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Carlene Hatcher Polite


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(1932–2009), novelist, essayist, dancer, activist, and educator.

Carlene Hatcher Polite is among the important artists to emerge from the “second renaissance” of African American culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The author of two experimental novels, The Flagellants (1966) and Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play (1975), Polite forged a unique prose style that helped establish innovative modes popularized by later writers. In addition to writing, her widespread career included professional dance training, performance, and instruction; political organizing; civil rights activism; and academic appointments. Born in Detroit to John and Lillian (Cook) Hatcher, international representatives of UAW-CIO, Polite attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. From 1955 to 1963, she pursued a career as a professional dancer. Polite performed with the Concert Dance Theater of New York City (1955–1959) and the Detroit Equity Theatre and Vanguard Playhouse (1960–1962), and taught modern dance in the Martha Graham technique as a guest instructor at the Detroit YWCA (1960–1962), the Detroit YMCA (1962–1963), and as a visiting instructor at Wayne State University.

In the early 1960s Polite turned from dance to political organizing and civil rights activism, joining in the cause with many African American artists and intellectuals. In 1962 she was elected to the Michigan State Central Committee of the Democratic Party. She was coordinator of the Detroit Council for Human Rights and participated in the historic June 1963 Walk for Freedom and the November 1963 Freedom Now Rally to protest the Birmingham church bombings. In 1963 Polite organized the Northern Negro Leadership Conference and was active in the NAACP throughout this time.

In 1964 Polite moved to Paris, where she lived until 1971. The influential French editor Dominique de Roux encouraged Polite's writing, and in 1966 The Flagellants was published in French by Christian Bourgois Editeur; Farrar, Straus and Giroux brought the novel out in English the following year. Polite received a National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Fellowship in 1967 and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1968. Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play was published in 1975, four years after Polite's return to the United States. From 1971 to 2000 she taught creative writing as an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The Flagellants protests limited gender roles for African American women and men in a racially oppressive society and, by a series of interior monologues and exchanges, explores existential questions of identity that transcend yet must be part of racial cultural liberation. Sister X recounts the life of a dead black dancer in Paris who was a victim of foul play, racial stereotypes, and discrimination. Both novels have been underappreciated, though Polite's experimentation with form and attention to the rhythms and dialects of African American oral expression influenced the development of postmodern black fiction, especially the work of later innovators such as Gayl Jones and Ishmael Reed.

Hammett Worthington-Smith, “Carlene Hatcher Polite,” in DLB, vol. 33, Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, eds. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, 1984, pp. 215–218.Claudia Tate, introduction to The Flagellants, 1967; rpt. 1987.Margaret A. Reid, “The Diversity of Influences on Carlene Hatcher Polite's The Flagellants and Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play,” Connecticut Review 18:1 (Spring 1996): 39–50.


Subjects: Literature

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