing. Just as the putative dichotomy of separate spheres has been destabilized by more fluid and complex understandings of gender, race, class, and sexuality, so also must the supposed separateness of Black and white American literary traditions be reconceived as having been wrought within mutually constitutive spaces of critical and historical discourses. My understanding of Kelley-Hawkins's novels is not irrevocably tied to the author's racial heritage, but to her representations of racial anxiety and utopian communities of spiritual feminism. Rather than discounting Kelley-Hawkins as what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has dubbed "one more white" "mediocre novelist" because her work cannot be contained within a singular literary tradition (qtd. in Jaschik, pars. 11, 10), I consider how Four Girls at Cottage City rearticulates several popular forms of nineteenth-century literature, including sentimental novels, such as Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, and evangelical African American girls' fiction, such as Mrs. A. E. Johnson's The Hazeley Family and Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman's Beryl Weston's Ambition. Far from advocating mindless escapism, Kelley-Hawkins balances tensions in her novel to constitute a realist interpretation of the difficulties young women faced in negotiating often contradictory expectations of womanhood, citizenship, and race consciousness.

Throughout Four Girls at Cottage City, Kelley-Hawkins negotiates the tension between endorsing Victorian models of respectability, intellectuality, and morality on one hand, and advocating freedom, individualism, and indulgence on the other. It is precisely those moments when the heroines are engaged in consuming--musical entertainment, food, religious testimony, books, fortune-telling, and mesmerism--that I posit as radical assertions of female agency and pleasure. Claudia Tate's Domestic Allegories of Political Desire, which examines the "efficacy" of overlooked domestic novels as a way of "expressing the social desire and despair, the personal and political dreams and frustrations of late-nineteenth-century black people," first sparked my interest in the work of Kelley-Hawkins. Through what she terms the "politics of desire" in turn-of-the-century women's writing, Tate recovers a "woman-centered political agency" (19, 21). My work extends Tate's understanding of the fusion of the domestic and political by focusing specifically on the radical potential of consumption in domestic novels. More than unveiling sites of female empowerment and agency, my exploration attends to textual moments that underscore the tensions between bourgeois and/or bohemian impulses and the political collectivity of racial uplift. Both slave narratives and early women's writing responded to the restrictions of gender and race by turning inward. In women's literature, this technique often led heroines on evangelical quests for spiritual renewal, while in slave narratives, these inward looks resulted in internal, followed by actual, self-emancipation. …

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