In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes shows the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t exist.
The flagellants, the debut novel by American writer Carlene Hatcher Polite, is one of those out of print books that have lurked in the corner of my eye for several years. First published by Christian Bourgois éditeur as Les Flagellants In the French translation by Pierre Alien from 1966 and in its English original by Farrar, Straus and Giroux the following year, the book describes the tumultuous relationship between Ideal and Jimson, a black couple in New York City. The narrative consists largely of a series of awareness speeches. Polite prose is frenetic and talkative, and its characters hurl both physical and verbal violence over the page. The French edition received a lot of praise. Polite has been viewed as “a poet of the strange, an angel of the bizarre” and the novel has been described as “so haunting, so rich in thoughts and emotions, so well situated in a poetic chiaroscuro” [could] enjoy its indescribable hardness. “And while some American critics were not as impressed -” Miss Polite’s narrative creaks with the stress of literary uncertainty, “wrote Frederic Raphael in the New York TimesSummarize the novel as a “dialectical disgrace” – others recognized the unique, if more raw and up-and-coming talent of this young black woman. Malcolm Boyd, for example, described the novel as “the work of lush imagery and exciting semantic exploration”. It won Polite – then in his mid-thirties and living in Paris with the youngest of her two daughters – scholarships from the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities (1967) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1968).
Then why am I only now writing about Polite? Well, while the vitality and ingenuity of her prose are undeniable, there is something about the long, drawn-out pontificate of her characters that wavers as it is revised. For all the passion of their spouts, Jimson and Ideal often feel one-dimensional. Those reservations got in the way, coupled with the fact that Polite never really felt like my discovery. Compared to another topic in this column Mojo hand (1966) – J. J. Phillips’ pitifully neglected black beat novel– The flagellants is a book that appears regularly on lists of 1960s African American literature. When I finally decided to dig a little deeper, I realized that while Polite is widely recognized as one of the most important artists to emerge from the Black Arts movement, surprisingly little has been written about her or her work, especially about her second novel. Sister X and the foul victims.
Released in 1975, Sister X. takes on a form similar to that of its predecessor in that the majority of the story is again told through a conversation between a man and a woman, although this time they are not a couple, and through the violence – or the “bad game”. – What is done to them (and to the other members of their race, past and present) is an accumulation of racism, filtered by conditions, which, as one character theorizes, all start with the letter c::
At first they accused the lack of vitamin C, scurvy on the slave ships. Cooking, cleaning, raising children, cotton fields, chain gangs, colonial correctional institutions … consumption … Black spots from the lack of decent clothing and all the scum and the cold from coalless cold ovens, cramps at meals, CCC cramps, continuous bread lines … CCC KKK (same Difference).
Again that New York Times wasn’t convinced. Your reviewer, Frederick Busch, condemned what he termed the novel’s “sledgehammer social protest”. And while I’ll admit it’s not without flaws, I still found more to admire here than on Polite’s debut. The seriousness of Ideal and Jimson’s monologues has been replaced by something more playful and sardonic overall. Simply put, it feels smoother, like Polite getting into her crotch. Or, as Ishmael Reed put it about the novel – positioning Polite alongside Ted Joans and Babs Gonzales, practitioners of what he calls “jazz writing” –Sister X and the foul victims is a long alto saxophone solo. Wife politely whines !! “
Sister X. focuses on three characters, the first of which, title sister X, a.k.a. Arista Prolo, who recently passed away. As a black American transplant in Paris, she worked as an exotic dancer – “a tiptoe master of the art of ‘interpretive’ Terpsichore, the darling of the Beau-Hawg grind, a rubber sole, the chic of the snake, Princess Yasmina, Lottie the body, La Bombie, Broadway Rose, the China Doll, Little Egypt, Alberta, New Caledonia, Alabama Mama (shake it up, shake it off, shake it all over town) all in one Jack of Diamonds Supper Club. Until she got to grips with management, that is, when she refused to appear naked. She used to be the star of the show, but then her audience dwindled: “But this is show business. So knock on it girls!” The club pulls out a classified ad – dancers wanted, no experience required, “Afro-American type” – and then, in the roaring, soaring final section of the novel that brings us back to Sister X’s final hours on this earth, we see her showing up at the club to pick up her last paycheck, only to be asked by her successor – Miss Ann White from Birmingham To be confronted, Alabama – who went black in the locker room, a “cartoon in burnt Siena”.
But back to the first half of the book. After Sister X dies, her story is in the hands of her two friends: Abyssinia, a seamstress who was Sister X’s costume designer; and Willis B. Black – “one of the most beautiful black men who ever brought a black woman and man into this world” – a “traveling man” originally from Detroit, Michigan (like Sister X). The novel begins with this valiant introduction:
He rubbed his beautiful black body with an oil and citrus fruits that an ex-girlfriend brought him to in 1956 in the province of Oriente. Santiago de Cuba to tell the truth about the place.
