Lorraine Hansberry was a giver. Bitterness never prevailed long enough in her spirit to destroy the “lift” that was a such a large part of her talent, and which comes naturally when human beings are created on stage. Mostly we see shadows being titillated into life, only to fall because their authors had no lover for them. I hate and deplore her death. We cannot afford such losses. As she once said of Baldwin: “We should be grateful we have him.” I say: we should be grateful we had her. Although what the hell all these words give her now, I don’t know. Relieve my chest. A gift given too late.
—Camille Skirvanek of Brooklyn, in a letter to the New York Times, published January 21, 1965
In the tradition of Alice Walker, who followed the literary and literal maps of Zora Neale Hurston’s home and life, I find myself wanting to stand in the places Lorraine Hansberry stood. I want to make sense of the world in her spaces and on her terms. And I want to tell you about it. It isn’t so pretty. There is as much hell as heaven on this other—after the movement—side. Much has changed, some for better, some worse. Walking in the aftermath teaches this lesson. In the summer of 2017, I wondered somewhat angrily at the absence of a marker for Lorraine in Greenwich Village. But in October 2017, a red plaque was embedded in the rust-colored brick at 112 Waverly Place, in honor of Lorraine. Still, the Village is no longer hers. The multiracial lesbian bar (the only one that was multiracial in New York in the fifties) was a short walk away from her home, and it is gone. It is now a Mexican restaurant, which I don’t expect will last much longer either. It isn’t highbrow. Although the Village has a queer history and present, Lorraine’s presence is faint at best. She’s not really here. Nor is the Bohemia that once was, nor the poor who were there before that. They have been displaced by cool accumulation and edgy wealth.
I walk past the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Six Degrees of Separation, a play about a black gay conman who finagles his way into the New York elite, is up. Hamilton, a remix of American history in the vernacular of black and brown New York, is playing nearby. So, too, is August Wilson’s Jitney. All of them seem to have something to do with the space Lorraine left on the Great White Way. But it isn’t visible to the untutored eye. History, after all, has to be told to count as such.
There’s more of Lorraine uptown in Harlem, where she lived briefly and visited frequently. Langston’s ashes are in the same building as her archive. And the question that remains is one Jimmy once asked: What do we do with all that beauty? How do we weave it all together? The answer is not for one person to give. It is, as she knew, a collective duty. The battles Lorraine fought are still before us: exploitation of the poor, racism, neocolonialism, homophobia, and patriarchy. She models some of what we must do to confront them: use frank speech, beauty, imagination, and courage. And be with the people.
In Ajijic and Provincetown, there are still tiny bohemian enclaves. But the rougher edges have been cleaned up, and the rougher people— locals—mostly expunged or cast on the margins. I have been to Provincetown many times. Its scent salt-soaked, and the pale gray light, even on sunny days, is intoxicating. Couples—two women, two men—hold hands everywhere. It is as beautiful as Lorraine said. I have yet to visit Ajijic or Montevideo. What I have written about them is based upon photographs and text. And dreams. All through my youth and young adulthood I had detailed colorful dreams, but then they ceased. Writing about Lorraine, they returned. My own memories of Latin America—Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico, La Republica Dominicana—are now tinged by Lorraine’s thoughts. The writers, the radicals, the dreamers I’ve read have a landscape. Ocean waters baptizing revolutionaries, la gente en las calles with palmas on either side. Looking for Lorraine has, for me, conjured up a scenic hope and the romance of possibilities past.
Chicago remembers Lorraine. The home the Hansberrys integrated, where a racist’s piece of concrete nearly caught her head, is a historic landmark. The neighborhood is also now a mostly black community. There is even a Lorraine Hansberry Park nearby. A school and a theater bear her name. I remember Chicago. When I was a girl, in sweltering summers spent in the basement of a Y on the West Side, in the line of sight of the most infamous housing project in America, I learned what Lorraine knew about Chicago’s ghettoized children. The West Side was then a step below the South Side because it was the dwelling place of more recent migrants with more country edges. We did syncopated cheers: songs about our zodiac signs and imagined lovers, stomping and clapping in rhythm. I braided hair early each morning for the children of exhausted mothers: cornrows, plaits, puffs, careful in response to the winces of the girls who were tender headed. We ran around the track and danced until we were drenched to the repeating bass and high hat of house music. And if anyone was insulted, he or she fought back.
Chicago remains segregated. Lorraine wouldn’t be surprised. Police still seem, to many of its people, an occupying force that threatens more than it protects. She would agree. Families like the Hansberrys are not ghetto-bound, but those she admired are. And that matters. Lorraine’s beloved Chicago is, however, only part of the story: vast, and the key place it reserves for her is necessary yet not enough. In the public relations record she is recollected in the way of black firsts, one in a long line of great black artists to emerge from Chicago, a hallmark of its renaissances, longer and more varying than Harlem’s, and distinctively Chicagoan in the persistent concern with socially relevant writing. She is inspiration and role model. But in truth she ought to be remembered for all the ways she troubled the world then, and would have today too. Where would her place be? In Boystown—an expensive upper-crust queer community where her brownness would still be an oddity? Probably not. Although her love of women would be treated more kindly today, there is a good chance Lorraine’s sexuality would be used to push her away from the center of American theater and thought. Her far-left radicalism, if she were alive today, would not only be decried, it would also make her the subject of constant skepticism. She wouldn’t have been satisfied with the gains of black elites while a million sit in cages and many millions go hungry. She would hate warmongering. And she would have that trite insult “hater” lobbed at her for criticizing the Ralph Bunches of today. She had no interest in tea at the White House when people were suffering. But others did and do. We know who they are. And I know Lorraine would be moaning the capitalism-assimilation blues. Perhaps she would leave this country, like Du Bois did. Though probably she would go to the Caribbean or Latin America and not farther. She was unrepentantly American, though in the broadest sense. Though her politics were global she was passionately attached to the New World.
