Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Obies THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater

Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism

Thoughts on: Genet, Mailer, & the New Paternalism 

It is easily imagined of Jean Genet that he is one those artists who so adore reality that they are obsessed with the ever-present possibility that it too will betray them.

Sitting through the too long evening of “The Blacks” or wending a careful and respect­ful way through the printed texts of “Deathwatch” or “The Maids,” we are overwhelmed by our sense of his distrust of us; his refusal to honor our longings for communion. Presently we understand that he does not seem to believe that is what we do long for and so, now and again, he drops even the remnants of his regard, and flails at us. He encloses the reckless and undefined dozen or so jokes; dismisses what he may consider to be the boundaries of even his own mind. He becomes the threatening soldier who may or may not put bullets in the gun, such being the depth of his contempt for the enemy. Of course, when whimsy does allow him to load and fire, we are shattered.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725165″ /]

Proper Meter 

Norman Mailer’s discussion of “The Blacks” (Voice, May 11, May 18) was, therefore, in proper meter. Between the play and Mai­ler’s discernible reaction to it, a duet was indeed sung. The rise and fall of his coherence and incoherence alike strikes a stunning and, I think, significant kinship with the French writer. This is especially so in his lusty acceptance of the romantic racism which need­ed evocation to allow for the conceptualization of “The Blacks” in the first place.

For, at this moment, on both sides of the Atlantic, certain of the best of men have sent up a lament which is much concerned with the disorders of a civilization which they do not really believe in their hearts are to be set aright by in­vocation of either fresh “frontiers” or antique “grandeur.” Sensing the source of the disorders to be deeper than any of that, they have will­fully turned to the traditional route of history’s more serious nay-sayers. They have elected the spirit and fraternity of what the balance of society is always pleased to hope are “the damned”: pros­titutes, pimps, thieves, and general down-and-outers of whatever persuasion. They are certain, as their antecedents in all ages have been, that if the self-appointed “top” of society is as utterly rotten as it is, then the better side of madness must be the company and deistic celebration of “the bottom.” As far as they are concerned, history has merely inadvertently provided them with a massive set of fra­ternals in “the Blacks.”

Among the Negro artists and in­tellectuals whom I know it is a melancholy point of reference. Our life-eating sense of fatigue began with, of course, the appearance of Mailer’s “The White Negro” a few years ago, and has been fitfully nourished by those echoes of dif­fering aspects of its theme in the “little magazines,” The Village Voice, living rooms and coffee houses: “The Negro is hell-bent for suburbia and the loss of his soul, dear God, dear God!” Nelson Algren agrees in print with Jonas Mekas that “A Raisin in the Sun” is, of all things, a play about “in­surance money” and/or “real estate.” (This particular absurdity, it is true, is rendered a little less frightening only by the knowledge that there are people who sincerely believe that “Othello” is a play about a handkerchief.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”720560″ /]

Romantic Shadows

But to discuss this paternalism at all, one must underscore the innocence from which certain attitudes invariably spring. We have been locked away from one another and, sadly, it is not really curious that we seem to throw such strange and romantic shadows upon the windows. How else might Algren, believing, apparently, that materially deprived Negroes are, somehow, the only “true Negroes,” equate the desire to escape the grim horrors of the ghetto with the fancied longing of a people to cease being “themselves” and “get to the psychoanalysts as fast as white folks do”? And, for his part, Mailer pens a theatrical com­mentary which, in some passages, is primed with an ingenuous acceptance of the racial mystique.

After he had written what was cogent about “The Blacks”: “… the truest and most ex­plosive play that anyone has yet written at all about the turn of the tide and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart … ” and after he was done with gratuitous suppositions concerning the sexuality of the actors, Mailer indulged him­self mainly as a leading captain of the new paternalism, hardly pausing even to draw for us some of the richer implications of his own assessment of the Genet work.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715227″ /]

About Themselves

For “The Blacks” is, as Mailer partially observed, more than any­thing else a conversation between white men about themselves. This seemed to me the final trick, not upon reality which tends to hold its own, but upon illusion. For it is only an illusion that Genet has written anything else. He is a man and can only begin where any of us can: within our own subjectivity. As an entity, he must fancy “Les Negres” only as he thinks they should be along about now in the history of the world: if they have been treated thus and so forth, then this is the way they should behave and feel. He has rendered an equation and calculat­ed, one must say reasonably, for a sum. The result is an abstraction possessed of great flashes of power and all the inventive poetry of what is certainly an exquisite theatrical mind. But it is an abstraction which tends to remind one, through the absence of humanness, style or no style, that men have always found a dimension of nobility in their grandest guilts (have we not all seen the face of Eichmann in the dock?). Moreover, it seemed to me that we were spared the ultimate anguish of man’s oppression of man be­cause the abstraction is utilized to affirm, indeed entrench, the quite different nature of pain, lust, cruelty, ambition in “The Blacks.” The dramatist does not impress upon us that it is the sameness of kind which oppressor’s most des­pise in the oppressed; that they do not lynch or castrate dogs or apes as a way of life because they do not find their own images in those creatures. It is the reflection of oneself that most enrages when we are engaged in our crimes against a fellow human creature. In “The Blacks” the oppressed remain unique; it is, interestingly, their shadows that have been abstracted into “the style.” In it, the blacks remain the exotic “The Blacks.”

This may be because they are seen, still, by their creator as entirely relative to the fact of the presence of The Whites in the world. It does not occur to the European or the white American, as yet, that they might exist in any other context. The characters in the play dream not only of their revenge but of “turning Beauty black” because even the most pro­found of white men find it incomprehensible that a black man may behold the moon and stars without agonies of concern for how those images may have seem­ed to — The Whites. The play most certainly has validity in its purgation of the whites (in the audience) but what I found to be its spectacular quality of detachment for the blacks (in the audience) must surely be a limitation which derives from the fact that, for all of its sophistication, it is itself an expression of some of the more quaint notions of white men.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

Their Anticipations

It does not invalidate what we take to be Genet’s intentions because the whole play is, again, about the anticipations of white men; by the end of it we sense that they shall be disappointed if the blacks really do give more at­tention to building steel mills and hydroelectric plants throughout Africa than to slitting a few hundred thousand criminal throats.

With regard to Mailer and the new paternalism, it will be said, and swiftly, that Negroes cannot be satisfied; that, in this instance, the Negro intellectual is himself so “hung-up” that he does not understand at what Mailer is getting; that he has transcended what we still suppose to be the mark-off points of an old discussion and has found some more profound level where the white intellectual assumes all of that to be old hat and has moved on to where we can all really talk as the most in­side of insiders, which is to say, as some obscure undefined universal outsider who may be known as “the hipster.”

