Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Polite presents The Flagellants as an exploration of the extent to which individuals shape one another while being influenced by the society in which they live. Unfortunately for Ideal and Jimson, the historical stereotypes of the dominant black matriarch and the emasculated black man still influence black relationships, and life in a largely white environment places economic pressures on the couple that cause these stereotypes to surface. Polite’s novel questions the ways in which the fear of losing identity, ingrained in the American black community after centuries of violence, warps the potentially positive transforming force of love.

By setting Ideal’s childhood in the black southern community of “the Bottom,” Polite establishes that her heroine is shaped by the superstition as well as the beauty of her traditional African American religious background. Ideal’s identification with this community foreshadows the struggle she will have with the stereotyped role of women in African American culture. The fact that Ideal left the community early in life suggests escape from traditional stereotypes, but it becomes apparent that Ideal cannot shake off the fears that have evolved after years of exposure to racism.

Polite establishes the stereotyped gender struggle between Ideal and Jimson by showing their different adaptations to living in New York City. Ideal’s willingness to abandon her artistic goals as a dancer for the...

(The entire section is 528 words.)