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The Novel as a Long Alto Saxophone Solo


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In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.

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Photo: Lucy Scholes.

The Flagellants, the American writer Carlene Hatcher Polite’s debut novel, is one of those out-of-print books that’s been lurking in the corner of my eye for the past few years. First published by Christian Bourgois éditeur as Les Flagellants in Pierre Alien’s 1966 French translation, and then in its original English the following year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the book details the stormy relationship between Ideal and Jimson, a Black couple in New York City. The narrative is largely made up of a series of stream of consciousness orations. Polite’s prose is frenetic and loquacious, and her characters fling both physical and verbal violence back and forth across the page. The French edition received much praise. Polite was deemed “a poet of the weird, an angel of the bizarre,” and the novel was described as “so haunting, so rich in thoughts, sensations, so well located in a poetic chiaroscuro that one [could] savor its ineffaceable harshness.” And while certain American critics weren’t so impressed—“Miss Polite’s narrative creaks with the stresses of literary uncertainty,” wrote Frederic Raphael in the New York Times, summing the novel up as a “dialectical diatribe”—others recognized this young Black woman’s singular, if still rather raw and emergent, talent. Malcolm Boyd, for example, declared the novel “a work of lush imagery and exciting semantic exploration.” It won Polite—then in her mid-thirties and living in Paris with the youngest of her two daughters—fellowships from the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities (1967) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1968).

Why, then, am I writing about Polite only now? Well, although the vitality and inventiveness of her prose is undeniable, there’s something about her characters’ long, drawn-out pontificating that wavers on the overwrought. For all the passion of their outpourings, Jimson and Ideal often feel oddly one-dimensional. These reservations stood in my way, combined with the fact that Polite never really felt like my discovery. Compared, for example, to another subject of this column, Mojo Hand (1966)—J. J. Phillips’s woefully neglected Black beat novel—The Flagellants is a book that appears regularly on lists of African American literature from the sixties. Yet, finally deciding to dig a little deeper, I realized that although Polite is widely acknowledged as one of the most important female artists to emerge from the Black Arts Movement, there’s been surprisingly little written about her or her work, especially her second novel, Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play.

Published in 1975, Sister X takes a similar shape to its predecessor in that again, the majority of the story is told by means of a conversation between a man and a woman, though this time they’re not a couple, and the violence—or “foul play”—that’s being done to them (and the other members of their race, past and present) is an assemblage of racism as filtered through conditions that, as one character theorizes, all begin with the letter c:

First they blamed it on the lack of vitamin C, scurvy on the slave ships. Cooking, cleaning, child-raising, cotton fields, chain gangs, colonial correctional facilities … consumption … Black spots from the absence of decent clothing, and from all the scum and chilliness of coal-less cold stoves, miss-meal cramps, CCC cramps, continuous bread lines … CCC KKK (same difference).

Yet again, the New York Times wasn’t convinced. Their reviewer, Frederick Busch, decried what he termed the novel’s “sledge-hammer social protest.” And while I’ll admit that it’s not without flaws, I still found more to admire here than in Polite’s debut. The earnestness of Ideal and Jimson’s soliloquies has been replaced by something altogether more playful and sardonic. Put simply, it feels smoother, as if Polite were getting into her stride. Or, as Ishmael Reed pronounced of the novel—positioning Polite alongside the likes of Ted Joans and Babs Gonzales, practitioners of what he describes as “jazz writing”—“Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play is a long alto saxophone solo. Ms. Polite wails!!”

*

Sister X focuses on three characters, the first of whom, the titular Sister X, a.k.a. Arista Prolo, has recently died. A Black American transplant in Paris, she was working as an exotic dancer—“a tiptop tappin’ past master of the art of ‘interpretive’ terpsichore, the darling of the beau-hawg grind, a rubber sole, the chic of 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 down, shake it all over town), all rolled into one”—at the Jack of Diamonds Supper Club. Until she fell out with management, that is, when she refused to perform naked. She used to be the star of the show, but then her audience started to dwindle: “But’s that show biz. So knockers up, girls!” The club takes out a classified ad—dancer wanted, no experience needed, “Afro-American Type”—and then, in the novel’s roaring, soaring final section, which transports us back to Sister X’s last few hours on this earth, we witness her turning up at the club to collect her final paycheck only to be confronted by her replacement—Miss Ann White, from Birmingham, Alabama—blacking up in the dressing room, a “caricature in burnt sienna.”

But back to the book’s opening half. With Sister X dead, her story lies in the hands of her two friends: Abyssinia, a seamstress who acted as Sister X’s costume designer; and Willis B. Black (Black Will)—“one of the most beautiful Black Men whom a Black Woman and a Black Man ever brought into this World”—a “Travelin’ Man” originally from Detroit, Michigan (as was Sister X). The novel opens with this bravura introduction:

His beautiful black body he rubbed down with an oil and citrus cologne an ex-girlfriend had turned him on to back in 1956, down in Oriente Province. Santiago de Cuba, to tell the truth about the place.

