Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Noting the important influence that earlier generations of African American writers such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison had on younger black authors, critic Robert Gross pointed out that these older writers often found it hard to interest publishers in books that dealt frankly with the African American experience. After the Civil Rights movement, more people became interested in the black experience.

Polite’s experience has been that relationships between black women and men are destroyed by the pervasive gender stereotypes grown out of racism. Because it addresses the ways in which black men and women battle against one another within these stereotypes, The Flagellants is generally considered in context with other novels that remove politics from the global arena and place it on the individual level. Polite fulfills author Franz Fanon’s insistence that the black writer take on the role of “awakener of the people” not by writing a didactic, revolutionary text but by drawing attention to the power struggle in the relationship of one black couple.

Responses to The Flagellants, Polite’s first novel, have been mixed. Author and critic Irving Howe called the book “an arty duet of rant,” and complained that Polite writes with “excruciating badness.” Gross disagreed, saying that Polite’s “unique, concrete language . . . captures the feel of real, sensory objects and takes on an independent, stylized life of its own,” appropriate to the characters’ struggle to escape their psychological dilemma.

Unlike many writers who believe that the novel has great potential for social change, Polite is doubtful. Her ornate language and the high-pitched intensity of her characters have been recognized as attempts to reinvest the novel with contemporary relevance, but Polite questions the value of writing: “My work has no meaning if people are unable to eat every day.”