Carlene Hatcher Polite is known as an experimental writer whose novels serve as forerunners for other African American authors who dare to go beyond traditional novel forms. The daughter of John and Lillian Hatcher, who were international representatives of the United Automobile Workers-Congress of Industrial Organizations (UAW-CIO), Polite was born too late to be a Harlem Renaissance writer of the 1920’s to early 1930’s. However, she was a participant in the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s through mid-1970’s, which was the first major African American artistic movement after the Harlem Renaissance.
Polite attended Detroit public schools, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. From 1955 to 1963 she danced professionally, appearing in The King and I, The Boy Friend, and Dark of the Moon. Polite performed onstage with the Concert Dance Theater of New York City, Detroit Equity Theater, and the Vanguard Playhouse. She taught dance technique at Detroit’s YWCA and YMCA as well as Wayne State University.
During the 1960’s, Polite was a political organizer and civil rights activist. In 1962 she was elected to a one-year term as a member of the Michigan State Central Committee of the Democratic Party. She served as coordinator of the Detroit Council for Human Rights, and she organized the 1963 Northern Negro Leadership Conference. That same year in June, Polite participated in the Walk for Freedom and in November, the Freedom Now Rally that was held to protest the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing.
When the Detroit Council for Human Rights closed in 1964, Polite moved to Paris, where she began her writing career and lived for seven years. Dominique De Roux, an influential editor, encouraged Polite, who had begun writing prose poems when she was twelve years old, to write a book. During the several years Polite worked on her first novel, The Flagellants, soup and chocolate were her primary sources of sustenance. The Flagellants, published in French in 1966 and in English one year later, focuses on gender issues in relationships between men and women. The novel’s setting is New York’s Greenwich Village. Polite, a divorcee and mother of two daughters, returned to the United States in 1971. Her second novel, Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play, was published four years later. It revolves around the mysterious death of Sister X, an African American dancer in Paris. Although Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play has received less critical attention than The Flagellants, critics note Polite’s innovative use of language, plot, and character in both novels.
Upon Polite’s return to the United States, she resumed her career as an educator. She was a professor of English at the State University of New York, Buffalo, for more than two decades. Polite, who has written for periodicals such as Mademoiselle. Although Polite has served as a pioneer in African American literature with her experimental novels that extend beyond the boundaries of realism, to date her works have received relatively little critical attention.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. “Carlene Hatcher Polite.” In The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States, edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Includes concise biography and critical commentary on Polite.
Dobson, Frank E., Jr. “Carlene Hatcher Polite.” In Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Biographical information, discussion of themes in Polite’s novels, and an overview of critical commentary.
Dubey, Madhu. “Carlene Polite.” In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1993. Brief biography and critical commentary.
Fabre, Michel. “Literary Coming of Age in Paris.” In From Harlem to Paris: Black Writers in France, 1840-1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Biographical information and critical commentary, with a focus on Polite’s lifestyle during her years in Paris.
Johnson, Ronna C. “Carlene Hatcher Polite.” In The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Concise biography and critical commentary.
Reid, Margaret A. “The Diversity of Influences on Carlene Hatcher Polite’s The Flagellants and Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play.” Connecticut Review, Spring, 1996. Insight into French influences on Polite’s novels is included among the critical commentary.
Worthington-Smith, Hammett. “Carlene Hatcher Polite.” In Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Vol. 33 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1984. Biography and critical commentary by one of the first scholars to discuss both novels by Polite.