James Baldwin’s love letter to Lorraine Hansberry


This article originally appeared in the November 1969 issue of Esquire. Hansberry had died the previous year, at the age of 34, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Access all of the Esquire stories ever published on Classic Esquire.

That’s how I always felt about her, so I won’t apologize for calling her that now. She understood it: at that far too brief period when we walked, talked, laughed and drank together, sometimes in the streets and bars and restaurants of the Village, sometimes at home, sometimes at my place, sometimes fleeing mercilessly from the houses of other; and sometimes seeming, for all those who did not know us, to have a battle on the ground and long drawn out. We spent a lot of time discussing history and extremely related topics in his apartments on Bleecker Street and, later, Waverly Place. And a lot of times, just when I was sure she was about to throw me, as being the too rowdy type, she would get up with her hands on her hips (for those sessions at home, she always wore a pants), and took my empty glass as if she intended to throw it at me. Then she walked into the kitchen saying, with a haughty nod, “Really, Jimmy. You are not right, child! ”

With what a stern rebuke, she would hand me another drink and embark on a brilliant analysis of why I was not “right.” I often staggered down its stairs when the sun rose, usually in the middle of a paragraph and always in the midst of a laugh. That wonderful laugh. This wonderful face. I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade. His departure didn’t make me so lonely as it made me realize how lonely we were. We had that respect for each other that might only be felt by people on the same side of the barricades, listening to the thunder piling up from the hooves of the horses and the tracks of the chariots.

Esquire cover, November 1969

Squire

The first time I saw Lorraine was at the Actors’ Studio, during the winter of ’58 -’59. She was there as an observer of the Production Workshop of Giovanni’s bedroom. She sat very high in the stands, taking on some of the biggest names in American theater because she loved the play and they, by and large, didn’t. I was enormously grateful to her, she seemed to speak for me; and then she spoke to me with a gentleness and a generosity that we will never forget. A shy, determined little person, with that, a strength dictated by an absolutely impersonal ambition: she was not trying to “succeed”, she was trying to keep the faith.

But we really did meet in Philadelphia, in 1959, when A raisin in the sun was at the start of his incredible career. Much has been written about this play; I personally think that it will take a people much less guilty and restricted than the Americans of today to be able to assess it; as a historic achievement, anyway, no one can deny its importance. What is relevant here is that I had never seen so many blacks in the theater in my life. And the reason was that never in the history of American theater, we had seen so much truth about the life of blacks on stage. Blacks ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.

It would be nice, selfishly, to have her around now, that little dark-haired girl, with her wit, wonder, and eloquent compassion.

But in Grape, black people recognized this house and all the people in it – mother, son, daughter and daughter-in-law – and provided the play with an interpretive element that could not be present in the room. spirit of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but also by their knowledge of the street. And when the curtain fell, Lorraine and I found ourselves in the backstage alley, where she was immediately assaulted. I pulled out a pen and Lorraine handed me her purse and started signing autographs. “It only happens once,” she said. I stood there and watched. I observed people who loved Lorraine for what it brought them; and watched over Lorraine, who loved people for what they brought her.

It was not for her to be admired. It was corroborated and confirmed. She was wise enough and honest enough to admit that black American artists are in a very special situation. We are not only an artist and we are not judged only as an artist: the blacks who crowd around Lorraine, whether they consider it or not as an artist, certainly consider it as a witness. The conception of the art and artists of this country has the effect, hardly worth mentioning now, of isolating the artist from the people. The effect of this can be seen in the irrelevance of much of the work produced by famous white artists; but the effect of this isolation on a black artist is absolutely fatal. He is, already, as a black American citizen, isolated from most of his white compatriots. At the crucial hour, he can hardly ask for help from his artist peers, because they do not know him well enough to be able to correct him. To continue to grow, to stay in touch with himself, he needs the support of this community from which all the pressures of American life are constantly pushing him away. And when he is actually withdrawn he is silent and the people have lost another hope.