Next, the handsome black guy put on some fine black pants that were tailored for him by Kalik Shabazz, a brother of Temple No. 1 in Black Bottom and a former owner of an all-nite grill and a former owner during his so-called Negro days were at Shrimp Shack on Detroit’s Twelfth Street (a few doors down from the old Klein’s Show Bar – long before the fire). Nowadays, in Brother Kalik’s “free time”, he saves every penny he can put into his hands to get to Mecca, plays conga drums and recites “Al Fâtiha” with so much soul that you finally have to stop and ask yourself when the good brother may not have missed his true calling. Surely, if Coleman had been somewhere in those bottoms, he would have become a naturally born muezzin all this time. Salaam Aleikum!
After going through all of this, the handsome black man put on: a black shirt that was bought in either Palermo or Port-au-Prince (or maybe it was Rio de Janeiro); some black Sox picked up during those seconds of the 68 Olympic Games in Mexico; an unusual black belt with a Chinese silver buckle found in a practically deserted village outside of Samarkand; some horribly bad black suede boots, guaranteed (so as not to be broken into) by a semi-blind shoemaker of Moorish descent who did his best to make a living in what is now Cordova; a black vest knitted somewhere in Aurora Borealis Scandinavia; A blood-red foulard that was playfully brought together by an admiring and amazingly beautiful Ife sister from Nigeria (before poor Biafra …).
PEACE ‘N PAN (Africanization) A!
… And a black new wool sports jacket sold to him by a black Irish junkie from London who shoplifted, traveled too fast to Ibiza and called it Belfast X.
Newly arrived in Paris – via a maximum security prison in Illinois (where he was incarcerated for armed robbery and narcotics) and most recently in Zambia – Black Will calls his old friend Abyssinia and takes her to her home. “Contemporary catacombs,” which Polite describes with raw, rhythmic glee: “Because you are easily buried by endless floors with identical doors, peepholes, coconut straw floor mats, pine-lined elevators from Paupers, pine-wood terraces, outdoor terraces and damp surfaces basement, and in the end you end up being bothered by never seeing shoddy survival, life, or daylight again. “
Although Sister X. was written in a New York hotel room arranged for Polite by their American publisher – the last page is August 12-13, 1974, which is, if you want to believe it, a truly incredible achievement – the book is undoubtedly the product of the eight years Polite lived in France. “Dear reader,” she writes towards the end of the novel, “if I lie, I will fly.” If you’ve been to Paris you know it’s not me. ” Not that Sister X. should be realistic. As Michel Fabre points out in From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840–1980The novel “was in no way aimed at a French audience, but consistently used American stereotypes about the French.” Polite portrait of the city in it is a mixture of the various fantasies – both positive and harmful – that are wrapped in it.
One of the more problematic of these is the exploitation of black women in performance rooms. From the character of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus”, to Josephine Baker – whose biography Polite was apparently fascinated by – Polite’s portrayal of Sister X draws on a long and murky history of objectification and otherness, the marketing and sexualization of Black women. Her performances, including the exotic, seductive costumes Abyssinia wears on stage for Sister X, fuel the racially charged sexual fantasies of her white French audience.
The novel also speaks out against capitalist culture in general – “Be it immaterial or nail-baked, everything on earth has become dead, a quantitative piece of commodity,” says Abyssinia wisely – and Polite even plays with the idea of commercial breaks. An “In Between Act” in the middle of the book takes the form of an expanded advertisement for “Winning Smile Brand Toothpaste”, culminating in the following:
The active ingredients of toothpaste from the Winning Smile brand are:
M to the 1st power …… .. Master
M to the 2nd power …… .. money
M to the 3rd power …… .. commodity
S to the 1st power ……… slaves
S to the 2nd power ……… glasses
M.3 S² ……… The way the game is played, folks – fair or bad!
