“Ahead of her time, Lorraine’s witness and wisdom help us understand the world, its problems and its possibilities. In her lonely reckonings, her impassioned reaching for justice, and the seriousness of her craft, she teaches us how to more ethically, more lovingly, witness one another today.”
By Maria Popova
“A small, shy, determined person, with that strength dictated by absolutely impersonal ambition: she was not trying to ‘make it’ — she was trying to keep the faith,” James Baldwin wrote of Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965), whom he had met when she fiercely defended him as critics savaged a theatrical production of his novel Giovanni’s Room a year before she herself transformed theater and the cultural vocabulary of civil rights with A Raisin in the Sun — the first play by a black woman to be performed on Broadway, a play so quietly revolutionary that it incited an FBI report and so visionary that it replenished the faith of generations to come. She soon become Baldwin’s dear friend, his “Sweet Lorraine.” Nina Simone, one of her most intimate friends, honored her in the anthem “Young, Gifted and Black” — words drawn directly from a speech Hansberry had given to a group of young writers. W.E.B. Du Bois cherished her as his favorite student. Upon her untimely death at only 34, her model and mentor Langston Hughes — from whose verse Hansberry had borrowed the title of her revolutionary play — wrote in a poem dedicated to her: “In time of silver rain, / The earth puts forward new life again.”
In the decades since, Hansberry’s legacy has showered its life-giving rain upon the civic and spiritual soil in which freedom, redemption, and justice are grown. She has become a black icon, a queer icon, a feminist icon, an icon of artistic integrity, whose body of work emanates Auden’s belief that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act” and Achebe’s insistence that “those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’… are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” Hansberry dared to upset the system — radically, rapturously, in ways that continue to ripple through our culture with the tidal force of rare genius.
That genius, epoch-making yet underappreciated today, comes alive in Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library) by cultural historian Imani Perry. A biographer of uncommonly poetic scholarship, Perry writes in the introduction:
Time insists in a multitude of forms. The urgency of her time and its particularities must be understood within the deep sense of possibility that she maintained, a sense that characterizes youth in general and in particular those for whom justice seeking is their life work. We are running out of time, the earth is ravaged, our bodies are indefinite; Lorraine reminds us to make use of each moment.
Ahead of her time, Lorraine’s witness and wisdom help us understand the world, its problems and its possibilities. In her lonely reckonings, her impassioned reaching for justice, and the seriousness of her craft, she teaches us how to more ethically, more lovingly, witness one another today. There is something quieter but no less important too. In these pages I want to catch a likeness of her to give the reader a sense of the sweet and intimate parts of her: what made her smile and raised her ire, what drove her passions and how she loved.
In her early twenties, Hansberry had the great good fortune of studying with W.E.B. Du Bois, who became her most beloved intellectual mentor. In a lovely prose poem of sorts, scribbled in her class notebook, she limned “his back against the sunlight of May afternoons… full and confident in his vast knowledge and his splendid sense of interpretation of history.” Admiring his perfectly measured voice and his intelligent wit, she wrote: “Freedom’s passion, refined and organized, sits there.” Under his generous guidance, she read even more passionately and critically than she was already apt to, maturing both as an artist and an activist, training herself to transcend youth’s solipsistic tendency toward cultural and historical myopia. In another notebook, she wrote down words of Du Bois’s that would become a sort of philosophical mantra and creative pillar for her own work:
Somehow you have got to know more than what you experience individually.
And yet, like every artist, Hansberry made the personal the raw material for the political and the wellspring of the universal. (Audre Lorde, who greatly admired her, captured this artistic inevitability perfectly a few years after Hansberry’s death: “The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”) On the first day of April in 1960, in the final weeks of her twenties, Hansberry divided a page of her daybook into two columns and filled them out in the like-and-dislike list tradition of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag:
Mahalia Jackson’s music
My husband — most of the time
being admired for my looks
Dorothy Secules eyes
Having an appetite
Eartha Kitt’s looks
That first drink of Scotch
To feel like working
The little boy in “400 Blows”
The way I look
The way Dorothy Talks
Miranda D’Corona’s accent
And/or intelligent women
Being asked to speak
Too much mail
Most television programs
What has happened to Sidney Poitier
People who defend it
Seeing my picture
Reading my interviews
Jean Genet’s plays
Jean Paul Sartre’s writing
Not being able to work
Being hung over
As silly men
David Suskind’s pretensions
Sneaky love affairs.
It is noteworthy that Hansberry used the word “hate” for the negatives and not its true opposite but the mere “like” for the positives — perhaps because, given her impassioned precision with language, she reserved the word “love” only for what truly warranted it: her work and her relationships. She had no patience for superficiality in either — when she bonded, she bonded deeply, bringing all of herself to the relationship, just as she brought all of herself to her art. Nina Simone — one of her closest bonds — remembered:
We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.
