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Baldwin, James - Sweet Lorraine

Baldwin, James - Sweet Lorraine

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Published by M. L. Landers

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Published by: M. L. Landers on Jun 17, 2012
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01/13/2014

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Baldwin, James. “Sweet Lorraine.”
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 
. New York: St. Martin's/Marek, 1985. 443-47.
SWEET LORRAINE
That's the way I always felt about her, and so I won't apologize for calling her that now. She understood it: inthat far too brief a time when we walked and talked and laughed and drank together, sometimes in the streetsand bars and restaurants of the Village, sometimes at her house, gracelessly fleeing the houses of others; andsometimes seeming, for anyone who didn't know us, to be having a knock-down-drag-out battle. We spent alot of time arguing about history and tremendously related subjects in her Bleecker Street and, later, WaverlyPlace flats. And often, just when I was certain that she was about to throw me out as being altogether toorowdy a type, she would stand up, her hands on her hips (for these down-home sessions she always woreslacks), and pick up my empty glass as though she intended to throw it at me. Then she would walk into thekitchen, saying, with a haughty toss of her head, "Really, Jimmy. You ain't right, child!" With which stern put-down she would hand me another drink and launch into a brilliant analysis of just why I wasn't "right." I wouldoften stagger down her stairs as the sun came up, usually in the middle of a paragraph and always in themiddle of a laugh. That marvelous laugh. That marvelous face. I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade.Her going did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were. We had that respect foreach other which perhaps is only felt by people on the same side of the barricades, listening to theaccumulating thunder of the hooves of horses and the heads of tanks.The first time I ever saw Lorraine was at the Actors' Studio, in the winter of '58-'59. She was there as anobserver 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 theater because she had liked the play and they, in the main, hadn't. I wasenormously grateful to her, she seemed to speak for me; and afterward she talked to me with a gentlenessand generosity never to be forgotten. A small, shy, determined person, with that strength dictated byabsolutely impersonal ambition: 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 amazingcareer. Much has been written about this play; I personally feel that it will demand a far less guilty andconstricted 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 manyblack people in the theater. And the reason was that never in the history of the American theater had so muchof the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because thetheater 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 interpretative element which could not be present inthe minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the streets.And when the curtain came down, Lorraine and I found ourselves in the backstage alley, where she wasimmediately mobbed. I produced a pen and Lorraine handed me her handbag and began signing autographs."It only happens once," she said. I stood there and watched. I watched the people, who loved Lorraine for whatshe had brought to them; and watched Lorraine, who loved the people for what they brought to her. It wasnot, for her, a matter of being admired. She was being corroborated and confirmed. She was wise enough andhonest enough to recognize that black American artists are in a very special case. One is not merely an artistand one is not judged merely as an artist: the black people crowding around Lorraine, whether or not theyconsidered her an artist, assuredly considered her a witness. This country's concept of art and artists has theeffect, scarcely worth mentioning by now, of isolating the artist from the people. One can see the effect of thisin the irrelevance of so much of the work produced by celebrated white artists; but the effect of this isolationon a black artist is absolutely fatal. He is, already, as a black American citizen, isolated from most of his whitecountrymen. At the crucial hour, he can hardly look to his artistic peers for help, for they do not know enoughabout him to be able to correct him. To continue to grow, to remain in touch with himself, he needs thesupport of that community from which, however, all of the pressures of American life incessantly conspire toremove him. And when he is effectively removed, he falls silent - and the people have lost another hope.Much of the strain under which Lorraine worked was produced by her knowledge of this reality, and herdetermined refusal to be destroyed by it. She was a very young woman, with an overpowering vision, and famehad come to her early - she must certainly have wished, often enough, that fame had seen fit to drag its feet a

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