It has had a numbing effect, the creation of “the hip” into an ex­panded formalized idea. Negroes seem to have met it mainly with a crowning silence because who knew where to begin in the face of such monumental and crass assump­tions? A number of years had to dissolve before Jimmie Baldwin would remark in print, ever so gently: “… matters were not helped at all by the fact that Negro jazz musicians, among whom we sometimes found ourselves, who really liked Norman, did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip’ and Norman did not know this and I could not tell him … They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” (April Esquire: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”)

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

Naturally, whether or not some Negro jazz musicians think Norman Mailer or any other individual is or is not “hip” would be one of the great unimportant questions of our time — except for Mailer. He did not call his essay “The Hipster” or “The Outsider” or “We Who Might Swing” or any of that; he called it: “The White Negro.” He manufactured an absurdity and locked himself in it. He fabricated his own mythology concerning cer­tain “universals” about 20 million “outsiders” and rejoiced because his philosophy fitted his premise. He is like Seymour Krim in that respect in symbolizing all who fashion their particular fantasies and take the A Train to Harlem to find them and meet some frac­tion of one per cent of 700,000 people who bulge the community and go back downtown and write essays not on the prostitutes they met but on — “Harlem.” It is beginning to seem an inexhaustible tradition. What is a little new is the scope of the new arrogance. The new paternalists really think, it seems, that their utterances of the oldest racial cliches are, somehow, a demonstration of their liberation from the hanky-panky of liberalism and God knows what else. Consequently, from the depths of his particular seven-league assumptions, Mailer blithely writes: “They cannot know because they have not seen themselves from the outside (as we have seen them) that there is genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land on earth … ”

The most that can be said for romance as desperate as that is to repeat that the shadows on the window are erotic. How can the man who wrote it know that Negroes are, by and large, not in any wise sufficiently improv­erished of spirit to need or want that? How can Mailer or Genet or Algren really be expected to know, really know, that the commonplace reverse assumptions among Ne­groes about everybody else (“The Others”) are just as touching, in­nocent, and vicious? I know very few Negroes who are not firmly convinced that “the roots of life” are in Puerto Ricans, Italians, and everyone else of “Latin tempera­ment.” “Honey, those people really know how to live —” it runs. Sey­mour Krim does not know that when he left the most lowly of the bar-flies of Harlem, they re-engag­ed in chit-chat concerning the most traditional of very exotic notions of the Jewish people which are as grim and unworthy of them as they are any place else in America. Must we celebrate this madness in any direction? Is it not “known” among Negroes that white people, as an entity, are “dirty” (especially white women who never seem to do their own cleaning); inherently cruel (the cold fierce roots of Europe: who else would put all those people into ovens scientifically?); “smart” (“you really have to hand it to the m.f.’s”) and the rest of it? And never having been exposed to the glorious fury of a Moldavian peasant dance or the tonal magnificence of some mighty Russian folk song — we also “know,” like Mailer, that we “sing and dance better than white people.” Similarly do we “know” that we are “lazier” and “more humane.” Etc.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718477″ /]

Dies Hard

Moreover there is reason to now suppose that we (Negro writers) may have carried the skin-lightener hair-straightener references too far for a climate where context is not yet digested. Pride of race is not alien to Negroes. The Lord only knows that what must be half our institutions seem to function on the basis of nothing else! It may indeed be a long time after integration that it disappears out of the Ameri­can black man’s consciousness. Black racialism in the United States may ultimately show itself to be more tenacious than even its mighty opposite. Nationalism dies hard, as is witnessed by the St. Patrick’s Day parade down our streets each spring.

Of course oppression makes people better than their oppressors, but that is not a condition sealed in the loins by genetic mysteries. The new paternalists have mistaken that oppression for the Negro. They are as certain as Genet that the source of the wily speech is tied to color; that the brooding hatred which intelligent whites are apparently able to see is, somehow, wedded to the blackness.

No wonder the single-mindedness of the middle-class Negro’s search for comfort offends: it is an ugly fall from “naturalness.” Don’t any of these people know that working­-class social rules are not less in volume than those of more monied classes? There are just as many things which are forbidden — they are just different. A man who be­lieves in the taboos of his order is not freer than another man who believes in his at a different level of society. In society we, all of us, merely flee from rigor to rigor.

That is why, blues or no blues, life roots or no life roots, Negroes of all classes have made it clear that they want the hell out of the ghetto just as fast as the ascenden­cy of Africa, the courts, insurance money, job-upgrading, the threat of “our image overseas,” or any­thing else can thrust them. Worse, they have a distinct tendency to be astonished and/or furious that everyone doesn’t know it. Misery may be theatrical to the onlooker but it hurts him who is miserable. That is what the blues are about.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

Prison of the Premise

Out of his distaste for the middle-class Negro, Mailer is led to assume, for some reason or another, that the actors in “The Blacks” who seem to him to act with inhibition and self-conscious­ness must be middle-class Negroes. Well, knowing most of them to be part-time hack-drivers, janitors, chorus girls, domestics, it is im­possible to know what prompts the assumption other than the prison of the premise again. For my part, I am twice confused, because I genuinely thought the acting, al­most without exception, brilliant. Especially Messrs. Browne and Jones.

It points up the incredible eager­ness for the new villain: The true middle-class Negro simply amuses the life out of everyone because he stands on line at the opera; be­cause of his attaché case; because he is as passionately opinionated on West Germany as Congo; he amuses because he plays tennis; because his fatuousness has the audacity to sound as deep-seated as the chap he is talking to. Above all he amuses and outrages because he now persists in home-hunting with the wife in his foreign car in Scarsdale, searching for his little niche in the Great Sterility. And he certainly offends if, of an evening, he expresses boredom of the eternal race question and/or disapproval of the fact that Lorraine Hansberry goes around in dirty sneakers.

Well, there is certainly nothing fresh in the spectacle of white people insisting on telling all sorts of colored peoples how they should behave to satisfy them. It is, to say the least, the most characteristic aspect of the nation’s foreign policy.

Out of the perversion of what they think they understand about The Rise of the Negro Middle Class, the very same paternalists who will study every nuance of Genet or Antonioni have no time for the nuances of the homely, working-class “Raisin.” They pre­ferred a display of public dishon­esty or stupidity by refusing to see that it was, more than anything else, a long and, perhaps, laborious assault on money values. One speaks of dishonesty because, in a subsequent discussion with the Mekas entourage, it turned out that what they found most objectionable was the fact that the hero did not make the payoff at the end: “He should have played the game,” his co-reviewer, Miss Juillard, told me, “that would have been the swing­ing thing to do.”

I plead guilty to the four corners of my aspirations for the human race.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721605″ /]

Less Sophisticated

As a matter of fact, contrary to the original thoughts of this discussion, it is better to dismiss Mekas almost entirely. To think of it is to be reminded, with pain, that his particular variety of paternalism is of the older and less sophisticated type which simply turns motion-picture criticism over to a mysteriously qualified 19-year-old Negro girl because, presumably, that is what is done when it comes to those “colored movies” anyway. This is the young woman who also explained to me that she thought the movie told Negroes that they should want to “be white” because of all those passages wherein the college-daughter persisted in her preoccupation with things African. Intellectuality, it was explained, is “white.” (To such jibberish nothing can be added. A dedicated Voice reader like myself can only hope that the paper will institute a motion-picture-criticism column of some stature.)

Finally, isn’t it a little late in this particular century for Mailer’s remark that “a bad Negro actor” reminds him of nothing quite so much as “a bad white actor”? There is something insane about that sentence unless one truly be­lieves that there is, within the nature of being a Negro, some qualifying property which modifies all other adjectives in a sentence. Or that there should be. He re­iterated, the following week, that this problem is, however, relieved when the actors, sure enough, dance and sing or are otherwise active as entertainers, which re­mains, in his considered judgment, the true forte, as we were saying, of “The Blacks.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724152″ /]

LOOKING BACK over the thoughts penned here, I am disappointed and saddened. The patches of anger and frequent flippancies do not, some­how, thrust my deepest and most sincere hopes through the window; crash the lock which gives birth to such misunderstanding in the first place. These gentle if impassioned artists whom I have mainly sailed into are not the “enemies” of Negroes. We all know that; that accounts for the afore-mentioned melancholy which colors all effort to try and really “talk to one another.” Heaven only knows that men fixed in a posture of consum­ing outrage because of the spec­tacle of this world have been, as I said at the beginning “the best of men” in all ages. Genet, Mailer, and Algren are right to be in contempt of the ghastly hypocrisy of their cultures; artists who are not are, indeed, lesser artists and lesser men. In any other context these three would deserve mainly saluta­tion.

