Inside Higher Education reports on the discovery that a 19th century novelist named Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins (I confess to not having heard of her before) was not African-American, as previously believed.
In her [Boston] Globe article, [Holly Jackson] recounts how she made the discovery about Kelley-Hawkins, about whom relatively little had been known. In short, a tip led her to records revealing the author's parents, and that in turn led to the discovery that several generations of her family about whom records exist were all white. (Jackson explored, and rejected, the hypothesis that the family was "passing" for white.)
What's most interesting about IHE's report, however is the quoted reponse from Henry Louis Gates, who himself included Kelley-Hawkins in a series of books by African-American Women Writers that he edited:
He said Kelley-Hawkins was a "mediocre novelist" and that he thinks the primary impact of the discovery will be that people won't write about her any more. There are so few black women authors in the 19th century that every single one matters, he says. "Anyone matters," he said.
But Gates said that he doubted that feminist scholars would now start studying Kelley-Hawkins, since there are so many better writers for them to examine in the 19th century. "It's less important to add one more white woman," he said.
I've always admired Gates, but I find his reaction to this controversy rather astonishing in at least two ways.
First, why would he want to include in a high-profile library of African-American literarure a novelist he readily concedes is "mediocre"? Was the purpose of this series merely to have in print a few more books scholars could "write about" (and therefore are really just more cogs in the academic tenure machine), or did Gates believe ordinary readers might want to read these books as well? If the latter, what kind of impression of the quality of 19th century African-American writing does it leave if you implicitly encourage people to read mediocre novels simply because an African-American name is attached? Is it really the case that "anyone matters?" Matters for what? We all know why it would have been difficult for African-American women (and men) to write and publish novels in 19th century America, and we know further that plenty of talented African-American writers emerged in the 20th century. What real purpose--especially what real literary purpose--is served by preserving a "library" of books many of which presumably aren't particularly satisfying to read in the first place?
Second, how does Gates expect his comment that ""It's less important to add one more white woman" to be taken? Since he acknowledges that quality is not a particularly important criterion for "inclusion" on the list of authors academic scholars might "write about," what earthly reason does he have for excluding "one more white woman" from consideration? All those white women are the same, anyway? Same old complaints about patriarchy and the terrors of middle-class existence? And what can it possibly mean to say there are "better" women writers to study? If the purpose of constructing such lists and compiling such libraries is primarily just to identify as many writers of a specified identity as possible, what's the problem with adding "one more"? The more the merrier, at least where course syllabi are concerned.
But this whole affair only illustrates the deep-seated problems with installing identity politics as the basis of literary study in the first place. From the very beginning of this process, the "literary" drops out of consideration altogether, to be replaced by sociology and cultural history and group solidarity. Perhaps these are more worthy endeavors than the merely trifling study of literature for its own sake, but those engaging in them ought to admit they're no longer studying literature. After all, look what this very case says about the current corruption of academic literary criticism and schlolarship. In her Globe article, Jackson writes:
. . .the readings of Kelley-Hawkins's novels that have been offered over the past 20 years--as critics have labored to account for the overwhelming, almost aggressive whiteness of her characters--now seem notably strained.
Many noted black authors. . .have depicted light-skinned ''mulattos'' with blue eyes as a way of pointedly exposing race as a social construction, instead of a biological fact. Kelley-Hawkins's novels, on the other hand, lack any such political thrust. Scholars have explained this away by arguing that the abundance of white signifiers is actually politically radical, with some even going so far as to argue that this extremely white world depicts a kind of post-racial utopia.
In other words: By the current rules of academic commentary, unconstrained by silly questions of form or style or quality of execution, or any of those other outdated "literary" notions, you can take any book and, imputing to it the sociological or biographical characterstics of choice, make it mean anything you want it to mean.
In this case, literally, white is black and black is white.