Kristin Hunter gave attention to subtle worlds within worlds and psyches within psyches.
In 2016, a strange scandal erupted when eighty-four-year-old journalist Gay Talese, at a writers’ conference at Boston University, said that there were no women writers that inspired him. Predictably, the internet went crazy with Facebook rants, a Twitter hashtag (#womengaytaleseshouldread) and numerous articles that dragged Talese for his ignorance. While a side of me felt sorry for the writer, whose groundbreaking Esquire articles in the 1960s, most noticeably the often reprinted “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” made him one of the originators of the New Journalism movement (along with Joan Didion and Nora Ephron) that influenced countless young scribes, the controversy also made me think about the many women authors whose work motivated me to pick up a pen and write.
Of course, this womanist education wasn’t something I learned as a Catholic high school student in 1977, when Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens were my freshman year holy trinity. Brother Pearson, my English instructor at Rice High in Harlem, was a wonderful teacher as well the faculty advisor for the school paper, but he never taught any women writers in his class. Meanwhile, outside the walls of that all-boys academy, there was a revolution going on in the publishing world, what editor Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, in her introduction to Shaking the Tree: A Collection of New Fiction and Memoir by Black Woman, described as “a burgeoning movement that would ultimately place authors such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor and Jamaica Kincaid at the forefront of American literature . . . never before had Black women gained so much mainstream attention and prominence for their writing.”
Luckily for me, I only had to go as far as my bookish mother’s dusty bedroom shelf to discover all of those writers as well as my ultimate wordsmith hero Ntozake Shange, whose jazz-inspired poetry collection Nappy Edges sent me spiraling down a stylistic whirlpool that thrilled and fascinated my young mind. However, for all of the black women that were part of Mom’s personal literary canon, the work of Philadelphia-based writer Kristin Hunter (Lattany), a brilliant writer I wouldn’t discover until thirty-one years later, was missing from her collection as well as most of the articles I read about Black writers from that era.
In 1977, the same year I discovered their books, Alice Walker and June Jordan started the black literary collective known as The Sisterhood that included Morrison, Shange, Essence writer Audrey Edwards, and others. In the documentary Beauty in Truth (2013), Walker explained, “What I wanted was for all of us to feel that we were sisters and that we were up against a very well-known machine that has been in the habit, historically, of just crushing us.” Nevertheless, Kristin Hunter, who was already a veteran writer with five published novels and a National Book Award nomination (1974) for her short story collection Guests in the Promised Land, was not part of the crew. Her most famous novel, The Landlord, was Hunter’s sophomore book and was adapted into a Hal Ashby directed film in 1970, but there was no record that she’d been contacted or asked to join The Sisterhood.
Actually, even in critical literary essays, journals, and books documenting the achievements of Black women writers, Hunter has seemingly been written out of the history. Citing the fact that she was “barely mentioned” in books such as But Some of Us are Brave and Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976, critic Teresa de Lauretis observed in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies (1986), “Hunter is among the most ignored contemporary black writers.”
One black literary reference book that gave Hunter props was Black Women Writers at Work (1994) edited by the late Princeton professor Claudia Tate, a book of interviews with many of the aforementioned luminaries, as well as Gayl Jones and Sherley Anne Williams. Hunter said of her own work, “Up until now one of my motivating forces has been to recreate the world I know into a world I wish I could be in. Hence my optimism and happy endings, but I’ve never dreamed I could actually reshape the real world. I am committed to telling the truth. I think I’ve always been a realistic writer, and I’m not just into the agony and happiness of black women. I’m interested in the enormous and varied adaptations of black people to the distorting, terrifying restrictions of society. Maybe that’s why there’s cheer and humor in my books. I marvel at the many ways we, as black people, bend but do not break in order to survive. This astonishes me, and what excites me I write about. Every one of us is a wonder. Every one of us has a story.”