Lorraine hansberry portrait session

David AttieGetty Images

Much of the strain Lorraine was working under was due to her knowledge of this reality and her determined refusal to be destroyed by it. She was a very young woman, with an irresistible vision, and fame had come to her early – she must have wished, often enough, that fame had seen fit to drag its feet a little. Because fame and recognition are not synonymous, especially not here, and her fame was going to make her criticize very harshly, very strongly, and very often by blacks and whites who could not believe, apparently, that an intention really serious could be contained in such a glamorous setting. She took it all with a sort of astringent good humor, refusing, for example, even to consider defending herself when accused of being a “slum lord” because of her family’s real estate assets in Chicago. I called her during this time, and all she said – with a wry laugh – was, “My God, Jimmy, do you realize you’re just the second person calling me today?” ? And you know how my phone kept ringing before! ”She wasn’t surprised. She was devoted to the human race, but she wasn’t romantic about it.

When such a bright light goes out so early, when such a gifted artist leaves so early, we are left with a sorrow and awe that speculation cannot quell. We have long been filled with a sense of injustice as futile as it is powerful. And the missing person fills the mind, in such and such an attitude, doing this or that. Sometimes, very briefly, you hear the exact inflection of the voice, the exact timbre of the laughter – like I did, watching the dramatic presentation, To be young, talented and black, and reading these pages. But I do not have the heart to assume his work, because everything, for me, was bathed in the light that was Lorraine.

It is possible, for example, that The sign in the window of Sidney Brustein try to say too much; but it is also extremely likely that it will make such a loud and uncomfortable sound because of the surrounding silence; few pieces, currently, risk being accused of wanting to say too much! Again, Brustein is certainly very desired play, shamelessly didactic: but it cannot, ultimately, be dismissed or categorized in this way because of the astonishing life of its inhabitants. He positively courts being dismissed as old-fashioned and mundane and yet has the undeniable power to turn the viewer’s judgment on itself. Is all this true or false? the piece rudely demands; and, unforgivably, leaves us squirming before this question. You can’t quite answer the question in the negative, you risk being caught in a lie. But an affirmative answer imposes a new level of responsibility, both for its conduct and for the fortunes of the American state, and one risks, therefore, the unpleasant necessity of becoming “an insurgent” again. For Lorraine did not hesitate to assert that art had a goal, and that its goal was action: that it contained “the energy that could change things”.

Blacks ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.

It would be nice, selfishly, to have him with her now, that little dark-haired girl, with her wit, wonder and eloquent compassion. I only met one person Lorraine couldn’t reach, and that was the late Bobby Kennedy. And, as the years have passed since that stormy reunion – Lorraine talks about it in these pages, so I won’t go into details here – I have very often reflected on what she then tried to convey – that a holocaust does not respect people; that what today seems to be humiliation and injustice for a few can, without control, become Terror for the greatest number, suffocating white lives as if they were black lives; that if the American state could not protect the lives of black citizens, then right now the entire state would be swallowed up. And horses and chariots are indeed upon us, and the end is not in sight. Maybe it’s just as well, after all, that she didn’t live to see with the outside eye what she saw so clearly with the inside eye. And it’s no exaggeration at all to suspect that what she saw contributed to the tension that killed her, as the effort Lorraine was devoted to is more than enough to kill a man.

I saw Lorraine in her hospital bed, while she was dying. She tried to speak, she couldn’t. She looked neither afraid nor sad, only exasperated that her body no longer obeyed her; she smiled and waved her hand. But I prefer to remember her as she was the last time I saw her standing. We were at the PEN Club, of all places, she was sitting, talking, all in black, wearing a very nice wide hat, black, thin and radiant. I knew she had been sick, but I didn’t know how serious she was then. I said, “Lorraine, baby, you look gorgeous, how the hell do you do that?” She was leaving, I feel like she was on a staircase, and she turned around and smiled that smile and said, “It helps develop serious illness, Jimmy!” and waved and disappeared.


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