I drove to her burial site in Croton-on-Hudson for her birthday in 2017. It is my father’s birthday too. He is dead. I can’t place a call. For him there is no gravesite to visit, no shiva to sit. I know I will honor him in honoring her. He would love it that way.
I wondered what sort of flowers I should bring her. And then I thought of Lily, the lone girl in Lorraine’s story “What Use Are Flowers?” In the beginning of it, Lily is the hardest fighter among the feral children. But the girl silently, and I imagine wide-eyed, points at a flower, a lily, when choosing her name.
Lilies are flowers of resurrection or better yet, if I am to be true to Lorraine’s vision of the world, rebirth. I have spent years working on this story of her life, wanting to force a bloom—pointing to the pages and pages and books and ideas of hers that have remains encased. But when I stop at the flower shop before getting on the highway, there are no more potted lilies. Easter is past. So I purchase a halfway blossomed bouquet and worry that the flowers will wilt too soon.
When I get to Bethel Cemetery, they are still fragrant and now tautly open. I drive around the perimeter, not sure where to enter. I decide to turn into the parking lot of the public library because it looks as though it was designed in the midcentury. I imagine that she must have visited that library frequently. After parking, I walk to the edge of the cemetery. A man is tending to graves and I ask him, “Do you happen to know where the headstone of Lorraine Hansberry is?” He is a solid man, one who I would have placed as a New Englander if I weren’t in the Hudson Valley: red-faced, straw-haired, friendly. It is apparent that he works for a living. He moves about with confidence and muscle memory. I appreciate that he seems unbothered at my blackness, but I can tell he is curious. He tells me that he tends to only a few of the headstones and asks if she is my teacher or grandmother. I don’t quite know how to answer. The answer isn’t exactly no, though it isn’t formally yes. I mumble something purposefully unintelligible.
The caretaker tells me that the cemetery is seven acres and gives me the name of someone else to call who is not available today. I will have to come back, he guesses. Okay, I say. I will just walk around a bit. I have all day. He says the older deaths, ones dating back to the Revolutionary War, are in the center, so focus on the edges. I begin on a diagonal. As I start to walk, he warns me that I must tread carefully in a graveyard. It is easy to fall. I thank him and take a few more steps.
There it is, in my direct line of sight.
“There it is,” I tell him. I want to say “There she is,” but I am trying to be calm. He replies, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I am not. There she is.
It is hot. Ninety-one degrees. Birds are chirping in the bush directly behind me as I sit before Lorraine’s headstone. Someone has left five pennies as an offering on top. I leave the lilies at the foot of the grave and ask for her blessing. On the left is another headstone, slightly behind hers, bearing my grandmother’s maiden name. I pick up a silvery-charcoal rock for my altar at home.
I cannot stay at her gravesite long. My allergies are terrible. My eyes burn, my throat itches. The sun beats directly on my forehead. I go to the car, sit in the air conditioning and let the Benadryl work as I take notes. Then I drive to her house. It is difficult to find. I go around in circles at first because it is on a road with no visible sign. But finally I see the steep, tiny path and drive up. There isn’t a place to park. I just stop the car and get out. Standing in front of Chitterling Heights, I can hear the lake water not many yards away. I do not want to make too much of coincidences, but the windows in her home remind me of my own. Windows that when you look out of them all you see is trees. I wonder if when she was bedridden she had her bed facing in a direction where she could see the trees. It is the one regret I have about the place where I live. When I am sick enough that I cannot get out of bed, my bed is not angled toward the trees. One day I will fix that.
The last stop I make before going into town is to the water. In the years since Lorraine’s death, Black Rock Park has become polluted. But I imagine she once waded here with other Croton residents. I cannot go in. I am at the water’s edge. The park is noisy with nature, but like everywhere I went in the town, the people are quiet. Someone plays with a dog, a man in a construction uniform writes in a journal. This is a place to think. To imagine. The best words I ever read in memoriam of Lorraine are the words that keep me writing, not just about her but in her wake and light. They are words for all of us to remember her by, and to become and eventually perish and persist by too:
She had said part of what she had to say, but there were other words burning inside of her so I wonder, as she takes her place in the great beyond, was she supposed to say it all or just put the lights on so that someone else might now step from the wings and continue the dialogue … Give her her immortality, for it was justly earned in a never ceasing no man’s land where the living is only easy in song.
In the car, riding back to my own life, I smile. And I cry.
Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, where she is also affiliated with the Programs in Gender and Sexuality Studies and Law and Public Affairs. She is the author of five books and numerous scholarly articles. Perry lives in the Philadelphia area with her two sons.
Excerpted from Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry. Copyright 2018. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.