In 2008, the same year Hunter died at the age of 77 at her home in Magnolia, New Jersey, I found a second-hand paperback of her first YA novel The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. Published in 1968, The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou told the story of fourteen-year-old Louretta Hawkins, who hailed from the ghetto streets of Philadelphia, although the city itself was never mentioned. “I’ve always written about Philadelphia, but I haven’t been specific,” Hunter said in 1998, “because you have to do research if you’re going to be specific about your locale. In two weeks they tear a building down and put something else up, so I never name the city or the street, but it’s always South Philly.” When Sister Lou Hawkins and her male friends decide to throw a party at her brother’s print shop, the jam is raided by the police who shoots Jethro, one of the boys. Unlike her mother, whom we learn early on has been beaten down by life—“Something must have frightened Momma terribly when she was growing up down South to make her so scared,” the teenager reasons—Louretta is a fighter who is determined to get revenge for her slain friend. Afterward, the crew contemplates starting a Black Panther-styled nationalist organization, but instead form a Motown-inspired singing group.
In 1984, Hunter explained to interviewer Jean Ross, “I have tried to show some of the positive values in the so-called ghetto—the closeness and warmth of family life, the willingness to extend help to strangers in trouble, the natural acceptance of life’s problems and joys. All of these attitudes have combined to create the quality called ‘soul,’ which is the central theme of the book.” In fact, Black music often played a major part in Hunter’s fictions, including the jazz musicians in God Bless the Child and the former blues woman Marge in The Landlord.
Encouraged by her editor at Scribner’s, Hunter alternated between writing adult novels, children’s books and YA fiction, which included the wonderful short story collection Guests in the Promised Land (1968) and the Sister sequel Lou in the Limelight. While it’s obvious that Hunter was muse inspired, the money made from writing for young people also helped. “I’ll tell you a secret,” Hunter explained to Claudia Tate, “juvenile books pay better. Not initially, but over the long haul. You see, there’s always another crop of children; libraries, parents, aunts, and uncles continue to buy books.”
In a positive review of Guests in Black World magazine, critic Huel D. Perkins wrote, “Kristin Hunter is an excellent storyteller and she does it with such an economy of words that she makes the form seem easy. But more important, she uses her terse style to speak to younger children and teenagers of limited attention spans with a directness and freshness which makes her a joy to read . . . the stories linger in your subconscious long after you have finished reading them.”
Hunter’s own story began on September 12, 1931 in Philadelphia, the only daughter of school teachers Mabel Manigault Eggleston and George Lorenzo Eggleston. Having started reading when she was four, Kristin’s parents imagined that she too would be a teacher and tried guiding her in that direction. Yet, after discovering the works of Virginia Woolf and Henry Miller as a teenager, Kristin decided she wanted to be a writer. Her aunt Myrtle Stralton, who was a columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, the popular Black weekly newspaper, got Kristin her first professional gig, writing the teen column for the paper’s Philly edition, when she was fourteen; she wrote the column until she was twenty.
After graduating high school in 1947, Kristin entered the University of Pennsylvania as an education major, receiving her degree in 1951. “While I was an undergraduate at Penn, black literature was not even mentioned,” Hunter told Jeannine DeLombard in 1998, “women were barely tolerated at that time.” Although she tried to please her parents by teaching third grade, Kristin quit before the end of the term. Afterwards, she held positions as an advertising copywriter and an information officer for the city of Philadelphia. A year later, she married fellow writer and journalist Joseph Hunter. According to Phiefer L. Browne, who penned an essay about Hunter in Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith (1996), “the marriage was marked by fierce competition between them as writers,” and ended in divorce. While their marriage was over, Kristin used the “Hunter” name for most of her career, even after she wed photographer John Lattany in 1968.
Although Hunter’s first novel God Bless the Child wasn’t published until 1964, an August 1959 issue of Jet had a story about the then twenty-eight-year-old writer winning the John Henry Whitney fellowship, a cash prize of $2,000. In the picture accompanying the story, we see a serious, light-skinned woman with permed hair sitting in front of her typewriter with a manuscript page in one hand and a pencil in the other. “Several major New York publishing houses have shown interest in the manuscript,” the story stated. The book would eventually be bought by Charles Scribner’s Sons, the prestigious house that also published Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.