It is on this account that the tender evaluation of those jazz musicians of Mailer is genuinely touching. It is my own, even though I have never met him. One hopes only that, recognizing his public turbulence as merely an echo of all thoughtful people these days, he will not let those forces with which he battles force him into such a rage that he cannot loom larger than their expectations and definitions of him. One powerfully hopes that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”367551″ /]

Above All

And, that above all else, he will not allow his apprehension of this world make him flail so; let him grow contemptuous, like Genet, of that which is his only hope for tel­ling blows: his words. Not let flee discipline of thought; not let cadence itself become a shadow of his former powers. No, it is not the death of arrogance which is wished for Mailer; I do not know what humility has accomplished in the history of man, when all is said and done. The wish is only that the arrogance become not shapeless; that it does not lose confi­dence in those of us who await the words which carry it with such hunger and need, on this barren landscape, knowing all the while the source and its truly monumental possibilities.

Norman, write not of the great­ness of our peoples, yours and mine, in the past tense because: “Vail kumen vet noch undzer oysge benkte sho!” — and “My Lord, what a mornin’!

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Theater Uncategorized

Norman Mailer on Jean Genet’s “The Blacks”

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 1
May 11, 1961

No one who believes in the greatness of certain plays would go to any one of our houses to enjoy them. They exist as thundering productions in the mind only. We know they might be done (“King Lear,” for example, should be played by Ernest Hemingway), but one also knows that way lies nightmare, madness, and no hurricane’s spout. Our theatre is cancer gulch. Any­one who has worked in it felt the livid hate-twisted nerves of the actresses, the fag-ridden spirit of the actors, the gulping mannerless yaws of our directors, hysterical at resistance, ponderous at exposition, and always psychoanalytical, must admit that yes, at its best, our theatre is a rich ass and/or hole, at its worst, the heavens recoil.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725147″ /]

Fever for All

By way of preface to some re­marks on “The Blacks.” If one is tempted to say it is a great play (with insidious, even evil veins of cowardice in its cruel bravery), one has to add immediately that such greatness exists as still another of those exquisite lonely productions off imagination’s alley. The show, the literal show on the boards (and the set for this one is worth an essay of quiet criticism in itself), that tangible corporal embodiment of “The Blacks” ended as good theatre, shocking as a rash, bug­-house with anxiety to some, nerv­ous fever-hot for all. (A lot of people left.) It is a good produc­tion, one of the doubtless best productions in New York this year, and yet it fails to find two-thirds of the play. It is a hot hothouse tense livid off-fag deep-purple voodoo mon Doo production, thick, jungle bush, not unjazzy, never cool, but at its worst, and Gene Frankel’s touch is not always di­rected to the fine, the gloomy ac­colade one must offer is that “The Blacks” is three times as good a production as that finking of the pieces and parts one saw last year in “The Balcony.” Frankel does an honest job, he clarifies the play ­— at a cost, but he does make it easier to see the play than to read it — he enriches the production upon occasions. The rich farty arts, that only grace our theatre can claim, are used with good force. The savory in Genet (that outer-Wil­liams, the ta-ta Tennessee, cry not that the French write it better than thee) is laid on rich and that is probably right. What but a funky style could handle a murder by fornication of a white woman who is really a black vicar in a wig, dig, who turns around and comes out not to be killed at all, because Genet likes vastly to put Pirandello in a pretzel. This metamorphosis of forms, this fall into death by re­verses brings an arbitrary climax to the play (since it comes just before the producer’a questionable if artistic decision to have an inter­mission) and it is, if one is to talk like a theatre bore, one of the best 10 minutes spent in the pit since … So forth. It’s very good. Frankel surprised me for 10 min­utes. The actors too. As recom­mendations go, this play is Highly Recommended. Take your family, take the kids, take the hoodlums on the corner. Take your gun.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721949″ /]

Fact of the matter, I am gracious to Mr. Frankel because I think he did a not unbrave thing in direct­ing this piece. “The Blacks” is a Mother F. Kerr. It is a challenge, as some of the adenoidals may still be saying. Consider this speech as a clue to the heat of the evening. Delivered with considerable ele­gance and cold fire by Mr. Roscoe Lee Browne:

“ARCHIBALD (gravely): I order you to be black to your very veins. Pump black blood through them. Let Africa circulate in them. Let Negroes negrify themselves. Let them persist to the point of madness in what they’re condemned to be, in their ebony, in their odor, in their yellow eyes, in their cannibal tastes. Let them not be content with eating Whites, but let them cook each other as well. Let them invent recipes for shin-bones, knee-caps, calves, thick lips, everything. Let them invent unknown sauces. Let them invent hiccoughs, belches and farts that’ll give out a deleterious jazz. Let them invent a criminal painting and dancing. Negroes, if they change toward us, let it not be out of indulgence, but terror.”

Now contemplate the problem of a director. He is to deal with 13 actors, all Negro, in the truest and most explosive play anyone has yet written at all about the turn in the tide, and the guilt and horror in the white man’s heart as he turns to face his judge. For after all where do nightmares go when they are gone? Who is to say the gates of heaven are not manned by cannibals mumbling: Lumumba!

Rehearsals inevitably must com­mence in a state. For the actors are not Africans. They are Amer­ican Negroes, they belong some of them to the Black Bourgeoisie which any proud Negro is quick to tell you is a parody of the white bourgeoisie — the party’s-getting-­out-of-line kind of cramp on the jazz. They belong to the Center, to the Left Minority Center, the New York Post, Max Lerner, Rose Franzblau, Jackie Robinson (bruis­es the heart to list his name), Mus­cular Dystrophy, Communities-of­-Cancer, synagogue-on-Sunday, put up those housing projects, welfare the works, flatten the tits, mash the best, beef the worst, and marry the slack and mediocre Negro to the slack and mediocre Jew. Whew!

[related_posts post_id_1=”715227″ /]

The Real Horror

But organized religion is the death of the essay. Let us leave the mediocre at this: the real horror worked on the Jews and the Ne­groes since the Second War is the mass-communication of nothing­ness into their personality. They were two of the greatest peoples in America, and half of their popula­tions sold themselves to the sub­urb, the center, the secure; that diarrhea of the spirit which is embodied in the fleshless query: ”Is this good for the Jews?” So went the Jew. So went the Negro. The mediocre among them rushed for the disease.

