Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Novelist Kristin Hunter Lattany taught creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania for many years.
Kristin Hunter Lattany, born on September 12, 1931, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was a very accomplished and renowned novelist. In her life span, she published eleven works, four for children and seven for adults, as well as many short stories and articles. Some of her most popular works include, God Bless the Child (1964), Kinfolks (1996),Do Unto Others (2000), and Breaking Away (2003). Her writing mainly focused on black life and racial relations in the United States, and this theme is seen in both children’s stories and novels for adult audiences. She died on November 14, 2008, at the age of 77.
Lattany was born on September 12, 1931, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to George Lorenzo Hunter, a school principal and U.S. army colonel, and Mabel Hunter, a pharmacist and school teacher. As a child, Lattany expressed an early interest in writing and literature. She began writing for The Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly black newspaper, when she was fourteen and continued until the year after she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951. On June 22, 1968, Hunter married John I. Lattany.
Although she received a degree in education, Lattany held a variety of jobs upon graduation. She worked as an elementary school teacher, advertising copywriter, television scriptwriter, and lastly as a professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania for twenty three years. When she worked as an advertising copywriter, she entered and won a national television contest with her script Minority of One, in 1955. The story focused on an important issue in society at that time: black-white school integration. In order to prevent controversy when her documentary aired, the network changed the story to a French speaking immigrant entering an all white school.
In 1964, Lattany published her first and possibly best known work, God Bless the Child, which received the Philadelphia Athenaeum Literary Award. The main character of this novel, Rosie Fleming, lives in a northern city and works hard to improve her socioeconomic status for both her and her grandmother. However, this task proves easier said then done, and she has a tough time grasping the inequalities of our society and why these disparities make her life more difficult than it needs to be. Henrietta Buck of the Christian Science Monitor says, “...It is a story of people who have had the doors slammed on them once too often, who have become hobbled by the moral deformities of a fabricated society. The life they lead is like an immense, macabre charade, which act out conditions of privilege and security. When the unreality becomes too great, then the police arrive, bottles fly, the nightsticks crack, and the rest of the world watches from the safe side of the invisible boundary” (qtd. in Chisholm).
In 1966, Lattany wrote the novel titled The Landlord, which became a movie directed by Norman Jewison for Mirisch Productions in 1970. The Landlord tells the story of a man searching for his identity. Enders, the protagonist, is a wealthy, insensitive white man and the landlord of a residential building in the inner city ghetto. At first, he plans to evict the present occupants and construct his own luxurious home; however, he soon develops personal relationships with the tenants and eventually overcomes his character faults.
In 1968, Lattany released the popular novel for teens, The Soul Brother and Sister Lou and received the Council on Interracial Books for Children Award, the National Conference of Christians and Jews Award, and was praised for its authentic portrayal of growing up in hostile surroundings and for its affirmation of black culture. The Soul Brother and Sister Lou is about a juvenile gang led by Louretta Hawkins, a fourteen year old who forms a successful music group to avoid the pressures of gang warfare and police harassment. In 1981, Lattany published its sequel, Lou in the Limelight.
In 1971, Boss Cat was released, followed by Guest in the Promised Land in 1973. Both are collections of children’s stories about the search of values and direction. Lattany's novel The Survivors, published in 1975, tells the story of how a lonely, prosperous middle-aged dressmaker befriends a neglected thirteen year old boy despite his involvement with dishonest, sometimes brutal, acquaintances.
In 1978, Lattany wrote The Lakestown Rebellion, which is an entertaining view on the politics of urban renewal. Lakestown, New Jersey is a black community originally founded by runaway slaves. The plot, based on real life events, focuses on the town's skepticism about upcoming tactics for urban renewal, especially a plan for a new highway that would interrupt the daily lives of black citizens, but spare the wealthy white citizens any trouble. The story unfolds when one trouble-making citizen tries to prevent the construction and save the town. According to Mobylives.com, this novel, “part of Coffee House Press’s Black Arts Movement Series, is good news. Based on real-life events, it's the story of a New Jersey town that has lasted-long enough to face a modern dilemma when the state wants to put a highway through the middle of town.” (qtd. in “Coffee House Press”).
Lattany’s novel Kinfolks, published in 1996, earned her the reputation of a great African-American writer. The Charlotte Post described this book as The black “First Wives Club” (qtd. in “Kinfolks”). The story is set in the 1960s and tells the story of two best friends, Patrice Barber and Cherry Hopkins, who are planning the wedding of their children. The plot unfolds when they discover their children have the same father, causing the cancellation of the wedding.
The novel Do Unto Others, published in 2000, tells the story of Zena, a successful hairdresser who one afternoon attends her “Downtown Divas” meeting and is introduced to two Africans, a professor and her sister, Ifa, who is a model. They put on a fashion show for the “Downtown Divas” and sell everything off Ifa’s back. Zena ends up letting Ifa stay in her house, however, she soon regrets this decision. Zena and her husband face many stresses in their relationship, but when Ifa gets into trouble and ends up in jail, Zena has a change of heart, and her husband gets Ifa out of jail.
Lattany's last novel, titled Breaking Away, was published in 2003. According to Publishers Weekly, this novel tells the story of Dr. Bethesda Barnes, a popular literature professor at her alma mater, an unnamed Ivy League school. Despite her popularity among her students, Beth has kept herself apart from the faculty and hesitates to form relationships with white professors on a campus. When a group of black sorority sisters is harassed by white male students, the women ask Beth to be their faculty sponsor in a lawsuit challenging the university's harassment code. Reluctantly, Beth agrees, but her actions are not supported by the campus. Students drop out of her classes, she receives violent threats, and both blacks and whites find reasons to berate her. The controversy, along with the deaths of two of her relatives, forces her to examine her ideas about justice and her own deep-seated attitudes about race, nurtured by her protective parents.
Kristin Hunter Lattany received many awards in her lifetime:
1960: Philadelphia Athenaeum Award in 1960
1968: National Council on Interracial Books for the Children Award in 1968 for The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou
1969: Mass Media Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou
1971: Lewis-Carroll Lewis Award
1973: Book Festival Award
1974: Christopher Award, for Guest in the Promised Land
1981: New Jersey State Council on Arts Prose Fellowship
1983: Pennsylvania State Council on Arts Literature Fellowship
1996: Moonstone Black Writing Celebration Lifetime Achievement Award
After a very productive and successful career, including 23 years as a professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, Lattany retired in 1995. She was a member of the Authors League of America, Authors Guild, Modern Language Council of Association, PEN, National Council of Teachers of English, and the University of Pennsylvania Alumnae Association. During retirement, she was interested in developing a comic screenplay.
She died on November 14, 2008, in Magnolia, New Jersey, after collapsing in her home from a heart attack. She was 77 years old.
God Bless the Child. New York: Scribners, 1964.
The Landlord. New York: Scribners, 1966.
The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. New York: Scribners, 1968.
Boss Cat. New York: Scribners, 1971.
Guests in the Promised Land. New York: Scribners, 1973.
The Survivors. New York: Scribners, 1975.
The Lakestown Rebellion. New York: Scribners, 1978.