Next, the beautiful Black Man put on some fine black pants, tailored for him by Kalik Shabazz, a Temple #1 Brother from Black Bottom, and former proprietor, during his so-called-negro-days, of an all-nite barbecue and 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 dime that he can lay his hands on to make it to Mecca, plays conga drums, and recites ‘Al Fâtiha’ with so much Soul that you finally have to stop and ask yourself if, perhaps, the Good Brother hasn’t missed his true calling. Surely, Coleman, if he were still back over there somewhere in those Bottoms, would have become, during all this Time by Now, a natural-born Muezzin. Salaam Aleikum!

After getting through all of ‘that,’ the beautiful Black Man then put on: a black shirt bought in either Palermo or Port-au-Prince (or maybe it was Rio de Janeiro); some black sox picked up during those no-seconds-flat days of the Mexico ’68 Olympics, an unusual black belt with Chinese silver buckle found in a practically Peopleless village right outside of Samarkand; some awful-bad black suede boots that were guaranteed (to need no breakin’ in) by a half-blind Moorish-descent bootmaker, trying his best to make himself a living down in present-day Cordova; a black vest knitted somewhere up in aurora borealis Scandinavia; a blood-red foulard playfully gotten together by an admiring and astonishingly beautiful Ife Sister from Nigeria (before poor Biafra …)

PEACE MOMMA’FRICA

PEACE ’N PAN (Africanization) ON!

… and a black virgin-wool sports jacket sold to him by a Black Irish London junkie who hustled shoplifted clothes, too fast-movin’ trips to Ibiza, and went under the name of Belfast X.

Newly arrived in Paris—by way of an Illinois maximum-security prison (in which he was incarcerated for armed robbery and narcotics) and, most recently, Zambia—Black Will calls up his old friend Abyssinia and hotfoots it over to her apartment building, “Contemporary Catacombs” that Polite describes with raucous, rhythmical delight: “since you could easily get yourself buried by endless floors of identical doors, peepholes, coconut-straw doormats, paupers’ pine-lined elevators, plein-air terraces, dank sub-basements, and wind up resigning yourself to never seeing the likes of seedy-sleazy survival, living life, or daylight again.”

Although Sister X was written in a New York City hotel room, arranged for Polite by her American publisher—the final page is dated August 12–13, 1974, which, if it’s to be believed, is a truly incredible achievement—the book is undoubtedly the product of the eight years Polite spent living in France. “Dear Reader,” she writes toward the end of the novel, “if I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’. If you have been to Paris, you know that I’m not.” Not that Sister X is supposed to be steeped in realism. As Michel Fabre points out in From Harlen to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840–1980, the novel “was in no way directed at a French audience but made constant cartoon-like use of American stereotypes about the French.” Polite’s portrait of the city therein is a concoction of the various fantasies—both the positive and the pernicious—that are wrapped up in it.

One of the more problematic of these is the exploitation of Black women in performance spaces. From the figure of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” through Josephine Baker—whose biography Polite was apparently fascinated by—Polite’s depiction of Sister X draws on a long and murky history of the objectification and othering, commodification and sexualization of Black females. Her performances, including the exotic, alluring costumes that Abyssinia makes for Sister X to wear on stage, all fuel the racially-charged sexual fantasies of her white French audience.

The novel also rails against capitalist culture more broadly—“be it intangible or nail-downable, everything on Earth has been rendered dead, a quantitative piece of merchandise,” states Abyssinia sagely—and Polite even plays with the idea of the commercial break. An “In Between Act” in the middle of the book takes the form of an extended ad for “Winning Smile brand toothpaste” that culminates thus:

Winning Smile brand toothpaste’s active ingredients are:

M to the 1st power …….. Masters
M to the 2nd power …….. Money
M to the 3rd power …….. Merchandise
S to the 1st power ……… Slaves
S to the 2nd power ……… Spectacles

M3 S² ……… The Way the Game is Played, folks—fair or foul!