Taking place on the ghetto streets of Philadelphia, a landscape I’d later learn was one Hunter often set her novels, God Bless the Child was a brutal book. Reading it last year, I was instantly pulled in by the style that is best described as literary ghetto, a textual fest of chitlins and caviar that takes the reader into the world of young Rosie Fleming, a wild child teenager determined to make it out of the hood by any means necessary. Taking more than a few chances that often puts her in danger, she is equally motivated by her mulatto grandma, who loves Rosie even if she is a little too dark, and her boozy mother who treats her bad and trash talks the child often.
Kirkus Review described the novel as “a taut, true first novel . . . and it has comparable qualities of honesty and humanness. Miss Hunter is aware and unafraid of the intricacies, inconsistencies, and orneriness of human relationships.” Reviewing the book in the April 1965 issue of Negro Digest, critic Hamilton Bims called God Bless the Child “a Porgy and Bess novel . . . in the worst sense of the famous Gershwin musical. All the clichés are there: vice, sensuality, brutish materialism and the Negro’s presumed inferiority complex.”
Bims went on to say the book was “one-dimensional, artistically stifling and really unworthy of many a fine writer.” After a review that harsh, it’s a wonder Hunter was able to keep writing, but, ironically in the same issue, she talked about developing “a thick skin” against critics “who teaches school and thinks low-class colored people are literally too vulgar for words.” In 1986, Howard University Press reprinted God Bless the Child, which included a thorough introduction by Darwin T. Turner that also served as a fine preamble to Hunter’s life and work.
Alejandro (Ali) Danois, editor-in-chief of the sports site The Shadow League and author of the critically acclaimed The Boys of Dunbar: A Story of Love, Hope, and Basketball, was a business major at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania when he had Hunter as an English professor. The following semester when he tried to enroll in her creative writing class, Hunter explained that he would need to submit a writing sample.
“I gave her a short story about a barber in my old Brooklyn neighborhood who sold crack out of his shop,” Danois says from his editorial office. “She called me the following day and said, ‘I don’t know what they’re doing with you down at that Wharton School, but you’re a writer and you need to be down here with me.’ I had always liked English, but Kristin pulled my coat and made me a writer. In class, she spoke in a low tone, but there was power behind her words. She was never on a pedestal or behind a podium when she lectured, but instead, we all sat in a circle. Kristin directed the flow of the conversation and talked with a great confidence, but it was obvious that she was passionate about what she did. We never wanted the class to end.” Yet, like many of Hunter’s students in the age before the internet, Ali had no idea of her literary accomplishments until much later.
Another former student and friend was Ericka Blount Danois, author of the Soul Train history Love, Peace, and Soul, who speculates that Hunter’s relative obscurity might’ve been due to her own modesty. “Kristin never talked about her own work,” says Danois from her home in Baltimore. She first met Hunter in 1991 at the University of Pennsylvania where the elder writer had been a senior lecturer in the English department since 1972. Danois was introduced to Hunter’s class by her then-boyfriend (now ex-husband) Ali Danois. “In her class we discussed a variety of authors from Fitzgerald to Toni Cade Barbara to various science fiction writers and Toni Morrison, but it wasn’t until after I graduated that I realized how much she had done.”
Taking each of her students’ work seriously, Hunter would give them in-depth feedback. “As students, we were already using computers, but Kristin still used a typewriter; she’d read our work and type two pages of analysis, but she was always helpful and encouraging.” Danois continued, “In my freshman year I had a writing teacher who was so mean-spirited that I thought about changing my major from English to pre-med, but Kristin understood my voice and helped me become a better writer. Kristin was always fun to be around, because she was so funny and irreverent and didn’t hold her tongue for anyone. She was also very politically aware and somewhat militant.”
The women stayed friends, often writing letters and visiting one another, until the end of Hunter’s life. In Notable Black American Women, Hunter was quoted about her role as a writing teacher, saying she instructed her students to “not write autobiographically and not get caught up in the hope of quick money.” Her advice also included, “Read all you can ’til you’re twenty, live all you can until you’re thirty and write all you can after that.”
