Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sweet Lorraine

 Five years ago when I was gathering myself together to approach writing “Waiting for Giovanni” I only knew one thing for sure:  Lorraine Hansberry would be in the play.  I hadn’t much biographical information yet but since it was to be a ‘dream play’ I figured it was okay to create a friendship between them even if I found there was none.  (There was.)  The piece is meant to evoke an emotional crossroads not portray anyone’s biography so it seemed natural to have two of the most significant writers of the 20th century be in the same play

Last week was Lorraine Hansberry’s birthday (May 19th, the same as Malcolm X!) and it reminded me of why I wanted to include her in this piece.  Hansberry and Baldwin were both admonished to ‘mind their own business;’ that is to stick to writing about topics that directly and literally related to Blackness.

Most oppressed communities go through this. The ‘uplift literature’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries was de rigueur for the ‘Negro’ writers who were meant to show a good face for the ‘hood and gain sympathy for the Black plight.  Lesbian literature of the 1970s was often also focused on how ‘normal’ lesbians are.  Not necessarily a bad thing, certainly.  But all writers and their communities grow beyond victimhood if they grow healthy. They begin to see their victimization more than simply aimed at their small corner of humanity and can approach liberation as part of a global movement.

Hansberry was the first African American woman to be produced on Broadway (“Raisin in the Sun” 1959) which would automatically hand her the Race Torch.  Then she wrote “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” which told its story through an interracial set of characters.  The cry of protest went up: “What did that story have to do with the African American Story?” 

The truth is African Americans are unique (as are all people) and African Americans are also universal (as are all people).  The stories Black writers tell are theirs no matter the topic or the characters they create to tell it.

In “W4G” my character Lorraine says:

            “We are all our own topics.  Everything I see, hear, taste, smell and feel
            comes through me and out of me.  I can lift up this skirt and piss out
            the world.”

Critics are notoriously myopic, focusing on whatever detail that strikes a chord within them and often ignoring a larger context or topic. This was what happened and continues to happen with Hansberry’s classic play, “Raisin in the Sun.” 

The piece still crackles with life and ideas more than 50 years later yet most discussions only focus on one element of the story. Walter Lee needs to claim his manhood by using his late father’s insurance money to open a liquor store while his widowed mother insists the family escape the ghetto and use the funds to buy a little house in an all white neighborhood.  That is a formidable struggle but not the only one. 

Hansberry also presented us with other struggles:  Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, is pregnant with a second child while they live in the crowded poverty of his mother’s tenement.  When she broaches the idea of an abortion she’s met with stony religious rebuke from her mother-in-law but now answers to the question of who has control over her body.  Walter
Lee’s sister, Beneatha, wants to use part of the money to go to medical school.  Beneatha has to suffer the condescension of not just her brother but also of her enthusiastic African beau who thinks women were invented to be wives. 

So many academics and critics follow the same path laid down by the dominant culture the emotional core of writers’ work can be totally buried under archaic interests like how women must stay in a specific role or that there are no gay people in a community.  Hansberry and Baldwin resisted that worn path as much as they could.  When Hansberry wrote to the lesbian journal The Ladder in 1957 she was clearly searching for places to feel free to speak her mind…her full mind not just the Black playwright who gets to be a ‘first’ mind.  She wrote:

…”moral conclusions-based on acceptance of a social moral superstructure
which has never admitted to the equality of women [and] is therefore immoral

A rebellious spirit and great vision pushed Baldwin and Hansberry to write what was in their hearts. Hansberry didn’t live along enough to further express her love for women (as far as we know…but more information is sure to come). Baldwin himself was ever the rebel that made it possible for him to state that he didn’t want to have to belong to a club to be himself.  However, he lived his life, ultimately, in line with the belief that:

"Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we
cannot live within."

In reaching out to the first national lesbian magazine Sweet Lorraine, as James called her, allied herself with a community which was barely on the radar screen for the Civil Rights Movement of that period.  At least not out loud.  At least not yet.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Trading your life for a sandwich

 This month we're commemorating the 50 anniversary of the Freedom Rides which helped desegregate the south.  The PBS program, American Experience, is showing a documentary about the Freedom Rides also in May:

Oprah, on May 4th, will have 150 folks who traveled around the southern states to bring the spot light to the insanity of Jim Crow laws which forbid blacks and whites from eating together publicly.
That makes sense but there's something oddly surreal about the colored queen of daytime TV with all of her international star power sitting down with those who risked their lives when they sat down at segregated lunch counters in the summer of 1961. I'm happy that finally their service to the civil rights movement is being celebrated.  Mostly they were young college students or working people who committed themselves to nonviolence in the face of direct verbal and physical abuse. 

And there was nowhere to turn if you were being beaten or spat on at a lunch counter. The white southern sheriffs were not going to come to the aid of any civil rights activist—black or white.

As a teenager I watched the heroics of the demonstrators on the evening news every night and, was moved to tears.  I was also inspired to participate in demonstrations in my own home town, Boston, often more subtly but just as strictly segregated. 

James Baldwin was deeply imbedded in the Civil Rights Movement of that time, talking with leaders regularly, gauging when his prestigious presence would be a valuable element to the team strategy. His participation was intellectual as well as physical.  His essays helped frame the discussion of racial politics for the entire country.

It was a heady time when we all saw the world changing around us faster than it ever had before.  Every day held hope that equality was just up the road if we kept marching.  But there is always a price to pay for commitment.  The files that the FBI kept on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were spiteful attempts to prove he was at the very least a Communist. If the US government had spent as much time protecting the rights of African Americans as it did peeking through the curtains of black leaders, desegregation might have been less bloody and certainly more speedy.

James Baldwin was also, like most activists, the object of FBI surveillance; but even more damaging than that perhaps was the disapproving eye fellow black activists kept on Baldwin and other ‘known’ gays.  A NY Congressman threatened to spread a rumor that Dr. King was having an affair with Bayard Rustin if King didn't fire his gay colleague.  (Rustin went on to organize the original March on Washington. See the Nancy Kates documentary "Brother Outsider.") At the same time other black activists tried to undermine any influence that Baldwin had.

There's a lovely documentary about Baldwin by Karen Thorsen, “Price of the Ticket,” in which many black activists appear at Baldwin’s memorial in Manhattan to praise their brother.  As I watched it I thought about their severe lack of brotherhood when Baldwin was alive. In his lifetime the nationalist element treated him like the FBI treated them and other black activists.

All of us carry those scars from what sometimes might seem like harmless wounds. We just don t know what residual affects we’ll end up carrying around with us.  Maybe that's what made James Baldwin such an overachiever.  Who knows? 

These were the treacherous waters Baldwin navigated as he wrote “Giovanni’s Room.”  People were risking their lives; demonstrators were being maimed and killed.  How important was it for him to write a book his brothers thought would set back the Civil Rights Movement?

Reflecting on Baldwin’s dilemma does make me wonder what is different today in our many movements.  How dismissive are we with each other? Recent reverberations from the fight against Proposition 8 in California in the hope of legalizing marriage equality was a good reminder of how insular communities can be.  The black community may feel that the gay movement is riding on its accomplishments as if all movements are not made from the same bricks. 

 The gay community may feel so hip it doesn't have time to really look at the past and honor what went before.  But if we can honor that past and invest in a future that includes us all there might be something worth fighting for.  The hard road that Baldwin walked may have been worth it. 

It’s weirdly great that Oprah is honoring the Freedom Riders.  Yes, it’ll be sudsy and glitzy at the same time. But truth is the heartland watches Oprah!  It’s crucial that they and we remember.