remembering Lorraine Hansberry & James Baldwin

Recently I had the pleasure and the honor of presenting a talk at the Baldwin-Hansberry colloquium with the Department of African American Studies at Temple, about the role of the church in two plays by Lorraine Hansberry and two plays by James Baldwin. I originally hoped to give this talk sometime during the Fall of 2008. I was scheduled to present this talk on January 23, 2009. This date happened to be three days before January 26, 2009. On this date, fifty years ago, James Baldwin saw the then Philadelphia premiere of Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal play A Raisin in the Sun. On January 26, 1959, A Raisin in the Sun ran in Philadelphia, previously in New Haven, and later in Chicago, before premiering on Broadway on March 11, 1959. My talk not only discussed the role of the church in their plays, but their collaborations and their influences on one another. I was not able to find much from Lorraine Hansberry about James Baldwin, but I was able to find a lot by James Baldwin about Lorraine Hansberry. The most important piece that describes her influence on him is an essay he wrote for Esquire (November 1969) entitled “Sweet Lorraine.” This is in many publications of Baldwin’s essays, the most important of which is by the Library of America called James Baldwin: Collected Essays edited by Toni Morrison. He writes: “much of the strain under which Lorraine worked was produced by her knowledge of this reality [the reality of the pressures of American life that incessantly conspires to remove a person from life], and her determined refusal to be destroyed by it. She was a very young woman, with an overpowering vision, and fame” (759). In “Sweet Lorraine,” Baldwin mentions the first time he met Hansberry, at a reading of his own play Giovanni’s Room where Hansberry who, Baldwin says, seems to have liked the play, was defending it in front of other playwrights. That was the winter of 58-59 he says. The following January Baldwin writes was an opportunity for him to get to know Hansberry much more. It was when Baldwin went to see A Raisin in the Sun in Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Theater. In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of their official meeting, I took a stroll to the Walnut Street Theater between eighth and ninth streets on Walnut Street on January 26, 1959, in order to pay my respects. This means not only pour libations, but to thank them for their honesty, their work, their “commitment amid complexity,” to quote Steven R. Carter’s important book on Hansberry entitled Hansberry’s Drama. In it he describes Hansberry as a writer who was committed to social justice, first and foremost. Very very diligently. The incredibly strong commitment that Hansberry showed was showed in various lights, hence her complexity. In a 1963 letter by Hansberry that Carter quotes entitled “On Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, and ‘Guilt’” Hansberry writes: “Things are very very complicated…But they aren’t that complicated either. The English [colonialists] are wrong, the [rebelling subject] Kikuyu are right; we are wrong, Castro is right; the Vietnamese people (there doesn’t appear to be any difference between the Vietnamese people and the “Viet Cong” any more by our own account) are right and we are wrong; the Negro people are right and the shameful dawdline of Federal authority [in securing their civil rights] is wrong; the concept of “woman” which fashioned, warped and destroyed a human being such as Marilyn Monroe (or “Audrey Smith” or “Jean West” or “Lucy Jones”—daily) is HIDEOUSLY WRONG—and she, in her repudiation of it, in trying tragically to RISE ABOVE it by killing herself is (in the Shakespearean sense)—right” (3). So despite showing all sides of a situation, Hansberry definitely shows artistic commitment and fulfills the role of the Black artist according to Addison Gayle, Jr., which is to “sift through the lies and distortions and to arrive at a truth applicable to all Blacks in this country” (174). While Hansberry, may insist on the truth being extended to all Americans and not just Blacks, she in her writings has definitely sifted through lies and distortions. I would argue that Hansberry’s work has fulfilled this role more than most other writers since her time. A Raisin in the Sun is a timeless piece where you get a full range of voices within black communities that many could identify with. You have Lena Younger who strives to provide education for her daughter to become a doctor. She also longs to move her family out of a colonized state (what Kenneth Clark, St. Clair Drake, and Horace Cayton have shown us to be colonized) that encourages drug abuse, unemployment, poor education, early death for most of its inhabitants. You have Walter Lee who strives to be among the powerful in society who make deals worth millions of dollars. You also have Ruth Younger who strives to support her husband and her family doing whatever she can to support her mother Lena to leave the Southside Chicago apartment. You have Beneatha, based on Hansberry herself, who longs to go do medical school and is dating two suitors. Lorraine’s range as a writer is most striking to me in the creation of