"The world may take your reputation from you, but it cannot take your character."Emma Dunham Kelley, Megda
During the early 1970s, American academics strove to build new literary canons, unearthing the writings of individuals whose work previously had been ignored because of the author's race or gender. Often, little was known about these authors and their race was guessed at or surmised from scant clues. One such case is that of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins.
In the African American literary canon, Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins has been studied as one of the earliest published African American women novelists (McCaskill 239; Schwartz 240). Despite this status, little was known about her until 2003. All that existed were her two novels, Megda and Four Girls at Cottage City, first published in 1891 and 1895, respectively. An original copy of either commanded over $5500 at auction (Between the Covers). Both novels were coveted items in any major collection of African American literature, since they contributed substantively [End Page 278] to our understanding of fiction written during "The Black Woman's Era," from 1890 to 1910 (Gates xvi).
The frontispiece of Megda is a signed photograph of Emma Dunham Kelley that has repeatedly been cited as unquestionable evidence that Kelley-Hawkins was Black (Hite xxviii; Peterson 113). When Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., edited the landmark Schomburg Collection of African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth-Century, published in 1988 by Oxford University Press, both of Kelley-Hawkins's novels were included—although no details of her life had been uncovered.1
Scholars have noted that Kelley-Hawkins's novels are devoid of any Black characters, but this has been explained as the author's desire to seek commonality with the dominant white society by writing solely of religious themes and ignoring her heritage and divisive racial issues (Tate, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels 22–46). While there was a diversity of opinion as to whether her characters were actually white or very light mulattoes (Tate, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire 120, 258), until 2003, no one had published any doubts about Kelley-Hawkins's presumed African heritage.
To me, the photograph of Kelley-Hawkins was inconclusive at best. The subject was shot almost in profile. She faces away from the light source and her face is mostly in shadow. Her cheek nearest the light is white. Her hair is wavy and her lips are medium full, but these features are not the purview of a single race. Moreover, I was intrigued by the mystery of how a New England writer who had lived to at least marriageable age and who had published two novels—both of which had appeared in second editions in the 1890s—could have escaped detection, especially given the wealth of records from that period.
Assuming nothing about race, I examined all "Emma Hawkins" census entries from 1900 onward. I had immediate success in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census records for Rhode Island. All three records listed an "Emma Hawkins" whose daughter was named Megda! In all the records, this Emma Hawkins was noted as white. However, I found this evidence to be insufficient to support any firm conclusions about Kelly-Hawkins, much less to call for a revision of the then-current understandings. To the contrary, the evidence raised more questions than it answered.
The first unequivocal answer I found was through matching Emma Hawkins's signature on her will with the signature on the frontispiece portrait of Megda. To me, this proved that this Emma Hawkins was the author of Megda and Four Girls at Cottage City. I then made contact with Kelley-Hawkins's great-nephew, E. Butler Moulton, who showed me a necklace with a mother-of-pearl pendant engraved "Cottage City" that had been owned by Kelley-Hawkins. He kindly...