Of central importance, however, is how this “type of” goods and spectacle “society” uses and abuses black people:
In this “civilized” society, all of our psychological make-up is based on violence, death, Hoggian self-realization, ambition, exploitation, combative chauvinism, competition, binding contracts, promises and hatred. By snapping, grabbing, pulling, pulling, cheating, slipping, playing, piercing, enslaving, intruding, penetrating, intervening, robbing, stealing, lying, butt licensing, cheating, rape, attacking, attacking, gassing, burning, murdering, kidnapping , hurt, deceive, deceive, stun, hurt, insult, nail, crucify, injure, wound, defame, proselytize, cut, shoot, scratch, force, blackmail, cross, choke, hit, drown, mutilate, flagellate, exterminate, destroy So far humanity has learned to live, to break off, to rationalize, to discriminate, to justify, to castrate, to oppress, to oppress, to oppress, to oppress (and all other “Ings”), to submit to one another or to death to subjugate . Compassionate …
Polite uses language in such energetic, exciting ways – which of course is not without risk. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t quite work, but there is never a dull moment along the way. And as Margo Natalie Crawford argues Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and the Aesthetics of the 21st CenturyHere, in the script itself, another element of fantasy comes into play. Crawford praises the novel as “a breathtaking display of black satire’s ability to show how the more radical forms of black nationalism have deviated from familiar blackness to the unimaginable and fantastic”. Politely tore open all the rulebooks and rewrote Blackness, using and enabling the language itself in radical, innovative ways.
“The story comes close to poetry,” wrote a French critic The flagellantsand the same can be said here. “A free-form jazz text,” described A. Robert Lee Sister X.and repeated Reed’s thoughts. Even more fascinating, and as Crawford further points out, Polite’s “interest in sound extends to what cannot be heard.” From ampersands to exclamation marks, slashes, dollar signs, hashes, and the regular use of ellipses, she uses a variety of characters and symbols in ways that contradict their pronunciation. The sound also interrupts the speech. A phone ringing leaves a nearly blank page that looks like this:
“What is that supposed to be?”
“A piece of paper, I would imagine.”
“Do you see a watermark?”
(Neither do I.)
A French phone can ring that loud
that it doesn’t just blow the watermark
from the side, but also all the pressure.
My word! aqwsxedcrftvgbyhnujimklo
(How does that sound in the light of day?)
“In this quasi-detective novel,” Crawford continues, “courtesy keeps the secret by not clearing these parts.” The question of how exactly Sister X encounters her death is constantly pushed to the surface of the story. We know she fell off the stage at the Jack of Diamonds, but did she accidentally fall or did Miss Ann White push her?
Interestingly, Polite did not seem to view her writing as a form of social protest, nor did she address what white audiences expected from black creatives at the time. “I belong to that generation who thought that because we were Negroes we had to write or paint or dance as Negroes. To be accepted by white publishers or producers, we had to be ‘Negroes’ in quotation marks,” she said. “But I’d rather split up my writing to do creative literature and editorial protests at different times. “She certainly devoted much of her life to the latter. Her parents’ active participation in civil rights and labor movements – both in Detroit, where the family lived, as well as beyond; her mother’s work often took her to Washington, DC.In the early 1960s, she was elected to the Michigan State Central Committee of the Democratic Party and participated in the Walk for Freedom in June 1963 and the Freedom Now Rally in November Participated in 1963 to protest the bombings on the church in Birmingham. She was also active in the NAACP and organized the Northe in 1963 rn Negro Leadership Conference. At the same time that Polite moved to New York at the age of nineteen – with her first husband and daughter, with whom she was only seventeen – she was not drawn to Harlem as we might have expected. Instead, it was Greenwich Village, the birthplace of the Beat movement, that became their home. After their marriage collapsed, she lived with Allen Polite, a young black poet who was the father of her second daughter. As she apparently told her friend and colleague Craig Centrie, she moved to town “to experience all of its culture and humanity,” not just that of the black community.
What’s the story behind the lack of critical consideration of your work? Although Polite taught creative writing at Buffalo University for nearly three decades after her return to America from Europe – she died in 2009 at the age of seventy-seven – she did not publish any further novels after that Sister X., something that certainly fueled their neglect. Recall the summary by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer Mojo hand as simply “too rich a mixture for the time it appeared”? The same goes for Polite’s novels. They have been “largely overlooked,” argues Devona Mallory in Writing by African American women“Because of their experimental and unique nature.” Drawing on French existentialism and satire, music, dance choreography – Polite was trained at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and worked as both a professional dancer and instructor from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s – and on oral storytelling traditions of African American people. Polite novels are not easy to categorize. It is also worth mentioning, however, that much of what her novels investigate was still terra incognita in literature at the time.
It is important to remember that the literary landscape in which these works first appeared was still heavily male dominated. Polite novels paved the way for the likes of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gloria Naylor, who pick up on any subject in their fiction that she first came to terms with – especially the often-fraught sexual politics to do with romance and sex has relationships between black men and black women. And if it’s only about that, Polite deserves more attention than before. As I said, also not The flagellants Still Sister X. is a masterpiece – they are the work of a young and talented writer who still feels that way – but they are full of promises and moments of genius than most.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for them NYR daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary centeramong other publications. Read previous installments of Re-Covered.