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Mar 25, 2005 8:20 pm

Interesting Narratives

You will have to take my word for it, but I was drafting my own post for Cliopatria about Olaudah Equiano before I saw Caleb McDaniel’s very smart reflections on the same subject. I’d just had the opportunity to meet the eminent African-Americanists Ira Berlin and Vincent Carretta. I told Prof. Berlin a pretty good story (second-hand) about cooking burritos on the radiators in Widener Library, but conversation then turned to Carretta’s work on Olaudah Equiano and the somewhat similar controversy around Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins.

Earlier posts by Caleb and Ralph Luker should have you covered on both Equiano and Kelley-Hawkins, but just to recap: Equiano was a freed slave, a sailor, an abolitionist, and the author of The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789. Equiano's Interesting Narrative is one of the earliest extant slave narratives, and one of our only primary accounts of the Middle Passage from Africa to America on a slaving ship. Except that it might not be a primary account. Vincent Carretta’s work argues that Equiano was born a slave in South Carolina, and that his description of the middle passage was based on oral testimony from other slaves. (Brycchan Carey has a very useful website on Equiano, including excerpts from the Narrative and an outline of the debate around Equiano's birthplace.)

And Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was the 19th century novelist, “rediscovered” in the 1980s as a “lost” African-American author, who now appears to have been white all along. “Whispered behind this discussion,” Ralph said last month, “is the fact that this may be the second time that Henry Louis Gates has identified the literary work of a white woman as that of an African American woman.” I have indeed heard that whispered, and even spoken in a normal tone of voice, but one might also whisper that there are many who find it very satisfying to catch a scholar with the visibility of Henry Louis Gates in a muddle like this, and perhaps cast the whole enterprise of literary historicism into question. See how discussion at Crooked Timber quickly turned to whether the whole field had been “Sokalled” (a reference to physicist Allan Sokal’s 1996 hoax on the cultural studies journal Social Text.) Viewers of The Simpsons will know what I mean when I say that some commentaries on l’affair Kelley-Hawkins bear a distinct resemblance to Nelson Munce’s “HA-ha!

Once the fun of Sokalling the lit crits has faded, I imagine Kelley-Hawkins will be, as Scott McLemee puts it, “re-forgotten.” You can, with some effort, come up with reasons to keep studying her—as a kind of Borgesian fabulation or as an example of nineteenth-century racial prejudice—but I have doubts that these are going to keep Kelley-Hawkins in the limelight for long. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is how dull her novels are. I haven't read her, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Kelley-Hawkins is no Borges, and dull or racist Victorian writers are hardly in short supply.

First-hand accounts of the Middle Passage are harder to come by, so the Equiano case is a little different. If “the African” was not in fact born in Africa, in many ways that makes his Interesting Narrative even more interesting than it already is. It makes it easier, as Caleb said, for students to see Equiano's Narrative as a rhetorical text, to ask how it works and why it was written. It emphasizes, as Prof. Berlin pointed out, that the Narrative is an artifact of a black Atlantic culture. And it turns the Narrative into a rather audacious act of self-invention—like other 18th century autobiographies I could mention.

But it also means that the Narrative is not, strictly speaking, true. Even if we assume that Equiano’s second-hand version of the Middle Passage is largely accurate, Carretta's discovery would still remove one of a very few first-hand primary sources on the experience, and on African society in the eighteenth century more generally. It is easy to see, without imputing misrepresentation or sloppy scholarship to anyone, why many historians would not want Carretta's hypothesis to be correct.

I trust that outright falsification is very rare in the academy, and that the way academia works usually corrects for it when it does occur. We all want a scoop, so there is always an incentive for research, revision, and verification. But it’s also true that we all have our own kinds of blinders on. Some questions seem more salient than others. Some lines of investigation get deemed blind alleys. We can be deeply invested in certain ways of thinking without even knowing it. We tend to find in history what we want to find, not because we’re being dishonest, but because history is big and we’re being selective.

This also makes me think about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. DNA evidence now seems to confirm that Jefferson fathered several of Sally Hemings’ children. DNA testing is pretty new, but the Jefferson-Hemings story is not. The claim that Hemings bore Jefferson’s children was leveled publicly during his first term as president, and considerable evidence to support it has always been around. But the story was never given credence by mainstream historians, and it lurked for nearly two centuries in the not-quite-respectable corners of sub-history. Today, the Jefferson-Hemings story has been added to standard U.S. history textbooks. I myself wrote a few new paragraphs on it for the revised edition of a U.S. history text published in 2000. Was it really DNA testing that brought the Jefferson-Hemings story into the master narrative? Or was it a shift in the kinds of things we want to know about the past—the questions we consider worthwhile as history?

Not every scoop makes the papers, or even Cliopatria. Historical discoveries, though true, may still flounder in the marketplace of ideas. If there is such a thing as an idea whose time has come, then there must also be ideas whose times have not yet come, and others whose times have come and gone.

I admit to being perplexed by all these issues. Hopefully I have achieved the “informed and thoughtful befuddlement” Caleb tries to model for his students—a wonderful phrase, by the way, Caleb, and an admirable goal. I do have an idea that I can bring this rambling to some resolution, in my own mind at least, by connecting it all to the history of the telephone—but that awaits another post.

(Cross-posted to my own Roblog.)
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More Comments:

Herbert Barger - 4/8/2010

Yes, as an insider on this project with Dr Foster I can assure the public that he tested a KNOWN carrier of both Jefferson and Hemings DNA, John Weeks Jefferson. There could be no other finding than a match, which there was. His family oral history was always being a descendant of "a Jefferson uncle or nephew." This translates to TJ's much younger brother, Randolph, and his sons.

