Sunday, May 22, 2011
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
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.