The Subversive Potential of Black Joy: Reimagining Protest In the Work of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry
by Sarita Cannon, Ph.D.
Excerpt from a paper on James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry’s close relationship and their expression of Black joy in their work presented at the International James Baldwin Conference in Paris held May 26-28, 2016.
In “Sweet Lorraine,” James Baldwin recalls time spent with his dear friend Lorraine Hansberry: “I would often stagger down her stairs as the sun came up, usually in the middle of a paragraph and always in the middle of a laugh. That marvelous laugh. That marvelous face. I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade.” (Baldwin xi-xii). In this moving eulogy to the brilliant black playwright who died at age 34 in 1965, Baldwin captures their shared commitment to bearing witness to the injustices of their time as well as their delight in each other and the world around them. For these two writers, protest and pleasure were not mutually exclusive.[i] In this piece, I examine Baldwin’s 1963 jeremiad The Fire Next Time alongside Hansberry’s award-winning 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun, paying close attention to the ways in which protest manifests not simply as a critique of systematic racial oppression, but also as an expression of love for self and community. Both writers demonstrate the ways in which black pleasure is a necessary and surprisingly subversive element of the revolutionary spirit.
Protest lies at the heart of African-American literature. As Black people in the United States have long expressed their experiences of living in a country that depended on their labor for its very existence but refused to acknowledge their humanity, creativity, and agency, critics too often view Black literature as solely political. As Toni Morrison puts it: “The discussion of black literature in critical terms is unfailingly sociology and almost never art criticism.” (cited in Conner ix). Certainly, there are works of propaganda that masquerade as art; but I would argue that for many Black writers, the social and the aesthetic can never be separated. Toni Morrison’s statement about her own work, that “a novel has to be socially responsible as well as very beautiful,” resonates with my reading of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, two people who were deeply engaged with the issues of their time and serious artists who toiled over their craft, striving to marry truth and beauty. (Jones and Vinson 183). The Fire Next Time and A Raisin in the Sun are two examples of this marriage.
Published to great acclaim in 1963, The Fire Next Time is part-meditation, part-sermon, part-prophecy, embodying the elements of the American jeremiad that David Howard-Pitney identifies. This genre “cit[es] the promise” for the community; “critic[izes] . . . the retrogression from the promise”; and prophesies that the community will “redeem the promise.” (Howard-Pitney 8). Instead of predicting redemption, however, in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin warns what will happen to Black and White America alike if we do not heed the signs of racial apocalypse. His title refers to a Negro spiritual that contrasts the mercy of flood with the punishment of fire, fire that would become literal in urban centers just a few years following the text’s publication: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No water but the fire next time.”
As incendiary as Baldwin’s work is, it also contains a sophisticated redefinition of love. One of these moments occurs early in The Fire Next Time when he tells his 15-year-old nephew that on the day of his birth, he was there “to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that: I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day, too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived.” (Baldwin 7). Here Baldwin affirms the power of love for self, family, and community as a bulwark against a hostile society. In a world where Black lives did not matter, nurturing the promise of the next generation was a courageous act. Just as Baldwin reevaluates the definition and purpose of love, so does he redefine pleasure and its transformative potential. A few pages later, Baldwin critiques White Americans who misunderstand the “sensuality” of Black musical forms such as jazz and the blues. (Baldwin 42). Baldwin asserts:
“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. And I am not being frivolous, now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here and become as joyless as they have become.” (Baldwin 43).
Baldwin’s call to embrace the sensual beyond White fantasies of “quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs” brings to mind Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic as the life force that is the source of every creative act, “whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, [or] examining an idea.” (Baldwin 43; Lorde 57-8). Baldwin’s definition of joy is framed by his lament of our collective separation from our bodies, our desires, our senses. The image of Americans consuming “tasteless” bread evokes both our loss of pleasure in something as fundamental and nourishing as breaking bread together as well as the bland, lifeless communion both within and beyond the church walls.
Written four years earlier in 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun prefigures much of the turmoil of the 1960s to which The Fire Next Time refers. Hansberry’s drama demonstrates both her revolutionary spirit that stemmed from her personal experience and her gift as a playwright to animate a wide range of Black characters never before seen on stage. I read the play’s most powerful expressions of protest not in the moments of anguish, but in moments of family connection and delight.
One such moment occurs at the beginning of Act II, when Walter and Beneatha, whose tense sibling relationship has already been established, “play African.” Beneatha is wearing Nigerian robes that her African suitor Asagai has brought from his homeland, dancing to Nigerian music, and chanting. (Hansberry 76). Moved by his sister’s performance, Walter enters and participates in the celebration of a royal African past:
WALTER. Me and Jomo. . . . (Intently, in his sister’s face. She has stopped dancing to watch him in this unknown mood) That’s my man, Kenyatta. (Shouting and thumping his chest) FLAMING SPEAR! HOT DAMN! (He is suddenly in possession of an imaginary spear and actively spearing enemies all over the room) OCOMOGOSIAY. . . .
BENEATHA. (To encourage Walter, thoroughly caught up in this side of him) OCOMOGOSIAY, FLAMING SPEAR!