these supplementary characters of George Murchison, Joseph Asagai, Wilhelmina Othella Johnson, Bobo, and Karl Lindner. Murchison is an exciting character for me because he represents perhaps the most elite of the “Negro intellectuals.” He shuts Beneatha down when he first sees her Afro by insisting that being “natural” is being “eccentric.” Later on, he tells her he really likes it. The scene that repeatedly speaks to me as a writer, quite honestly however (and I think Kim Yancey-Moore plays this brilliantly in the 1989 American Playhouse production of A Raisin in the Sun) is Murchison’s second scene where they’re returning from a play and Murchison tries to kiss Beneatha but she just can’t. She can’t because she cannot ascribe to the ideals of a woman that Murchison obviously has, in terms of just having “looks,” and only going to school “to get the grade.” What made Murchison so incredibly unattractive to Beneatha is his statement that school “has nothing to do with thoughts.” At this line, Beneatha is despondent, dejected, and tells Murchison good night. I like the way Lena enters soon after and supports Beneatha by telling her “you better not be wasting your time with no fools.” Hansberry presents him as a fool in the sense that he subconsciously privileges assimilation and accommodation instead of embracing one’s natural, African heritage. Where Beneatha sees school as an opportunity to challenge conventional British “education” and negate, he sees it as an opportunity to simply get ahead and “get the degree” and be resigned to the fact that our “heritage is nothing but some raggedy-assed spirituals and grass huts.” Hansberry shows us a very complex character but within a situation for Beneatha that is at the same really NOT complicated for her. You cannot leave Murchison without feeling at least sympathetic for him, in not getting the girl. When I first saw this around 1990, I felt bad for him, and I had many narratives in my head about how he should have forced her to kiss him. However now that I am watching it nearly twenty years later, I am having more and more pride in the fact that Beneatha did not let him kiss her. Beneatha, like Hansberry, in many respects, was more committed to finding a man with the same kind of vision of her rather than just settle with a man, because he’s rich and accomplished. Beneatha refuses to take Murchison’s advice about her “dropping the Garbo routine” in order to be “what most guys like.” The exchange between Beneatha and Murchison I think is a very important debate for a lot of women who, in their minds, are so committed to doing the right thing and being with the right person, that they have to make some difficult choices. Beneatha did kiss, however, her other suitor, Joseph Asagai, and her vision of fighting colonization is certainly closer to Asagai’s. Asagai invites her in fact to go with him to Africa but before she answers, she deals with the reality that Walter Lee has squandered the family money that was meant for her to go to medical school. I sincerely appreciate the creation of Mrs. Wilhelmina Othella Johnson (and I really like Helen Martin’s interpretation of her in the 1989 version) because she shows other blacks besides the Younger family that live next to them, and how they do not necessarily share the same desire to move, nor do they think about themselves the way that the Youngers do. Mrs. Johnson says: “you Youngers is too much for me.” In Mrs. Johnson, Hansberry is showing the difference not only in socioeconomic class, but in mentality among African Americans. She brings in a Negro newspaper that essentially tries to instill fear in the Younger family before they plan to move to Clybourne Park. As she is leaving, Ruth tries to return the paper, but Mrs. Johnson tells her she can keep it. Just before Mrs. Johnson leaves she calls Booker T. Washington “one of our great men.” Lena replies “says who?” Hansberry shows this complexity and obvious value difference (accomodationist versus reformist strategy) between Lena and Mrs. Johnson. The fact that Ruth considers her “ignorant” shows that the Youngers thought themselves very differently from the Johnsons. I can go on and on about each character which certainly on some level shows the complexity of Hansberry’s creative mind, but more importantly, it shows commitment to shaking up her readers and her audience to see a different side of things, to challenge societal norms. This is what I argued Hansberry did in her presentation of the church in A Raisin in the Sun. It is mentioned twice in the play. First, when Beneatha asks Lena “why do you give money at the church?” Lena replies “that’s to help them save people.” Beneatha replies “well I’m afraid they’ll need more salvation from the British and the French.” Hansberry is showing a double meaning of the word “save.” I discussed this in my talk. Where Lena might think “save” means the traditional Christian clergy definition of spiritual salvation from Hell, Beneatha is using “save” in a way meant to free people from colonization. In this manner, she is using the word “save” in a way that challenges what the mainstream tells us about Christianity. Hansberry is suggesting that Christianity is in fact used to colonize in ways that make Africans in