I told Dr Foster he MUST inform Nature Journal of this sure fire match, but he DID NOT TELL THEM. In a later issue (Jan 7, 1999) of Nature he did reveal this and my recommendation but the original FALSE headlines were out and the public was being lied to.

Monticello is also DEEPLY involved in this misrepresentation and did a biased, one-sided study as told by former Monticello employee and study participant, Dr Ken Wallenborn. Monticello President Dan Jordan even hid his Minority Report "under the rug" until I faced the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation with a request for such a disastrous and unfair decision. Dr Jordan immediately apologized to Dr Wallenborn and posted his Minority Report on the Monticello web page.

The public is being "CONNED" with this amateur manipulated politically correct story. Monticello will NOT revise their inaccurate results and still maintain that TJ fathered not only one but possibly all of Sally Hemings children. I can tell the public that only ONE Hemings was tested..........where does this foundation that has DROPPED that part of their long time title, MEMORIAL, come up with such inaccurate assessment?

WHAT TO DO: Contact Monticello and inform them that it is long overdue that they correct and update their inaccurate assesment of the founder that provides them their income.

Herb Barger
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (
Asst. to Dr Foster on the DNA Study

Ralph E. Luker - 6/5/2009

For beginners, Mr. Barger, do you have incontrovertible evidence that Thomas Jefferson was not the father of Sally Heming's children? If not, you're just shadow-boxing.

Herbert Barger - 6/5/2009

Mr. MacDougall, your interesting article that indicates your vast knowledge of some topics, is noteworthy, however, when trying to inform your reader of the Jefferson-Hemings DNA controversy you are deficient in knowledge of the facts of this FIASCO.

May I please inform you of the true facts of this study.........not what popular media would have the reader believe. I am fully qualified to make my research known because for over forty years I have studied Jefferson (my wife's first cousin, 6 generations removed), published a Jefferson Family of Va. book, assisted Dr. Foster with the DNA Study, Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society ( researcher on the recent "bad mouthing" of TJ by supposedly well known historians. Imagine Annette Gordon-Reed stating, with all certainty, "Jefferson fathered 7 of Sally Hemings children." This is an outright lie, she has no proof of this. Yet she has recently won several book awards (do these boards not have any compassion for the truth and investigate?)

May I suggest you review two web pages: and for full details of this LARGE agenda to disgrace TJ. May I also suggest you read a new book, due out tomorrow, "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson-The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal." This hard-hitting expose' names names and their reason for doing thei or dirty politically correct deeds.

Herb Barger
Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

Ralph E. Luker - 3/26/2005

I'm having minor computer problems and, somehow, can't access Caleb's response to Rob's post here, but I want to thank both Rob and Caleb for commenting thoughtfully on the Equiano matter and responding thoughtfully to the Kelley-Hawkins thing.
I do sense some skepticism about my over the top speculation that we may have stumbled on HenryLouisGate in the Kelley-Hawkins revelation, together with the earlier likelihood that Hannah Crafts's A Bondwoman's Narrative was probably written by a white antislavery woman. As I recall commenting at Caleb's site at the time, these kinds of findings take on greater meaning when you understand them in the context of the fact that Gates has had enormous funding, not only in salary and benefits, but in grants, institutional resources, and research staff.
As a matter of personal biasing, I recall that I finally quit sending money to Duke's alumni fund from my pitiful pocket when I learned that it had given Brother Gates many thousands of dollars to buy a work of art because he was "thinking of" writing an article about its creator. Of course, Skip and his newly acquired work of art skipped out on my alma mater when Harvard came calling. So, maybe you and I would have done the same thing if we could get away with it. But I also subsequently pointed to an article in Slate that documented the research scams in the empire built to produce the Africana cd rom.
My point would be that when you calculate the resources available to a scholar like Gates, it throws the gaffs resulting from his staff's and his work into even bolder relief.
Like Rob, I'd like to believe that falsification occurs rarely in the academic community, but I suspect that it occurs more commonly than any of us would like to believe. When it does occur -- as in the case of a Michael Bellesiles, for example -- I think there's a good case to be made that it's a function of hubris and over-reaching, to be sure. But, in Bellesiles's case, there's also a very substantial case to be made that he simply didn't have the time, money, and resources necessary to have done all the background research that he claimed -- that he thought he had to claim -- to have done in the first edition of his book.
That reality -- that some few of us get blessed with perfectly enormous funding and resources and the great many of us, by contrast, scrape along on a bit of funding and the seat of our pants -- puts a different light on things.
I have no reservation about holding someone like Gates to the very highest standards of professional accountability because he's had resources available to him that most of us can't in our wildest imagination hope to receive.
Given the current state of things at Harvard, I can't imagine that Larry Summers is going to call Gates into his office and read the riot act to him, but I see no reason why his peers ought not do so.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/26/2005

Great post, Rob! It was clearly still worth writing.

I especially like this line -- "If there is such a thing as an idea whose time has come, then there must also be ideas whose times have not yet come, and others whose times have come and gone." That seems like the quintessentially historical way to think about how historical discovery happens.

It also gets at one of my bedrock reasons for the value of practicing history: it tells us "what time" it is now.

I'm aware that's a somewhat mysterious reply, but it's not as mystifying as the fact that I'm blogging at 9 p.m. on a Friday night. Again, thanks for a great post.

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