WALTER. THE LION IS WAKING. . . . OWIMOWEH! (He pulls his shirt open and leaps up on the table and gestures with his spear)
WALTER. (on the table, very far gone, his eyes pure glass sheets. He sees what we cannot, that he is a leader of his people, a great chief, a descendant of Chaka, and that the hour to march has come) Listen, my black brothers-
BENEATHA. OCOMOGOSIAY! (Hansberry 78-9).
Part of the humor of this scene lies in their ignorance: Walter and Beneatha, like most African-Americans at the time, knew little of African people, history, or culture. As bombastic as the scene is, Hansberry also underscores the deep pleasure that Walter and Beneatha experience, validating the release through dance, song, and gesture that both characters experience in this moment of play-acting. The family tensions are temporarily put aside, and the communion between the siblings underscores their fundamental bond. Towards the end of the scene, Hansberry indicates that “the mood shifts from pure comedy. It is the inner Walter speaking: The Southside chauffeur has assumed an unexpected majesty.” (Hansberry 79). Here Walter imagines himself as a noble and respected warrior, not a Black man in 1950s America eking out a living for his wife and son in the service industry. However delusional his vision may seem, it is an important manifestation of Walter’s desire to live with dignity.
Another scene of connection, albeit a much more subdued and tender one, occurs when the family gathers to present their gifts to Mama:
WALTER. (sweetly) Open it, Mama, It’s for you. (Mama looks in his eyes. It is the first present in her life without its being Christmas. Slowly she opens her package and lifts out, one by one, a brand-new sparkling set of gardening tools. WALTER continues, prodding) Ruth made up the note – read it. . .
MAMA. “To Our own Mrs. Miniver – Love from Brother, Ruth and Beneatha.” Ain’t that lovely. . . . Now I don’t have to use my knives and forks no more. . . (Hansberry 123).
Following this moment of celebration, Mama’s ten-year-old grandson Travis presents her with a “very elaborate wide gardening hat,” the sight of which drives the adults into fits of laughter. (Hansberry 124). Yet Mama hugs Travis tightly and tells him, “Bless your heart –this is the prettiest hat I ever owned.” (Hansberry 124). She nurtures the spirit in which the gift was given. Moreover, the gifts of gardening tools and hat symbolize the family’s recognition of Mama’s dreams, which include having a home with a garden. The family’s collective acknowledgment of her desires represents the fierce love and respect for others that are essential to survival, especially for the Youngers who face an uncertain future when they move into Clybourne Park at the end of the play.
Although Hansberry “wrote [A Raisin in the Sun] in response to a racist performance” of a play about Blacks, protest in her own work manifests not in expressions of despair or anger but in moments of pleasure, love, and communion. (Bernstein 20). As Mama reminds Beneatha after she expresses her disdain for Walter and his apparent decision to take Mr. Lindner’s money in exchange for not moving into a White neighborhood: “There is always something left to love.” (Hansberry 145). Mama speaks here of the “hard love” that Baldwin refers to in The Fire Next Time: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth” (Baldwin 95). As both Baldwin and Hansberry express, love requires a fierce spirit and a commitment to embracing the full range of humanity: ours and that of others.
Though both Baldwin and Hansberry demonstrate a politics of love in these two works, neither was a naïve idealist. Their own experiences with poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia would not allow it. Yet, their belief in the transformative power of love as a weapon against dehumanization united them. It is not the “turn the other cheek” love of Dr. King but rather a hard, tough, and daring love that is rooted in a deep esteem for one’s right to be fully human. Their spirit reminds me not to give into the temptation of despair and encourages me to embrace joy as a mode of protest in a world that fears not only Black anger, but also Black pleasure.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. 1963. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
Baldwin, James. “Sweet Lorraine.” 1969. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Ed. Robert Nemiroff. Reprint. New York: Signet Classics, 2011. xi-xv. Print.
Bernstein, Robin. “Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.” Modern Drama 42.1 (Spring 1999): 16-27. Project Muse. Web. 4 June 2016.
Conner, Marc C. “Introduction: Aesthetics and the African American Novel.” The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2000. ix-xxvii. Print.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. 1959. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.
Howard-Pitney, David. The African-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 June 2016.
Jones, Bessie W., and Audrey Vinson. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Conversations with Toni Morrison. Ed. Danille Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1994. 171-187. Print.
Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider. Berkeley: The Crossing Press, 1984. 53-9. Print.
Vintage Black Glamour. “The good folks at Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project have put to rest. . . .” 18 May 2016, 10.12 a.m. Facebook.
[i] One of the most famous photos of these two Black writers is not a photo of them at all. Although Baldwin’s dance partner in an undated black and white picture has long been identified as Lorraine Hansberry, she is actually Doris Jean Castle, a civil rights activist who worked for CORE (Vintage Black Glamour). Nonetheless, the photo is a powerful representation of Black joy. I am grateful to Carolyn Butts for calling my attention to this misidentification.
Sarita Nyasha Cannon is Associate Professor of English at San Francisco State University where she teaches 20th-century American Literature. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with an A.B. in Literature, earned a Ph.D. in English from University of California, Berkeley, and held a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in American Indian Studies at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Cannon’s scholarship has appeared in Interdisciplinary Humanities, The Black Scholar, Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies, Callaloo, and MELUS. A global citizen committed to cross-cultural exchange, she travels frequently and has presented her work at conferences in France, Spain, Japan, South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, and Ghana. She is also a classically trained soprano who sings with various groups throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.