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Carlene Hatcher Polite, A Leading Light of the 1960s Black Arts Movement

Taught creative writing at UB for 29 years

Release Date: December 18, 2009

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Carlene Hatcher Polite of Amherst, N.Y., associate professor emerita of English at the University at Buffalo, and one of the most important artists to emerge from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, died Dec. 7 at the age of 77 in Hospice Buffalo, Cheektowaga, N.Y.

A novelist, essayist, dancer, civil rights activist and educator, Polite was the author of two influential and much-praised novels, "The Flagellants" (1966) and "Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play" (1975), cited by critic A. Robert Lee as "a free form jazz text of the black female body caught between possession and autonomy."

Her experimentation with literary form and her attention to the rhythms and dialects of African American oral expression strongly influenced the development of postmodern black fiction, as did such innovators as Gayl Jones and Ishmael Reed.

Polite was born in Detroit in 1932, the daughter of John and Lillian Cook Hatcher, international representatives of United Auto Workers/Congress of Industrial Organizations (UAW/CIO).

She attended the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and from 1955 to 1963, pursued a career as a professional dancer, performing with New York City's Concert Dance Theater (1955-59) and the Detroit Equity Theatre and Vanguard Playhouse (1960-62). She taught modern dance and the Martha Graham technique at the Detroit YWCA (1960-62) and YMCA (1962-3) and as a visiting instructor at Wayne State University.

In the early 1960s Polite joined many African American artists and intellectuals in turning to political organizing and civil rights activism and in 1962 she was elected to the Michigan State Central Committee of the Democratic Party.

She coordinated the Detroit Council for Human Rights and participated in the historic June 1963 Walk for Freedom and the November 1963 Freedom Now Rally to protest the Birmingham church bombings. In 1963 Polite organized the Northern Negro Leadership Conference, and was also active in the NAACP.

In 1964 Polite moved to Paris, where the influential French editor Dominique de Roux encouraged her writing, and in 1966 her first book, "The Flagellants," was published in French by Christian Bourgois.

A lyrical and much-praised protest of the limited gender roles available to African American women and men, it was one of the first works of African American fiction to move beyond the conventions of realism. It garnered major critical attention and distinguished Polite as a member of the first important African American arts movement since the Harlem Renaissance. The book was published in English the following year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Polite received a National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Fellowship in 1967 and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1968 and joined the faculty of the UB Department of English in 1971, where she taught creative writing.

Her second novel, "Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play," considered a "scalding" novel of social protest -- was published in 1975, and like her first, exhibited her talent for stylistic innovation and helped earn her a place among leading African American literary creative writers.

She is survived by her husband, James Patrick of Amherst; daughters Glynda Morton-Bennett of Atlanta, Ga., and Lila Polite of New York City, and grandchildren Sati Polite and the late Coki Tai Bennett.

Funeral services were held Dec. 16 at James H. Cole Funeral Home in Detroit, Mich.

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