Kristin Hunter was thirty-five when Scribner released The Landlord, which would become arguably both her most celebrated and most infamous book. Unlike most Black writers of that period, Hunter wrote the book from the first-person point of view of the lead white man Elgar Enders, a rich man-child. After buying a building on Poplar Street, the “landlord” decides he’s going to make the lives of his zany Black tenants better by catering to their demands while trying to fit into their milieu. Carrying a load of neuroses that sends him running, screaming, and cursing to his shrink Dr. Borden every day, the supporting characters, including the hairdresser Fanny, her nutty husband Copee, and the former blues singer Marge, do their own share of driving him nuts.
As the black sheep of a very successful family, Elgar (named after the composer of “Pomp and Circumstance”) had been kicked out of eight Ivy League schools and spent time in a mental hospital, but he is now ready to be taken seriously just like his more booming brothers. Buying the tenement, although none of apartment-dwellers are paying rent, is his way of proving he’s grown. Reviewing the book in the New York Times on April 24, 1966, critic Andrew Sarris wrote, “Elgar is an idealist in an insane sort of way, and it is rather remarkable that a Negro novelist is capable of so much sympathy for a creature with so much condescension.” However, it’s his terrible father, who has been torturing Elgar since childhood, who the true villain of the narrative.
Indeed, because of the 1970 film adaption that moved the novel from Hunter’s familiar Philly to the streets of Brooklyn, I knew the material before I’d ever heard of the writer or her book. As the first film of director Hal Ashby (Harold & Maude,Shampoo), the white interloper, played by Beau Bridges, comes to the hood of Park Slope and buys a dilapidated tenement with intention of turning the entire building into a swinging playboy pad until he meets the often comical black residents played by Diane Sands (Fanny), Pearl Bailey (Marge) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Copee). Years before gentrification became a common word, The Landlord was a social satire that addressed the issue as well as race, class, and privilege.
While I enjoyed the film when I first saw it over forty years ago and as recently as last year on Turner Classic Movies, it’s quite different from the book. Screenwriter Bill Gunn, who wrote and directed Ganja & Hess three years later, took too many liberties with Hunter’s prose and, in the process, changed the meaning behind the main character completely. As Claudia Tate wrote in her Kristin Hunter essay published in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, the filmmakers took “a comic novel of social optimism” with its naïve protagonist and basically turned Elgar into “a ruthless individualist” who cares more about himself than for those around him.
“The point of the novel is that an immature white boy, by being pushed into contact with this bunch, is forced to grow up, to be responsible, to see reality,” Hunter said in 1984. “White men are allowed to remain boys until great ages, because they’re protected.” Hunter wasn’t a fan of the film either, and The Landlord was her last Hollywood experience.
In 1995, shortly after a supposedly racist incident at the University of Pennsylvania where a Jewish student called a group of black women students “water buffalo,” Hunter retired from her post after her defense of the women was met with her office door being set on fire and a student insulting her to her face. Hunter’s last book, Breaking Away (2003) was based on that experience. Five years later, at her home in Magnolia, New Jersey, Hunter suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 77 .
“The world has lost yet another powerful, unheralded novelist and storyteller,” Al Young, her friend and fellow writer, memorialized the following month. “Kristin Hunter Lattany’s stories, situations, and characters were almost always bold and unpredictable. She was wry and often hilarious. Whether she was writing for grown folks or children, Kristin Hunter always gave full attention to subtle worlds within worlds and psyches within psyches. Her books are a joy.”
Michael A. Gonzales has written essays and articles for The Village Voice, New York, Pitchfork and Mass Appeal. Co-author of Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991), he has written music journalism for Newark Bound, Red Bull Academy, The Wire, and Wax Poetics. His short fiction has appeared in Bronx Biannual, Brown Sugar, Black Pulp and Crime Factory. Gonzales is currently finishing his literary New York City hip-hop novel Boom for Real. More information on The Blacklist can be found on Facebook.