Dr. Deborah Ford, Professor of English, received a 2014 summer research grant from Mississippi Valley State University to work in the archives of the Dodd Center at the U of Connecticut on the papers of Allen Polite, an expatriate African American poet.
In the early 1960s, Langston Hughes boldly pursued the idea of identifying and seeking publication for up and coming African-American poets who had previously been published mainly in small magazines. This new publication—an anthology titled New Negro Poets U.S.A.—was to include now recognizable names as Mari Evans, Dudley Randall, Audre Lord, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Also included was the work of Allen Polite.
Hughes’ anthology was published in 1964, but by then, Allen Polite had left the United States and essentially no longer sought publication for his writing. Up until then, Polite had his poetry published in many small magazines of the day, like Amiri Baraka’s Yugen (1958) and in more traditional venues such as Sixes and Sevens: An Anthology of New Poetry, edited by Paul Breman in 1962. (This anthology was the second of twenty-seven volumes in the Heritage Series of Black Poetry that Bremen edited.) He had joined in a literary discourse that had more than occasionally ignored his presence in society and then left the conversation.
In her memoir, Polite’s widow Helene states that Allen found migration to Sweden as a “way out from the various constrictions” that had been placed on him in the U.S., and he saw exile as “a means of developing a more cosmopolitan view of the world.” While in New York, Polite is acknowledged as a new voice in poetry, yet he abandons the literary world to seek acceptance as a man, not as a negro, and a different kind of life in Europe. The 1960s was an era of social change: the movement for civil rights; protests against the Viet Nam War; the women’s movement; the rise of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers; and the beginnings of a community-based arts movement known as the Black Arts with Amiri Baraka as its lead voice. Though a part of the emerging artists of the early 60s, Polite’s widow states that he felt the pressures of a growing black consciousness in his personal life (his second marriage to a Turkish woman was viewed as disloyal to his race), and so he decided to leave New York “to consider his future.”
In his new environment in Sweden, Polite found a home and continued writing. He did not seek publication; his was a self-imposed silencing. As an expatriate writer, he had a unique perspective on the racial upheaval and the politics in the U.S. of the 1960s, but he was removed from the everyday conversation about these issues. What makes his work interesting and deserving of attention is that he is both out-of-step with his Black Arts contemporaries in terms of poetic themes, techniques, and influences and yet a part of the experimentation taking place in artistic and literary production.
In the fall of 2014, Dr. Ford received a Strochlitz travel grant from the U of Connecticut to continue her research on Allen Polite, which she completed the first week of January 2015. Her article, just completed, titled “I am Driven mad with the Printed Word: The Poetry of Allen Polite” is under consideration for publication.
Ford is herself a poet, with a poem forthcoming in the anthology Down the Dark River, a compilation of poems about the Mississippi River. She received her Ph.D.in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi. This is her fourth year at MVSU.