need of a physical kind of salvation. In addition to this scene, I discuss the way Hansberry uses the word “church” in Act Three. She does it in a way to explain how Lena is affirming and supporting Walter Lee in his confrontation with Karl Lindner about deciding to move into the home and not take the money offered to not do so. Walter Lee says to Lindner: “And we have decided to move into our house because my father—father—he earned it for us brick by brick (Mama has her eyes closed and is rocking back and forth as though she were in church, with her head nodding the Amen yes) We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that (He looks the man absolutely in the eyes) We don’t want your money. (He turns and walks away).” The stage directions shows that Mama rocked her head back and forth as though she were in church. Here Hansberry is showing the Church in a supporting role that supports people who fight against white racism. This has been the bedrock of the purpose of the black church for Richard Allen when he was expelled from Saint George’s for wanting to worship with white parishioners. A fellow graduate student, Martine, aptly pointed out the difference between the kinds of churches in these two contexts in A Raisin in the Sun. The latter church in Act Three definitely is according to a more refined version of church that I also mentioned in my talk that comes from a 1952 article Hansberry wrote for Paul Robeson’s Freedom:
Torn from their own civilization and land more than three centuries ago to face a new and strange world—in chains—African ancestors soon threw themselves into the Christian religion to which they were exposed in America…They adapted this religion to their needs, and discarding the chaff which they found in their white slavemasters’ actions, they embraced the wheat of brotherly love of Jesus and took courage and hope from His suffering and inspiring militancy. Long before Emancipation, the Negro’s Christianity became an important bedrock in his struggle for freedom. Many of our Abolitionist leaders—Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and others—obtained spiritual guidance from the Old and New Testaments, and knew that, in the words of Douglass, those who would be free must strike the first blow. The Negro church became part and parcel of the Negro people’ fight for freedom and has remained in a position of leadership insofar as it has continued to associate itself with the aspirations and continued struggle of its people—for freedom and a better life” (5).

Hansberry writes in the stage direction the kind of church that she has described in the 1952 article for Freedom. The church was used for freedom and for a better life. This is the kind of church I am trying to meditate on in this era of the megachurches that seem to compete for Faith Based Initiative Funding based on their adherence to values of colonists, rather than to try and meet the needs of the congregation in different respects. A last note on A Raisin in the Sun. In it is a powerful character that Hansberry described in an awesome, rare documentary on her called Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama by Ralph Tangney, narrated by Claudia McNeil. That character is Lena Younger. Hansberry says about Lena Younger that she is “the black matriarch incarnate. The bulwark of the Negro family since slavery. The embodiment of the Negro will to transcendence. It is she who in the mind of the black poet scrubs the floors of the nation in order to create black diplomats and university professors. It is she who, while seeming to cling to traditional restraints, drives the young on into the firehoses, and one day simply refuses to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery. And goes out and buys a house in an all white neighborhood where her children may possibly be killed by bricks thrown through the windows of the shrieking racist mobs. I’m saying that the mother who is an idealization which was put into my consciousness over twenty years ago: old wash woman, Langston Hughes has written of the Black domestic: arms washed clean, souls washed clean.” The grunt work and the prayers of this kind of matriarch is what has kept me alive. The prayers of my mother and the work of my grandmother is, along with the work of my dad and granddad, is what helped me stay alive. I am grateful for the work of the black matriarchs in my family. The ones that work so hard in order that we might not have to live in the throes of racist oppression. Those, like Lena, who seize the opportunity of education, as an opportunity to reduce oppression not only for oneself, but for every other human being. It is the passion and appreciation for this black matriarch that motivated me personally to write my first documentary play on Fannie Lou Hamer. I decided to do this when the last scene of Act Two in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun kept playing over in my mind: the one scene where this matriarch, played by Phylicia Rashad, cries “Oh God! Look Down Here! Show Me the Strength!” For a long time, this scene would not stop playing in my mind. I don’t exactly know why. I know it captured the frustration one black mother has for the black men in her life. One, who died trying for “working like somebody’s old horse,” and another for having to be somebody’s chauffeur. In Lena, Hansberry was challenging the traditional roles for colored men back in the day. And the function of this matriarch in breaking that is very very essential, very important. She does what she can to fulfill the dream of her deceased husband. See: http://wbai.