Of central importance, though, is how this “kind of ‘merchandise and spectacle’ society” uses and abuses Black people:

In this, our “civilised” society, our entire psychological makeup is founded on violence, death, hoggish self-fulfillment, ambition, exploitation, combative chauvinism, competition, binding contracts, promises, hatred. Through snatching, grabbing, pulling, yanking, conning, slicking, gaming, piercing, enslaving, penetrating, invading, intervening, robbing, stealing, lying, po-licing, cheating, raping, attacking, bombing, gassing, burning, assassinating, kidnapping, violating, fooling, deceiving, numbing, hurting, insulting, nailing, crucifying, injuring, wounding, defaming, proselytizing, cutting, shooting, scraping, coercing, blackmailing, crusading, choking, beating, drowning, maiming, flagellating, exterminating, annihilating, aborting, rationalizing, discriminating, justifying, castrating, repressing, oppressing, suppressing, wringing (and any and all other “ings”) each other to death, into submission, or half to death, mankind has, thus far, learned to live. Pitiful…

Polite employs language in such an energetic, exciting way—which is not without risk, of course. Sometimes it’s successful, and other times it doesn’t quite work, but there’s never a dull moment along the way. And as Margo Natalie Crawford argues in Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and Twenty First-Century Aesthetics, it’s here, in the writing itself, that another element of fantasy comes into play. Crawford hails the novel as a “stunning depiction of black satire’s ability to show how the more radical forms of black nationalism were a push away from known blackness to the unimaginable and fantastic.” Polite was ripping up all the rule books, writing Blackness anew by means of employing and empowering language itself in radical, innovative ways.

“The narrative comes close to poetry,” wrote one French critic of The Flagellants, and the same can be said here. “A free form jazz text” is how A. Robert Lee described Sister X, reiterating Reed’s thoughts. Even more intriguingly, and as Crawford goes on to point out, Polite’s “interest in sound extends to what cannot be heard.” From ampersands to exclamation marks to slashes, dollar signs, hashes, and the regular use of ellipsis, she employs a variety of signs and symbols in a way that defies their pronunciation. So, too, sound interrupts language. The ringing of a telephone leaves an all-but-empty page looking like this:

“What is this supposed to be?”
“A piece of paper, I would imagine.”
“Do you see a watermark?”
“Naw.”
(Me, neither.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A French telephone can ring so loud
that it blasts not only the watermark
off the page but all the print too.
My word! aqwsxedcrftvgbyhnujimklo

 

(Now how does that sound in the light of day?)

“In this quasi-detective novel,” Crawford continues, “Polite retains mystery by not clarifying these parts.” The question of how exactly Sister X meets her death steadily worms its way to the surface of the narrative; we know that she fell off the stage at the Jack of Diamonds, but did she take an accidental tumble, or did Miss Ann White push her?

*

Intriguingly, Polite apparently didn’t regard her writing as a form of social protest, nor did she pander to what white audiences expected of Black creatives during this period. “I’m of that generation which 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 reportedly said. “But I’d rather divide up my writing to do creative literature and editorial protests at separate times.” She certainly dedicated much of her life to the latter. Her parents’ active participation in the civil rights and labor movements—both in Detroit, where the family lived, and further afield; her mother’s work often took her to Washington D.C.—clearly inculcated a sense of civic duty and activism in Polite. In the early sixties, she was elected to the Michigan State Central Committee of the Democratic Party, participating in the June 1963 Walk for Freedom and the November 1963 Freedom Now Rally to protest the Birmingham church bombings. She was also active in the NAACP and organized the 1963 Northern Negro Leadership Conference. Yet at the same time, when Polite moved to New York City at age nineteen—with her first husband and their daughter, with whom she’d fallen pregnant at only seventeen—she wasn’t drawn to Harlem, as we might expect her to have been. Instead, it was Greenwich Village, the birthplace of the Beat movement, that became her home. After her marriage broke down, 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’d moved to the city “to experience all of its culture and humanity,” not just that pertaining to the Black community.

So what’s the story behind the lack of critical engagement with her work? Although, after returning to America from Europe, Polite taught creative writing at the University at Buffalo for nearly three decades—she died, in 2009, age seventy-seven—she published no other novels after Sister X, something that has surely abetted her neglect. Remember the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Carolyn Kizer’s summation of Mojo Hand as simply “too rich a mix for the time in which it appeared”? Well, the same can be said of Polite’s novels. They’ve been “largely overlooked,” Devona Mallory argues in Writing African American Women, “because of their experimental and unique nature.” Drawing on French existentialism and satire, music, dance choreography—Polite trained at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and worked as both a professional dancer and instructor from the mid-’50s through to the early sixties—and African American oral storytelling traditions, Polite’s novels defy easy categorization. But also worth mentioning is that much of what her novels explore was still terra incognita in literature then.

It’s important to remember that the literary landscape in which these works first appeared was one still very much dominated by men. Polite’s novels paved the way for the likes of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gloria Naylor, all of whose fiction takes up themes that she wrestled with first—most significantly, the often fraught sexual politics involved in romantic and sexual relationships between Black men and Black women. And if it’s even only for this, Polite deserves more widespread attention than she’s been awarded thus far. As I’ve said, neither The Flagellants nor Sister X is a masterpiece—they’re the work of a young and talented writer who’s still feeling her way—but they are bursting with promise and peppered with more moments of genius than most.

 

Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications. Read earlier installments of Re-Covered.

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