Well, the Negro at least has his boast. They are part, this black bourgeoisie, of a militant people moving toward inevitable and much-deserved victory. They can­not know because they have not seen themselves from outside (as we have seen them), that there is a genius in their race — it is possible that Africa is closer to the root of whatever life is left than any other land of earth. The genius of that land is a cruel one, it may be even an unrelenting genius, void of for­giveness, but it is impossible that the survival, emergence, and even­tual triumph of the Negro during his three centuries in America will not be considered by history as an epic equal to the twenty centuries the Jew has wandered outside. It will be judged as superior if the Negro keeps his salt.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715227″ /]

The Bends

But for now, they are going through the bends. They suffer from that same slavery of ascent the geist imposes on all of us. It is Liberal Totalitarianism. Curiosity of the age! The concentration camps exist in the jargon of our souls, one’s first whiff of the gas chamber is the nausea of cancer’s hour, the storm troopers wear tor­toise-shell glasses, and carry at­tache cases to the cubicles in which they work on the Avenue of the Mad. The liberal tenets of the Center are central; all people are alike if we suppress the ugliness in each of us, all sadism is evil, all masochism is sick, all spontaneity is suspect, all individuality is in­fantile, and the salvation of the world must come from social manipulation of human material. That is why all people must tend to be­come the same — a bulldozer does not work at its best in rocks or forest. Small accident that many of the Negro leaders are as color­less as our white leaders, and all too many of the Negroes one knows have a dull militancy com­pared to the curve and art of per­sonality their counterparts had even 10 years ago. The misapprehension on which they march is that time is on the side of the Negro. If his hatred is contained, and his individuality reduced, the logic of the age must advance him first to equality and then to power (goes the argument), because the Center makes its dull shifts through guilt and through need. Since the Negro has finally succeed­ed in penetrating the conscience of the best Whites, and since the worst Whites are muzzled by our need to grant the Negro his equa­lity or sink a little faster into the icy bogs of the Cold War, the Negro knows he need merely ape the hypocrisies of the white bour­geoisie, and he will win. It is a partial misapprehension. In the act of concealing himself, the Negro does not hasten his victory so much as he deadens the taste of it.

A fine sermon. Its application to the theatre is not arcane. The Negro tends to be superior to the White as an entertainer, and in­ferior as an actor. No need to dis­cuss the social background; it is obvious the Negro has had virtual­ly no opportunity to develop as an actor until the last few years, and the comparison is to that large ex­tent most unfair, but it is made nonetheless because the Negro does not generally lack professional competence as an actor, he lacks relaxation. The bad Negro actor reminds one of nothing so much as a very bad White actor: he orates, declaims, stomps, screams, prates, bellows, and binds, his emotions remain private to him­self, his taste is uncertain or directly offensive to the meaning of the play, he is in short a bully.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721605″ /]

Sense of Self

Now this is curious. Because the greatest entertainers in America have been Negro, and the best of the Whites, Sinatra, etc., etc. — I refuse to make a list here — exhibit their obvious and enormous debt every time they make a sound. The Negro entertainer brought mood and tempo, a sense of self, an ear for audience. The cadence in the shift of the moment became as sensuous as the turning of flesh in oneself or within another. Extraordinary was the richness of intimate meaning they could bring to a pop tune. It was their fruit, the fruit of Aesopian language. Used to employing the words ex­pected of them by the White, the Negro communicated more by voice than by his word. A simple sen­tence promised the richest opportunities to his sense of nuance that is it did if the simple sen­tence did not speak too clearly in its language. To the extent that meaning was imprecise, the voice could prosper. For meaning was ferocious in its dangers. Back of the throat, in the clear salts of language, was the sentence graven on the palate: White man, I want to kill you. Ofay, you die.

So the style of the American Negro took on its abstract manner. Where the sentence said little, the man said much; where the words were clear, the person was blank. The entertainer thrived, the actor was stunted. The Negro, steeped in the danger of his past, would obviously be in dread of en­tering the cage of formal meaning; he could hardly do it with the deep relaxation of a great actor. It is one thing for Olivier to be magni­ficent but for a Negro it is simply too dangerous. The emotions bank­ed to suffocation in his heart are never far from erupting. So he speaks stiff, he declaims, he denies his person. Now, you or me can point to Sidney Poitier, to Canada Lee, to the good cast of “Raisin in the Sun,” to moments in “The Cool World,” to this, to that — I know. One speaks precisely of a tendency. Nothing other. (Who has not felt a tendency constrict his chest or cramp his feet?) Only the minds of the Center will say tomorrow that I said all Negro actors are bad. But this I do in­sist — they tend not to be good. And in “The Blacks” this tendency is exacerbated.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

Consider the emotions of the cast when they must utter lines like the following to a white audience:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”

”You forget that I’m already knocked out from the crime I had to finish off before you arrived, since you need a fresh corpse for every performance.”

“And you, pale and odorless race, race without animal odors, without the pestilence of out swamps.”

“Invent, not love, but hatred, and thereby make poetry, since that’s the only domain in which we’re allowed to operate.”

“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites and all other colors … ” ♦

Continued below…

Theatre: “The Blacks” Part 2
May 18, 1961

Last week I left you — those of you who navigated the perils of my pompous prose — with a situation as be-jazzed as the end of one of those 12-installment serials we used to sit through on Saturday afternoons in neighborhood houses. Thirteen Negro actors at the edge of a cliff, obliged to utter such sweetmeats as:

“Tonight, our sole concern will be to entertain you. So we have killed this white woman. There she lies.”

Or:

“If I were sure that Village bumped the woman off in order to heighten the fact that he’s a scarred, smelly, thick-lipped, snub-nosed Negro, and eater and guzzler of Whites … “

[related_posts post_id_1=”724970″ /]

It’s a great deal to ask of a young Negro actor that he have the sociological sophistication to understand one can get away with this in New York, that our puri­tanical, bully-ridden, smog-headed, dull, humorless, deadly, violence­-steeped and all but totally corrupt city, famous for its housing pro­jects which are renowned as the ugliest architecture in the history of man, famous for its Mayor, Walkie-Talkie Bob, famous for its Commissioner of Parks, Newbold “Stringless” Morris, famous for its Fuehrer, R. Moses, the King of Concrete, famous for its Police and its Mafia (the happiest mar­riage of uglies in a century), fa­mous for its fix, famous tor the heroic efforts of the authority to stamp out The Menace, that ring of coffee-house dens where the Beats learn to plot, and triply famous for its newspapers, totali­tarian to the lashings — they will print any speech which is void of good prose — yes this famous city is so snob-ridden and so petrified of making a martyr that one can get away with near-murder. No­body will close “The Blacks,” or there’ll be demonstrations in Paris. No one will rise up from the audi­ence to strike the actors for sacri­lege. No hoodlums will paint swas­tikas on the marquee. The St. Marks’ Playhouse is a 200 seater or less, but if necessary 500 police would patrol the avenue to keep “The Blacks” going. Our democ­racy is a soporific hulk, a deadened old beast’s carcass with two or three nerves alive, no more. Like a dying patient, democracy holds on to the pain of its nerves, de­fends them. So the actors who play the parts are not taking their lives in their hands each night they go on, and the anxiety which lay heavy the night I saw the play, an anxiety which took the long jump from phenomenon to false conclusion (That cat in the front row has eyes for me. If I talk of killing one more White, I’ll be dead myself) will begin to dissolve before the reality: “The Blacks” is secure. The play is close to greatness, it will survive. It gives life to the city. There is so little real life in the dead haunt­ed canyons of this cancer-ridden city that a writer as surgical in his cruelties as Saint Genet gives Being back to the citizens. For in 20 years the doctors may discover that it is not only the removal of the tumor which saves the pa­tient but the entry of the knife. Cancer thrives on indecision and is arrested by any spirit of lightning present in an act. Cancer is also arrested by answers, which is why perhaps the cancerous al­ways seek for faith and cannot bear questions. The authoritarian wave of the twentieth century may be seen a century from now, if we still exist, as the reflection of man’s anxiety before the oncoming rush of this disease, a disease which is not a disease, but a loss of self, for unlike death by other causes, cancer is a rebellion of the cells. They refuse to accept the will, the dignity, the desire, in short the project of the person who contains them. They betray the body because they have lost faith in it. So in desperation the man who contains such illness ceases to be existential, ceases to care about a personal choice, about making a personal history and prefers instead to deliver his will to an institution or faith outside him in the hope that it will absorb the rebellious hatreds of his Being. Man turns to society to save him only when he is sick within. So long as he is alive, he looks for love. But those dying of inanition, boredom, frustration, monotony, or debilitating defeat turn to the Church, to the FBI, to the Law, to the New York Times, to authoritarian leaders, to movies  about the Marine Corps, or to the race for Space. For centuries it has been society’s boast that if it could not save a man’s soul, it could at least insure him from los­ing it. Ever since the orgy failed in Rome and the last decadence of the Empire welcomed the barbarian, the Western World has been relatively simple, a community of souls ruled by society. First the Church, then the Reformation, then Capitalism, Communism, Facism, and at last Medicine-Sci­ence-and-Management. But as it evolved, so Society used up its faith in itself. Today the Managers do not understand what they manage nor what is their proper goal, the Scientists are gored by Heisen­berg’s principle of Uncertainty, which in rough would state that ultimates by their nature are not measurable, and Medicine is beginning to flounder at the inability to comprehend its striking impotence before cancer. The modern faiths appeal to mediocrities whose minds are too dull to perceive that they are offered not answers but the suppression of questions; the more sensitive turn to the older faiths and shrink as they swallow emotional inconsistency: “I can’t bear Cardinal Spell but I adore Dorothy Day.” The cancerous who are inclined to the Fascist look to the police, the secret police, the krieg against crime, corruption, and Communists.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724374″ /]