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10140&Itemid=2) The issues is probed more deeply in Hansberry’s posthumous play, Les Blancs, which is perhaps my favorite play of all time. Here Hansberry is showing the difficulties and complexities of living within a state colonized by Europeans. Yet amid this turmoil, Hansberry is undoubtedly committed to freedom from colonization. Les Blancs is set in the fictional African nation of Zatembe, among the fiction ethnic group of the Kwi. Hansberry obviously modeled this group after the Kikuyu in Kenya which, she explicitly said in her 1963 essay was “right.” They were right in their determination to free themselves from oppression from the British colonizers. The lesser known play with an actual plot, Les Blancs is the story similar to a Shakespearean Hamlet. It seems centered on the character of Tshembe Matoseh (whom James Earl Jones played in the 1970 Broadway production) who returns from England for his father’s funeral to Zatembe, where he is asked by his cousin Ntali, to join the resistance movement against the British. However he hesitates because he does not consider himself a leader. After being raised in a catholic monastery, his brother Abioseh sides with the British to achieve his hopes of “Black magistrates, black ministers, black officers.” After spending time with the alcoholic colonial Doctor, Dr. Wally DeKoven, Eric sides with the resistance. The important truth teller in this play is DeKoven and his alcoholism speaks to a point Baldwin raises in “Sweet Lorraine” when he writes that Lorraine tells him (the last sentence of “Sweet Lorraine”) that “it helps to develop a serious illness, Jimmy!” Hansberry shows the ways that people cope with racism and exclusion and violence by anaesthetizing themselves with alcohol. In this play, Hansberry shows the church as a project of European colonization. When Tshembe asks the Mission leader’s wife, Madame Nielsen, why Reverend Nielsen refused his mother medical care that led to her death, Madame Nielsen replies: Because, my child, no man can be more than the man he is. He was a White Man in Darkest Africa—not God, but doing God’s work—and to him it was clear: the child [Eric] was the product of an evil act, a sin against God’s order, the natural separation of the races. Its fate was for God to decide. He never forgave me for interfering” (125). Here Hansberry shows the ways that the Church and the epithet of “God’s Will” is used to oppress people. She opens this up even stronger in an exchange between Tshembe and his brother Abioseh, where Tshembe tells Abioseh:
Tshembe: (taking the silver crucifix in his hands) I know the value of this silver, Abioseh! It is far more hold than you know. I have collapsed with fatigue with those who dug it out of our earth! I have lain in the dark of those barracks where we were locked like animals at night and listened to them cough and cry and swear and vent the aching needs of their bodies on one another. I have seen them die! And I think your Jesus would have loved those men—
Abioseh: I see that you remember at least part of your teachings.
Tshembe: –but I think He would have cared nothing for those who gave you this! (he flings the cross back at him)
Abioseh: You are ravaged by things that will destroy you, Tshembe!
Tshembe: I am ravaged.
Abioseh: Tshembe, come and kneel and pray with me! Jesus will—
Tshembe: Abioseh, I know the tale of Jesus. But I think now if there was such a man he must have been what all men are: the son of man who died the death of men. And if the legend is true at all that he was a good man, then he must have despised the priests of the temples of complicity! I am going out to our people.
Abioseh: You are condemning yourself to hell, Tshembe Matoseh!
By having Tshembe refer to a possessive Jesus, or “your” Jesus, Hansberry is showing the ways in which Christianity is interpreted differently by colonizers than by those who are colonized. This is significant. Tshembe is convinced that Jesus would in fact despise Abioseh’s role in cooperating with colonization, for the simple sake of having black people fill positions that are part of a larger tool of exploitation of people and resources for capitalist European interests. However Abioseh is also convinced that might makes right and that the position of Archbishop being held by a black man will make a significant difference. We can make a similar argument about the position of U.S. President today. Can Obama’s role in it fundamentally change its function as promulgator of white supremacy? This question remains to be answered. However Obama’s role is definitely incremental in reducing the overall oppression of the United States on other countries, such as Cuba and Haiti and Columbia. We will see. Hansberry raised questions in Les Blancs that we still have to deal with today. More to come.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.