Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Addition by Subtraction: Toward a Literary History of Racial Representation

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Addition by Subtraction: Toward a Literary History of Racial Representation

Article excerpt

In "Mistaken Identity," Holly Jackson argues that Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, a putative "pioneer of African-American women's literature," turns out "not to be black at all." Jackson concludes her essay with the following words:

  I began my research on Kelley-Hawkins hoping to add to our
  understanding of the canon of black women's writing that has been so
  painstakingly reconstructed after more than a century of forgetting.
  But in the end, subtracting Kelley-Hawkins from that canon should
  produce a more accurate understanding of that tradition. After all,
  previous scholarship on Kelley-Hawkins has carried the burden of
  constructing a coherent race-based literary tradition in which her
  novels connect meaningfully to those written by trailblazing black
  feminists of that time. We have stretched our understanding of how
  black women have written in America to incorporate texts that do not
  fit. (par. 24)

In stating the conceptual virtue (such as accuracy) of "subtracting Kelley-Hawkins from [the] canon" of "black women's writing," Jackson consummates her analytic move from paratext to text. According to Gerard Genette, the paratext comprises written or illustrative signifiers surrounding a literary text, such as those describing the author, publisher, site of publication, critical reception, and commercialization. The paratext informs our assumptions about, and guides our approach to, a literary text; it dictates how we classify, interpret, and evaluate that text (1). For Jackson, a key paratext is the US Census (1840 to 1910). Alongside obituaries and early literary editions, the census enables her to disprove the longstanding scholarly assumption that Kelley-Hawkins was Black. Simultaneously, she suggests that Kelley-Hawkins's 1891 and 1895 novels, Megda and Four Girls at Cottage City, should be removed from the canon--and, by extension, the tradition--of African American literature.

By using the census, the methodology of Jackson's scholarly detective work resembles that of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who, ironically, was responsible for our initial assumption that Kelley-Hawkins was Black. (1) He selected Megda and Four Girls at Cottage City, among other recovered novels by Black women, for his 1988 edition of the multi-volume Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, published by Oxford University Press and sponsored by Harlem's Schomburg Library for Research in Black Culture. The fact that a couple of decades passed before someone, such as Jackson, verified Kelley-Hawkins's racial identity defies the record of Gates's own thoroughgoing scholarship.

Indeed, five years before the publication of the Schomburg Library, Gates confirmed the racial identity of Harriet E. Wilson. In the introduction to his 1983 edition of Our Nig (initially published in 1859), Gates claims that this was the first novel written by a Black person and published in the United States. Gates focuses on the death notice for Wilson's son, George, in which he is marked as "black" and in which the listed name "Mrs. H. E. Wilson" matches that on the copyright page of the first edition of Our Nig. Gates thereby concludes that Harriet E. Wilson was both Black and the author of Our Nig (Introduction, Our Nig xiii). Nearly two decades later, Gates again incorporated meticulous research in trying to prove that Hannah Crafts, the author of The Bondwoman's Narrative (written circa 1853 to 1861), was Black. The proof would have made this the first novel by an enslaved Black woman published in the United States. But this attempt turned out to be not as successful. To date, the evidence remains circumstantial. Crafts's racial Blackness remains only a possibility, not a certainty. Gates concludes that answering lingering questions about Crafts's life and literature demands "further research" (Introduction, The Bondwoman's Narrative lxxii).

The common reliance of Jackson and Gates on ostensibly authoritative evidence to identify Kelley-Hawkins and Wilson as white and as Black, respectively, has epistemological implications. …

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