Like Razors

“The Blacks” gives life because it is a work of perceptions which slice like razors; it cuts at one through the cancerous smog of partial visions and dim faith. It is a scourge to liberal ideology, vomitorium for the complacent. Eleanor Roosevelt would be ill, James Wechsler might sweat, Gov­ernor Lehman would leave. The play entertains the forbidden nightmare of the liberal: what, dear Lord, if the reactionary is correct, and people are horrible. Yet, with the same breath, it is revolutionary. Genet’s unconcealed glee at the turn of power from the White to the Negro would so charge the paranoia of the reac­tionary that he might suffer a heart attack.

Yet, as one insists, it is se­cure. It will thrive in the inter­stices of our totalitarian liberty, prosper out of the very contradic­tions which strangle our freedom. It will be a nerve which manages to supply the intellectual life of the city and ao keep it alive. One may hope the actors begin to settle into their parts, and start to offer the enrichments they can bring to almost every line by sensing their cues rather than picking them up, by savoring their lines instead of racing over them, and by com­mencing that work which is the real enterprise of the actor, that private effort of the imagination to create a real life for the char­acter they are playing, a life which begins before the play, will endure after it, and is drenched in the changeable mood of the present as they act the piece. The night I saw “The Blacks” the actors were fine every time they became en­tertainers. When they chanted in unison, when they danced, when they leaped from platform to platform, moved in choreographic starts and streamings, smoked cigarettes over the catafalque of the corpse to remove the stench of her murdered flesh, they were first-rate, the play came to life, the production was rich, colors were added to the script. But in their dialogue, particularly in the long quiet stretches of the first half-hour, they were tense and without individuality. No personal charm, no sly destruction of one another by the turn of a voice or slow laugh, no psychic wit to slice the presumption of another’s speech, no bodily contempt, no air was sufficient to be breathed. The Negro like the Zen master is, of necessity, the artist of the put-down. But it was this art, craft, this virtue — to dare to be sadistic in order to keep one’s authenticity — which was most missing. The play, as was suggested last week, rode lividly, gracelessly, nervously, over the best of Genet’s dialogue, his stops and starts, flowers and whips.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720824″ /]

Rich in Possibilities

But that may be recovered. The play is rich in poasibilities for an actor, so rich it can only improve provided the actors are serious about their work. On the months ahead, if they find themselves, the production could become a major piece.

As a drama critic, one is here obliged to take a bow. Over the past two weeks, 4000 words have been written. One has climbed his way over small essays on the Negro as actor and entertainer, the loss of spirit in minority groups, the vices of our city, the logic of cancer; one has even sermonized over the future of “The Blacks.” But not a word to summarize the story of the play. Not a specific line of criticism about Genet’s masteries and lacks.

It would take a larger bag of words than this to give account of the twists and turns, the frames within circles in the line of story of “The Blacks.” Even then one could not be certain. Since the attempt must still be made to con­tend with the vices of Jean Genet, I will quote here, however, from a description in The New York Her­ald Tribune:

“a group of colored players enacts before a jury of white-masked Negroes — representing in caricature a missionary bishop, an island Governor General, a haughty queen and her dwarf lackey — the ritualistic murder of a white of which they have been accused. When they have played out their weird and gruesome crime they turn on their judges and condemn them to death. Then — with polite adieux to the spectators — they dance with 18th-century elegance a Mozart minuet, with which the play began … “

[related_posts post_id_1=”722090″ /]

It is a fair job for a short para­graph. And it points the way to the worst contradiction in Genet. He is on the one hand a brave and great writer with an unrelenting sense of where the bodies are bur­ied. He is also an unconscionable faggot, drenched in chi-chi, ador­ing any perfume which conceals the smell of the dead, equally as much as he admires the murder. His first love is not art but magic. He provokes and then mystifies, points to the flower and smuggles the root. A boxer who wins every round on points and never sets himself long enough to throw three good punches in combination, Genet’s best perceptions are fol­lowed by his worst. A line which is a universal blow is followed by a speech too private for his latest lover to comprehend. Like Allen Ginsberg, he is maddening. In the middle of real power, a fart; in the depth of a mood comes a sneeze. The tortures and twists of his nervous system are offered as proudly as his creations; he looks not only for art but for therapy. With the best will in the world and the finest actors, no one in an audience could ever understand every single line in any one of his works, not even if one returned a dozen of times. He is willful, perverse. He has the mind of a master, and the manners of a vi­cious and over-petted child. So the clear sure statements of his work can never be found, and one senses with the whole of one’s critical faculty that they are not there to be found. Each delicate truth is carefully paralyzed by a lie he winds about it, each assertion of force is dropped to its knees on a surrealist wrench of the mean­ing.

Archibald: By stretching language we’ll distort it sufficiently to wrap ourselves in it and hide, whereas the masters contract it.

As Genet gives, he takes away; as he offers, his style chokes with spite. He cannot finally make the offer, the one who receives would not deserve it. So he builds the mansion of his art and buries it, encourages the stampede of a herd of elephants, rouses our nerves for an apocalyptic moment, and leaves us with an entrechat. To be satisfying, a fag’s art must be determinedly minor, one stone properly polished, deliciously set. Genet throws open a Spanish chest; as we prepare to gorge, we discover the coins are heated, the settings to the jewels have poison on their points.

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

One does not spend one’s youth as a petty thief, one’s manhood as a convict in one prison after another without absorbing the vi­ciousness of a dying world. Genet’s biography is his character, never was it more so. Small surprise that Sartre could write a book of 600 pages in tribute. Genet is our first existential saint. But his de­testation of the world strangles the full organ of possibilities. He could become the greatest writer alive if only he dared, if only he contracted language to the point instead of stretching it.

