Book Review | Looking For Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry
“Her going did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were. We had that respect for each other which perhaps is only felt by people on the same side of the barricades, listening to the accumulating thunder of the hooves of horses and the treads of tanks.” — James Baldwin, “Sweet Lorraine,” Introduction, To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
Now, when the veil is thin. Now, when we have lost another nonconformist Black woman writer who would not be placed in our neat boxes.
Now feels like the best time to write about Imani Perry’s beautiful and quietly urgent biography of the enigmatic, energetic and quirky, sweet playwright James Baldwin loved with such tenderness, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.
I liked Lorraine’s play, A Raisin in The Sun. Because I was supposed to like it. Because it was the first, a first. But really, I have always only loved Lorraine.
I read the play a couple of times because I couldn’t escape it, but it was as far removed from my experience of family life as the Brady Bunch, so I never really connected with it. I could still, though, recognize what an achievement it was for a black woman from Chicago to have launched a play — I understood the magnitude of her achievement, what A Raisin in the Sun represented, what it meant.
The first character in my novella, All City, which emerged out of one of my first short stories is a bad ass Bronx girl named Lorraine who beats up a boy who pulls her hair. When they both get detention, she sort of falls in love with him and his art after their fight. But she is named after Lorraine Hansberry not because she’s a romantic, (though there is that) but because she is a complex Black girl with heart. Because she makes her own way, even with guys in her world — like her brokenhearted daddy — to help her.
I thought of this fictional character but mostly, the real life Lorraine, with such tenderness as I made my way with careful admiration through Imani Perry’s biography.
I was surprised to learn that Lorraine identified as a lesbian; her story has been so obscured that I read this, somehow, as bisexual or sexually fluid over the years, but Perry adds beautiful, respectful and splendid specificity to Lorraine’s queer identity in these pages.
With the addition of the best, most charming lists I’ve ever read in any book, ever, Perry’s succinct and characteristic style describes them well. “The lists are mundane and profound. The great joy of her sexuality and also its difficulty courses through them.”
It is hard, in popular culture, to find examples of black queer artists in conversation historically with one another aesthetically and intellectually in the pursuit of liberation, not entertainment. There is some of this in Sister Love, the letters between Audre Lorde and Pat Parker. There is some of it in James Baldwin’s reflections about Lorraine in his essay collection, The Price of The Ticket. Perry, again, surfaces this significant aspect of identity, noting that both Baldwin and Hansberry commented on the complexity of humanity by way of their works — Baldwin through Another Country and Hansberry through The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
“Neither saw the struggle for freedom as limited to fights for laws and full citizenship. Freedom dreams led to complex questions about humanity and existence, about who we are and might become…Though they were both most passionately focused on the question of race, it was a question that was never posed in isolation from other structures of difference and domination such as gender, class, and sexuality. And neither of them subjected race to monolithic interpretations. Jimmy and Lorraine understood that people, in all their messiness, had complex architectures inside and among them.”
Perry’s biography of Lorraine is not standard in any sense, except that it does fit well in the canon of biographies of tremendously talented or brilliant Black women visionaries that I cherish, among them Alice Walker: A Life by Evelyn C. White; Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd; Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings; Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Painter; as well as Catherine Clinton’s excellent biography of Harriet Tubman.
It’s possible that there was a moment during any one of these books where I came across a line that made my breath catch — I regard reading books like watching movies, after all, and when I find myself at the arc, I get restless. I want to read the end, the acknowledgments, to find out where this is all going, how much time I have left to savor the work.
I was feeling especially tender what with all that has been going on in the world, and my own personal healing of my inner child. Near the end, when Perry writes about Lorraine dying, we read (and I heard, felt with my entire spirit) the words of Essie Barnes, “a quintessential voice from the Black South”:
Little girl you must continue to trust in God, believe and trust him and wait until he reaches you…I wrote you two weeks passed…I am writing against you can write me if you want to, let me know how you feel by now…
I am your friend, Essie Barnes
Your photo in the Jet is cute.
“ ‘Little girl’ is a moniker not unlike the designation ‘sweet’ in Black Southern vernacular. It lets you know that you are cherished. Lorraine was by so many.”
Even re-reading that now and transcribing it now makes me cry, I think, because of how few Black women are cherished. How infrequently we see Black women cherished on the page or in life. Not at the moment of our dying, certainly not while yet we are living.
This simple kindness, heart to heart, no P.S. or formalities to distance them or anything, and this lovely compliment probably looks like most people like no big deal. But to a heart that is withering under stress, under the weight of not being your full self in the world because the complexity is too much, a simple kindness from a Southern sister is everything. It did not save Lorraine’s life but it could save some future Lorraine’s life.
It’s that part that moves me so much.
Of course not everyone would agree hers was a life that should be saved. Perry notes an obituary that attempted to tarnish her legacy with claims of mysticism and angry and while she had righteous anger, Perry wisely notes, “calling a public Black person angry was then, as now, a dagger. It was used to suggest moral failure. Like the other passions, anger is often cast as reckless and useless when in the hearts and minds of Black people, perhaps because passion lies in opposition to passive acceptance…it is living as protest.”
Lest I make myself sound inconsolable as I truly was at the end of this biography — I really didn’t want the book to end — I will leave you to discover, read and digest its exquisite ending on your own, including the acknowledgments. It is a magnificent tribute to an eloquently compassionate scholar following the dual guides of head and heart to Lorraine’s resting place for completion of this part of the journey. Along with seeing more into the soul of one of America’s visionary theatrical and radical lights, Looking for Lorraine is also a love note. A soul serenade.
One of her mentors was Paul Robeson, that robust Renaissance man who did it all with a voice of thunder and a spirit magnifying the dark. At Lorraine’s homegoing service, Robeson quoted from the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.”
He ended on the verse, “Sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air.” And at that farewell, he said, “Lorraine bids us to keep our heads high and hold on to our strength and power to soar like an eagle in the air.”
Who are we, then, to disobey? Imani Perry has sought Lorraine out, again, and discovered her, standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. “The struggle is eternal,” she quotes the freedom fighter Ella Josephine Baker reminding us. “The tribe increases. Somebody carries on.”