When Simone gave birth to her only daughter, she chose Hansberry as her godmother, who gave the baby a beautiful Tiffany hairbrush. (Although Hansberry loved beautiful objects and beauty itself, in her own life she saw them as a distraction from her primary focus — she had only five dresses and wore no makeup, except for the occasional lipstick accent. “I’m pretty the way I am,” she used to say.) Simone credited Hansberry with awakening her political conscience. “It would take a special kind of friend really to pull me into the ideas of the Black Movement and force me to accept that I had to take politics seriously,” she wrote in her memoir. “That special friend was Lorraine Hansberry.”
Their bond was special in other ways, too — in belonging to that rare, ravishing species of unclassifiable relationship with elements of the platonic, the filial, the romantic, the intellectual, the creative, and the ineffable. Largely unrecorded in their surviving papers and perhaps unrecordable to begin with, it stands as a reminder that no one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. The poet Nikki Giovanni captured the only thing that mattered in Hansberry’s relationship with Simone: “What is important is that she loved her and she was loved in return.”
Then there was James Baldwin, whose platonic love letter of an essay, “Sweet Lorraine,” opens the posthumous collection of Hansberry’s writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. He writes of his chosen title for the piece:
That’s the way I always felt about her, and so I won’t apologize for calling her that now. She understood it: in that far too brief a time when we walked and talked and laughed and drank together, sometimes in the streets and bars and restaurants of the Village, sometimes at her house, gracelessly fleeing the houses of others; and sometimes seeming, for anyone who didn’t know us, to be having a knock-down-drag-out battle. We spent a lot of time arguing about history and tremendously related subjects in her Bleecker Street, and later Waverly Place, flats. And often, just when I was certain that she was about to throw me out as being altogether too rowdy a type, she would stand up, her hands on her hips (for these down-home sessions she always wore slacks), and pick up my empty glass as though she intended to throw it at me. Then she would walk into the kitchen, saying, with a haughty toss of her head, “Really, Jimmy. You ain’t right, child!” With which stern put-down she would hand me another drink and launch into a brilliant analysis of just why I wasn’t “right.” I would often stagger down her stairs as the sun came up, usually in the middle of a paragraph and always in the middle of a laugh. That marvelous laugh. That marvelous face. I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade.
Perry considers the broader significance of the mutual cherishment binding Hansberry, Baldwin, and Simone into a sacred geometry of art and love:
The three of them formed a sort of trinity. Geniuses, they produced enduring work at the cusp of the great social transformations of the mid-twentieth century. All three were, according to early twenty-first-century terminology, queer, though only Jimmy’s sexuality was publicly known.
Cynics have criticized Hansberry for marrying a white man, or for marrying any man at all, given her orientation and her commitment to the civil rights movement. Cynics are people willfully and self-righteously blind to the context of others’ lives — their era, their culture, their inalienable personal predilections and choices; cynics are people who deny others the richness of heart and the complex, layered, tessellated inner life they afford themselves. While Hansberry’s richest romantic relationships were with women — most enduringly, with the shy, blue-eyed, sweet but politically opinionated Dorothy Secules, fifteen years Hansberry’s senior — her husband, the theater producer and writer Robert Nemiroff, became her most trusted intellectual and creative partner, the fiercest champion of her work during her short lifetime, and the person singlehandedly responsible for its posthumous preservation.
One of Hansberry’s most intense and transformative relationships was with the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who had recently migrated to New York from California.(Shortly after their relationship came to a close, Cook would find her lifelong soul mate in the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote stunningly about their four decades together. The two met at the Steepletop artist colony housed in the former home of Edna St. Vincent Millay — one of Hansberry’s heroes, both as an artistic intellect and as a queer woman living by her own rules. “Renascence,” the title poem of Millay’s debut poetry collection, had inspired and lent its title to one of Hansberry’s most daring short stories.)
When they were together, Molly took photographs of Lorraine. These photos are different from all the others and tell a story in and of themselves. In them, Lorraine does not have her race-woman armor on as she usually does. Nor is she posed. She is casual, tomboyish. Her hair is mussed. Her back curved, adolescent, languorous, and playful at once. The light and wonder that we know must have often been in her eyes, because of her wicked humor and deep curiosity, I have seen only Molly capture on camera. The images are a dance of love.
Perry surmises — accurately, I believe on the basis of my own long immersion in the poet’s world — that Oliver is writing of Hansberry in this passage from Our World, her adoring memoir of and eulogy for the love of her life, describing Cook’s graciously unnamed previous lover:
In 1958 and 1959 she traveled by car across the country to California, leisurely, through the south and back through the northern states — taking pictures. She had, around this time, an affair that struck deeply, I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad. I have an idea of why the relationship thrived so and yet failed, too private for discussion also too obviously a supposition. Such a happening has and deserves its privacy. I only mean that this love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly but changed. Who doesn’t know that, doesn’t know much.
Perry’s Looking for Lorraine is a superb read in its entirety — a rare triumph of doing justice to a life that compresses into its tragically short span tremendous complexity and a vast spectrum of nuances. Complement it with the remarkable story of Harriet Hosmer — another woman of culture-shifting yet underappreciated genius, who blazed the way for generations of artists and queer people a century before Hansberry, then revisit James Baldwin on “the doom and glory of knowing who you are.”