In “The Blacks,” all the actors are Negro. Five are supposed to be White, but are White only as pretexts, as masks. In the murderous dialogues between Black and White which flicker like runs of summer lightning through the play, one never has the experience as it could be had: that moment of terror when Black and White confront one another with the clear acids of their unconscious. Witness the dialogue between the White Queen and the Negro wo­man Felicity:

“THE QUEEN (inspired): All the same, my proud beauty, I was more beautiful than you! Anyone who knows me can tell you that. No one has been more lauded than I. Or more courted, or more toasted. Or adorned. Clouds of heroes, young and old, have died for me. My retinues were famous. At the Emperor’s Ball, an African slave bore my train. And the Southern Cross was one of my baubles. You were still in darkness …

FELICITY: Beyond that shattered darkness, which was splintered into millions of Blacks who dropped to the jungle, we were Darkness in person. Not the darkness which is absence of light, but the kindly and terrible Mother who contains light and deeds.”

and a little later, The Queen:

“Show these barbarians that we are great because of our respect for discipline, and show the Whites who are watching that we are worthy of their tears.”

It could have the grandeur of Greek tragedy. In the context of the play it does not. One watches in one of those states of transition between wakefulness and sleep. Two principles do not oppose one another; instead a dance of three, a play of shimmers. White contends against Black but is really Black-in-White-mask against Black, and so becomes Black against Black. Much complexity is gained; much force is lost. These masks are not the enrichments and exaggerations of Greek tragedy, they are reversals of form. The emotion aroused in the audience never comes to focus, but swirls into traps.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724430″ /]

So with the action. One has a group of Negroes who are revolutionaries. They commit a ritual murder each night. But they are also players who entertain a world of White hierarchies, mounted literally above them on the stage. They are in subservience to them, yet they are not. For the audience never can quite forget that the Whites are really Blacks-in-White-masks. One is asked to consider a theme which may be the central moment of the twentieth century: the passage of power from the White to those he oppressed. But this theme is presented in a web of formal contradictions and formal turns sufficiently complex to be a play in itself.

Pirandello never made this mistake. His dance of mirrors was always built on pretexts which were flimsy, purposively minor. If one’s obsession is with the contra­dictory nature of reality, the audience must be allowed to dispense with the superficial reality in order to explore its depths. The foreground in “The Blacks” is too oppressive. One cannot ignore it. White and Black in mortal confrontation are far more interesting than the play of shadows Genet brings to it. If he insists with avant-garde pride that he will not be bullied by the major topicalities of his theme, and instead will search out the murmurs, the shivers, the nuances, one does not necessarily have to applaud. Certain themes, simple on their face, complex in their depths, insist on returning to the surface and remaining simple. The murder of Lumumba is thus simple. It is simple and it is overbearing. It is inescapable. One cannot treat it as a pantomime for ballet without making an aesthetic misjudgment of the first rank. It would be a strategic disaster of conception. So with Genet’s choice to add the minuet to Africa. One is left not with admiration for his daring, but with a dull sense of evasion. How much real emotion and complexity we could have been given if literal White had looked across the stage at literal Black. His rhodomontades and escapades leave us finally with the suspicion that Genet has not escaped the deepest vice of the French mind, its determination, no matter how, to say something new, even if it is absurd. And it is this vice which characterizes the schism in Genet as an artist, for he is on the one hand, major, moving with a bold long reach in to those unexplored territories at the edge of our awareness, and with the other, he is minor, a Surrealist, destroying the possibility of awareness even as he creates it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724030″ /]

Destruction of Communication 

Surrealist art, stripped its merits, ignoring the exquisite talents of its painters and poets, depends in its abstract essence on a destruction of communication. To look at a painting and murmur “I see God in the yellow,” is surrealist; to say “I see God in the­ yellow because the color reminds me of the sun,” is not. The thought is no longer a montage of two unrelated semantic objects — it has become a progression. The logic leads to a cosmogony whose center is the life-giving sun. Of course the first sentence, the montage, is more arresting, a poetic tension is left if one says no more than “I see God in the yellow.” For some, the tension is attractive, for others it is not. Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.

In Surrealism, the leap in communication is enormous. Purple apples, we write at random, salic­ious horses and cockroaches who crow like transistors. The charge comes more from sound than from meaning. Opposites and irrecon­cilables are connected to one an­other like pepper sprinkled on ice cream. Only a palate close to death could extract pleasure from the taste; it is absurd in our mouth, pepper and ice cream, but at least it is new.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713938″ /]

Mute Rage

As cultures die, they are strick­en with the mute implacable rage of that humanity strangled within them. So long as it grows, a civilization depends upon the elaboration of meaning, its health is maintained by an awareness of its state; as it dies, a civilization opens itself to the fury of those betrayed by its meaning, precisely because that meaning was finally not sufficiently true to offer a life adequately large. The aesthetic act shifts from the creation of mean­ing to the destruction of it.

The West may not be dying, but no one would deny it is profoundly ill. We inhabit a giant whose body is powerful and whose mind is divided. Like a schizophrenic, re­ality is no longer continuous, but broken into pieces which do not communicate with one another. Cockroaches who crow like trans­istors. Said aloud by an actor in a theatre, 80 people would sit in silence, 20 might laugh, each in different ways. The meaning is like an icepick used in a trans-­orbital lobotomy. The surgeon does not know what he is doing. He inserts his instrument, slashes the brain, severs the psychic structure, and makes arbitrary new connec­tions. The patient leaves, reduced in violence, and severed from his soul. Meaning has been destroyed for him, but by meaning a little less, he is able to live a little more calmly — at a level reduced from his best.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720824″ /]

So, one could argue, functions the therapy of the surrealist artist, of Dada, of Beat. Jaded, deadened, severed from our roots, dulled in leaden rage, inhabiting the center of the illness of the age, it becomes more excruciating each year for us to perform the civilized act of contributing to a collective mean­ing. The impulse to destroy moves like new air into a vacuum, and the art of the best hovers, stilled, all but paralyzed between the ten­sion to create and that urge which is its opposite. How well Genet personifies the dilemma. Out of the tension of his flesh, he makes the pirouette of his art, offering meaning in order to adulterate it, until at the end we are in danger of being left with not much more than the Narcissism of his style. How great a writer, how hideous a cage. As a civilization dies, it loses its biology. The homosexual, alienated from the biological chain, becomes its center. The core of the city is inhabited by a ghost who senses in the unwinding of his nerves that the only road back to biology is to destroy Being in others. What a cruel fate for Genet that he still burns with a creative heat equal to his detesta­tion of the world. The appropriate Hell he inhabits is to be a major artist and not a minor one, the body in which he sits has the chest of a giant, and the toes, unhappily, of a dancing master. ♦

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Black Women Writers Reclaim Their Past

Family Plots: Black Women Writer Reclaim Their Past
March 1987

When I was in grammar school, a friend of my father’s gave me a copy of Paule Mar­shall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. He told me a Negro woman had written the novel and it was about a young girl. I was shocked. I’d never seen a book about a black girl — ex­cept, that is, for a weird little volume called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God by G.B. Shaw. Unfortunate­ly, in the years since then, books like Mar­shall’s still come as a surprise. Like a number of other black women writers, I have made it a point to speak of our “tradition,” yet I know that no such tradition is assumed by the rest of the world, primarily because our books have not been read or taught.

