(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Flagellants is the story of the romantic relationship between Ideal and Jimson. After a brief prologue establishing Ideal’s childhood connection to a black community called “the Bottom,” the novel unfolds as a series of arguments between the couple, representing the historical gender conflicts between black men and women.

The first chapter introduces Ideal, who huddles alone on the bed in a dingy New York City apartment she shares with Jimson. Her mind weaving a frantic interior monologue, Ideal attempts to come to terms with her deteriorating relationship with Jimson. Troubled because she is unable to do anything but sit around each day waiting for his return, Ideal takes her anger and frustration out on Jimson. On their way home from the local bar, the ongoing quarrel about why their relationship is a failure explodes into a public spectacle, with Ideal climbing onto an overturned trash can and publicly denouncing Jimson for failing to live up to his own goals as an artist. Jimson has betrayed both of them, Ideal drunkenly announces, because he has not been working on his poetry and is having an affair.

Jimson enters into the verbal sparring match, accusing Ideal of setting up standards that no man could fulfill and thus causing her own unhappiness. Later he tells Ideal that if she ever calls him a “black dog” again, or reminds him of his race, he will use violence against her. Jimson then recounts the story of his...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bracey, John H., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, eds. Black Matriarchy: Myth or Reality? Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1971. Examines developments in the African American family after the end of slavery. Provides statistical evidence of the various adaptations black families have made, focusing on matriarchal trends and the importance of the extended family.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991. Selections from personal narratives by African American writers, civil rights activists, and cultural critics. Different aspects of African American life are presented. Many of the excerpts deal with gender relationships within the black community, as well as topics such as the suppression of African American individuality.

Gross, Robert A. “The Black Novelists: ‘Our Turn.’” Newsweek 73 (June 16, 1969): 94. Gross calls Polite an original and stylistically gifted writer, identifying her with other contemporary authors such as Ishmael Reed and Ernest Gaines who inject vitality into the American literary scene with their willingness to address the complexities of black life and grapple with the problems of American society.

Hooks, Bell, and Cornel West. Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life. Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1991. A series of dialogues and interviews between contemporary cultural critics Bell Hooks and Cornel West. The discussions focus on gender relations in the black community, analyzing ways in which race and gender relate to Marxism, African American spirituality, sexuality, and liberation struggles. The authors consider the role of the intellectual within the black community as well as the ways in which education forms ideology.

Howe, Irving. “New Black Writers.” Harper 239 (December, 1969): 130-131. Howe emphasizes the individuality of contemporary black writers. Rather than belonging to a single school or movement, each author works to present unique views of African American life. He admires the thematic importance of The Flagellants but condemns what he perceives as excessive hyperbole and self-pity in Ideal and Jimson.