Sweet Lorraine — James Baldwin’s Tribute to Lorraine Hansberry

To be young, gifted and black by Lorraine Hansberry

“Sweet Lorraine” is a (platonic) love letter and tribute to Lorraine Hansberry by her friend and colleague, James Baldwin. It opens her posthumous book of collected writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969). Both were relatively young artists when they first met in the winter of 1958.

Lorraine, then 28, came to the Actors’ Studio where the stage version of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was being workshopped. He was then 34. Both were aware of one another’s work, and Lorraine would soon go on to defend her new friend Jimmy’s charge to introduce theater audiences to Black and queer themes.

Broadway producers, not surprisingly for the time, were uncomfortable with the content of Giovanni’s Room.

As she would throughout her brief but blazingly brilliant career, Lorraine believed that the artist’s voice in whatever medium was to be as an agent for social change. The two bonded, for Lorraine was developing her own Black, feminist, and queer politics.

“I loved her, she was my sister,” wrote Baldwin, “and my comrade … We had that respect of each other which perhaps is only felt by people on the same side of the barricades …”

Alas, their friendship would be intense but short-lived, since Lorraine was to live just six years longer. She died of pancreatic cancer at age 34. Her reputation would already by sealed by the time of her death as the award-winning playwright of A Raisin in the Sun and, to a lesser degree, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.

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To be young, gifted and black by Lorraine Hansberry

To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry

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Here is a portion of James Baldwin’s “Sweet Lorraine, from the introductory pages of To Be Young, Gifted and Black (Prentice-Hall, © 1969):


An excerpt from “Sweet Lorraine” by James Baldwin

The first time I ever saw Lorraine was at the Actors’ Studio, in the winter of ’57-’58. She was there as an observer of the Workshop Production of Giovanni’s Room. She sat way up in the bleachers, taking on some of the biggest names in the American theatre because she had liked the play and they, in the main, hadn’t.

I was enormously grateful to her, she seemed to speak for me; and afterwards she talked to me with a gentleness and generosity never to be forgotten. A small, shy, determined person, with that strength dictated by absolutely impersonal ambitions: she was not trying to “make it” — she was trying to keep the faith.

We really met, however, in Philadelphia, in 1959, when A Raisin in the Sun was at the beginning of its amazing career. Much has been written about the play; I personally feel that it will demand a far less guilty and constricted people than the present-day Americans to be able to assess it at all; as an historical achievement, anyway, no one can gainsay its importance.

What is relevant here is that I had never in my life seen so many Black people in the theater. And the reason was that before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of Black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.

But, in Raisin, Black people recognized that house and all the people in it — the mother, the son, the daughter and the daughter-in-law, and supplied the play with an interpretive element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets.

And when the curtain came down, Lorraine and I found ourselves in the backstage alley, where she was immediately mobbed.

I produced a pen and Lorraine handed me her hardback and began signing autographs. “It only happens once,” she said. I stood there and watched. I watched the people, who loved Lorraine for what she had brought to them; and watched Lorraine, who loved the people for what they had brought to her.

It was not, for her, a matter of being admired. She was being corroborated and confirmed. She was wise enough and honest enough to recognize that Black American artists area very special case.

One is not merely an artist and one is not judged merely as an artist: the Black people crowding around Lorraine, whether or not they consider her an artist, assuredly consider her a witness …

Much of the strain under which Lorraine worked was produced by her knowledge of this reality, and her determined refusal to be destroyed by it. She was a very young woman, with an overpowering vision, and fame had come to her early — she must certainly have wished, often enough, that fame had seen fit to drag its feet a little.

For fame and recognition are not synonymous, especially not here, and her fame caused her to be criticized very harshly, very loudly, and very often by both Black and white people who were unable to believe, apparently, that a really serious intention could be contained in so glamorous a frame …

When so bright a light goes out so early, when so gifted an artist goes so soon, we are left with a sorrow and wonder which speculation cannot assuage. One is filled for a long time with a sense of injustice as futile as it is powerful …

Sometimes, very briefly, one hears the exact inflection of the voice, the exact timbre of the laugh — as I have, when watching this dramatic presentation, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and in reading through these pages. But I do not have the heart to presume to assess her work, for all of it, for me, was suffused with the light which was Lorraine.

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It’s well worth reading not only the remainder of Balwin’s tribute, but also the various writings of Lorraine Hansberry in To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

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More about the friendship of Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin

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