During the controversy over The Color Purple, this was particularly evident. No one seemed to make even one cogent obser­vation about the books black women write. Yet much was said about black women writ­ers and our work. Contemporary writers are being accused of pillorying black men, pro­moting homosexuality, ignoring sociological overviews of black oppression — and they’re often pegged as the first black writers to commit such sins. Mel Watkins, for in­stance, asserted in The New York Times Book Review last spring that black women writers had broken a silent pact among all black writers to present positive images. He even dared to trace the portrayal of hostility between black men and women to a 1967 novel by Carlene Hatcher Polite, which is like saying black writers started to expose racism in 1940. It’s obvious the finger point­ers don’t know where we’ve been, much less where we’re coming from.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

Any defense of black women should take into account the priorities laid down by black women writers over the years — it should assert the place of black women’s tradition within the larger black literary tra­dition. This women’s tradition — which shows that Alice Walker’s impulses are much the same as those of 19th century black women writers — has been, until now, barely charted territory. There is a body of literature by black women that hardly any of us has been able to study. The reclamation of this work has begun, and there are new editions of four landmark novels: Plum Bun (1929) by Jessie Fauset, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, and The Street (1946) by Ann Petry. These older novels will undoubtedly put the current con­troversies into perspective.

Black literature comes from peculiar roots — a proliferation of narratives written in isolation by former slaves, unaware of themselves as a literary community. The personal narrative became popular — it still is — and the works came to the larger black community often by way of oral renderings for people who could not read. Black women share these roots and this isolation. Until 10 years ago, we couldn’t read much of our foremothers’ work; the books went out of print almost as soon as they appeared. Fic­tion by black women — going back to the 1859 novel Our Nig — shows certain disjunc­tions that suggest an ignorance of forebears unusual among American writers. The works do not form the kind of linear pro­gression one might ascribe to fiction by black men, white men, or other American women.

Black male writers of several generations have been repeatedly described by critics as being involved in “father/son” conflict: you guessed it, the son rebels against the father. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the dad­dies of them all, evidently had no daughters. Their sons were heralded as they appeared: James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Ernest Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. And in flurries of es­says and articles, the critics debated as Elli­son battled Wright’s troops. Baldwin railed against Wright, Jones railed against Bald­win. This was the pattern until the ’70s, when the hegemony broke down and others began to appear who went their own way­ — people like Ishmael Reed, who railed against Jones, was railed against by Jones, made up with Jones, and started railing against wom­en. Clarence Major, David Bradley, and Charles Johnson seem to be minding their own business.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720490″ /]

Ellison wrote rather pointedly of the father/son dilemma, acknowledging that he and Baldwin were viewed by Irving Howe as “guilty of filial betrayal” because they re­jected Native Son’s naturalism and “while actually ‘black boys,’ they pretend to be mere American writers trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predica­ment.” This is much the fate that has met black women. Having never really been in­cluded in the family, they’ve still been charged with stepping outside the tolerated boundaries of the black literary tradition. And they have done so, precisely as Ellison put it, “trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament.”

While the father/son crew developed its tradition through critiques of previous work and the appearance of various schools and philosophical perspectives, fiction by black women shows signs of being improvised with materials taken almost exclusively from personal experience. It’s as if those books the novelists had read barely served as models for style, structure, narrative ap­proach, or content.

Imagine a John Coltrane who had only heard one 78 by Charlie Parker, one LP by Billie Holiday. Imagine a Cecil Taylor who did not grow up with the sounds of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and you have some idea how amazing it is that we have writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison.

Each generation of black women has cer­tainly taken ideas from known forms, yet in the matter of content — the telling of black women’s stories — the same impulses appear time and again, with little revision over the decades. Only lately have we seen work that makes conscious nods to the past. And no wonder: Morrison, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Sherley Anne Williams, Ntozake Shange, and others are the first generation to have a body of work on the black woman’s condi­tion readily at hand.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

Morrison, Walker, and their sisters laid claim to the ’70s and ’80s, and these decades will be looked upon as a time when a signifi­cant number of major American works were created by a relatively small group of wom­en. Ranging in age from about 30 to 50, these same writers also produced works that will last in poetry, theater, and nonfiction. In so doing, they have prompted the resur­rection of their own tradition.

This is no small accomplishment. Though the first black writer ever published in this country was a woman, the first black novel­ist and poet to win Pulitzers were women, we have remained outside the accepted (or expected) ranks. Our critical essays went unpublished until the ’70s and no collection of essays by a black woman writer was ever published until Alice Walker and June Jor­dan broke the ground five years ago. Only one diary by a black woman writer — Char­lotte Forten’s Journal — appeared before the early ’80s, when Audre Lorde put out The Cancer Journals and Gloria Hull released Give Us Each Day, the journals of poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Whatever writers have had to share about their working process or their understanding of tradition has been in shoe boxes in the closet.

So the reemergence of our lost books is not only the unearthing of roots, a map of past travels, but for generations of younger writers, the work will be a motherlode of images and sounds, choices laid open to the sky. To know this is so, you only have to look at what happened when we found Zora Neale Hurston — imagine a Jelly Roll Mor­ton of the Harlem Renaissance.

***

Exactly a decade ago one black woman writer emerged — alone — from the shadows, and her impact has been stupendous. Rob­ert Hemenway’s 1977 work, Zora Neale Hurston, as the first in a chain of events, may have been the most important thing to happen to black women writers in modern times. Had Hurston and others like Fauset, Larsen, and Petry been widely known, the publication of a Hurston biography would merely have been part of a timely response to the social and political events of the ’60s and ’70s. Instead, the book opened a flood­gate of possibilities, both for the imagina­tions of writers and the aspirations of black scholars and readers.

Zora, as writers affectionately call her, be­came the woman to whom black women writers are most often — rightly or wrong­ly — compared, because she was the first foremother to become a hot item in book shops. But she became a major influence on all contemporary black writing because her work is rich in African-American folk material (and maybe just a little bit because her colorful life is a natural subject for rumor and legend). There is much to discover in Hurston and her rootsy writing appeared at a time when blacks were digging the African bedrock.

Zora shows up as an influence in inter­views with black women writers more often than anyone else, with the exception of their mothers and grandmothers. Ntozake Shange and Sherley Anne Williams still describe reading Hurston as a revelation, a discovery of language and feelings close to home. Kristin Hunter and Gayl Jones speak of attempting to incorporate ideas gleaned from Hurston into their fiction. The im­prints of Hurston’s folklore research in the Deep South are palpable in fiction by Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. Hurston worship has taken such hold that Hortense Spillers says, “Hurston is like the Bible.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”685323″ /]

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston’s most widely read book, is a poetic novel written in black Floridian dialect. I vividly recall how this book lit up the con­versations of women who shared it, as it passed from hand to hand in the late ’70s. The novel’s heroine, Janie, is an unusual one for the ’30s, or any other decade. Janie’s tale fits squarely in the flow of the black storytelling tradition, but in it she is the primary agent of her own destiny.

By making her African-American story­teller the primary agent of her adventure (in a universe nearly as animated as an African forest), Hurston sets herself apart from ear­lier novelists who chose to diminish the power of their characters’ decisions by em­phasizing the effects of racism and oppres­sion. Janie strikes home with women be­cause she experiences traditional roles and then moves beyond them, and as many have put it, “creates herself.” She’s a singular figure in a fiction landscape full of reluc­tantly self-sufficient working black women who struggle, usually in vain, with a dream of race and gender equality, independence of mind, love, and a decent quality of life. Ja­nie does not gain it all, but she exercises a greater portion than had been given to any of her foremothers.

For nearly every heroine in the black women’s tradition, isolation, hard labor (if not poverty), disappointment, and lack of self-esteem are the battles. Janie suffers all of these, and walks back from her odyssey a complete woman. Janie is The Color Pur­ple’s Celie and Shug in one character; while they find wholeness in making love with one another, Janie embraces the world. The gift of self-love showed Celie how to take the patriarchy out of God and see the color pur­ple; the same gift, 50 years earlier, showed Janie “God in herself’ (as Shange would put it) and in the birds fleeing an Everglades hurricane.

***

Hurston’s canonization does skew the pic­ture. She did not become a novelist until 1934; before that she was known as a folk­lorist and a “live wire” who often debunked what she called the Harlem Renaissance “niggerati.” She was not exactly revered, and many of the Renaissance men striving for white acceptance looked askance at her unmediated public “signifying.”

Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Ann Petry were also in this literary community, but they too found themselves either critical of the Ebony Tower folks, or outsiders. Re­viewers in black newspapers and magazines like the NAACP’s Crisis, all members of the “niggerati,” granted these three grudging re­spect as the most able black women novel­ists of their time. Occasional reviews in the Times or The Nation were usually favorable. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry, however, were never considered the equals of black males. Their continued marginality is proved by the fact that they barely appear in antholo­gies of any (race/gender) orientation. All three pop up as Renaissance figures in liter­ary histories like From the Dark Tower by Arthur P. Davis (yes, we’re related), and When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Le­vering Lewis. But their work has been large­ly ignored for almost 50 years.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, who worked with W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP and Crisis magazine, took up novel writing in reaction to the popular trend of “primitive/exotic” novels about black life. She said the tenden­cy among writers to concentrate on the black “underworld” posed “a grave danger” to black writers. Because she admirably rep­resented the Renaissance’s genteel intelli­gentsia in this aesthetic standoff, she was promoted in all the little magazines and col­lections they put out.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716961″ /]

But this probably discouraged later schol­ars from taking her seriously. Fauset wrote four novels in nine years: There Is Confu­sion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The China­berry Tree (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933). In his 1958 study, The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone designated the most published black woman of the Har­lem Renaissance a front-runner of the Re­naissance’s “Rear Guard.” (No, I don’t know what that means, I’m just telling you what the man said.)

Nella Larsen, an intriguing figure, was part of the literary community for only 10 years, during which she wrote novels, and was, like Fauset, encouraged by Walter White and the NAACP crowd. Usually dubbed a Harlem Renaissance writer, she is to my mind a transitional figure: her novels use the “tragic mulatto” theme popular at the time but depart from the Renaissance’s optimism and race pride, instead anticipat­ing the concerns of the Depression.

Quicksand, Larsen’s first novel, won a Harmon Foundation prize and was hailed by Du Bois as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the hey­day of [Charles] Chesnutt.” Her second novel, Passing, was also well received, and shortly after its publication she became the first black woman writer to win a Guggen­heim. She was accused of plagiarism in 1930 in a dispute over a short story, and though exonerated, she did not get over the accusa­tion and the scandal. Larsen went back to a nursing career and died in Brooklyn in 1963 — like Hurston, virtually forgotten.

Petry, who at 76 still lives in Old Say­brook, Connecticut, has the distinction of being perhaps the best-selling black woman writer ever. (Of course Walker may yet over­take her.) The Street, which she is proud to remind folks has never been out of print, has sold over a million and a half copies. Her readership is so consistent in part be­cause critics put her in the “Richard Wright school of naturalistic protest writing,” and she does belong in that school. But she was deemed by some to be Wright’s poorer sister because she did not conform strictly enough to the conventions of the protest novel.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718960″ /]

Fauset’s Plum Bun is a novel of unful­filled expectations, told in almost fairy-tale fashion. It is one of the few books by a black woman to borrow from the romantic tradi­tion popularized by European women. It’s not hard to imagine why — we have so few idealized, so-called feminine women in our mythology or experience. Fauset uses the simplest, most familiar devices of romance fiction to make exactly this point. She shows the mythic nature of traditional fe­male socialization and emphasizes the reali­ties that defy blacks to participate in the equally mythic American culture.

Fauset is associated with those Harlem Renaissance writers who sought to prove that middle-class blacks were barely differ­ent from their white counterparts except for “reduced opportunity.” As a result, the folks in Plum Bun are indeed rather colorless. The children play games popular across America, but none of those traditional for black children. It is an odd, raceless envi­ronment where people talk about race but don’t reflect it much in their behavior. An­gela tries passing to escape from racism and at the same time rejects traditional women’s roles to become a painter.

She later chooses to abandon her artistic dreams for a man, and becomes “dependent, fragile… ‘womanly’ to the point of inepti­tude.” Nearly every naïve assumption with which the character ventured out into the world from her cozy row house — particular­ly those having to do with power — must be relinquished in her struggle with the reali­ties of sex and race.

Actually she has many more counterparts among young postfeminist buppie women these days than she probably did in the ’20s, when her class was minuscule and her prob­lems more rare. Some of the pathologies that plague her understanding of the race situation are painfully evident any time Rae Dawn Chong or Whoopi Goldberg opens her mouth. The homogenization of American culture has produced a new breed of passers, blacks who simply reject any black group identification at the same time that they ignore stigmatization.

[related_posts post_id_1=”612104″ /]

Nella Larsen’s novels also use the passing theme, but probably because she was a bi­racial person, she shows a deeper under­standing of the ambivalences of the mulatto character than Fauset. And in her stories, the secondary theme is a search for autono­my and sexual independence that would be taken up by Morrison’s Sula, Shange’s Sas­safras, Cypress and Indigo, and Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, to name only three. As editor Deborah McDowell points out, Larsen was in conflict with the mores of her time. Like Fauset’s Angela, Larsen’s heroines must return to the black fold to be themselves, yet they are suffocated there by an inability to be independent or to escape marriage and motherhood.

At the opening of Quicksand, Helga Crane, a young woman of mixed race, sits in her room in the faculty quarters of a south­ern black college. She is in fact in a corner, one of many she will back herself into in the course of the novel. Helga runs off from each haven she finds — first in the black world, then the white world of Scandina­via — in a vain search for racial identity and unnamed adventure, which McDowell identifies as sexual independence.

While Hurston’s Janie may have simply decided to run off with her lover, Teacake, Larsen’s Helga Crane, socialized to be out of sync with her sexual drives, must lunge this way and that, toward her desires and then away, before giving in to the adventure. And unlike Janie, she pays a heavy price for following her impulses, descending into a hell­ish fate. The episode of madness in which Helga manages to do as she pleases presages events in Alice Walker’s early fiction, and later themes in the work of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones. Larsen also creates one of the few literary portrayals of the fetishism for exotics so widespread in the ’20s.

Passing, considered by most critics a slight novel, reworks the passing theme through a less sympathetic heroine, Clare Kendry, whose willful abandonment of her blackness is opposed by her old friend Irene Redfield, a smugly bourgeois young black woman full of “positive” but patronizing no­tions about blacks. She considers herself a “race woman.” Irene is something of a fraud, though; she only encounters her old friend because she happens to be doing a little tea-time passing herself in a downtown Chicago hotel. This “harmless” occasional diversion for light-skinned black women is important to Larsen and Fauset; for them it makes credible the logic of characters who cross the line permanently.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

McDowell says the passing theme is also a parallel for sexual passing. Irene, refusing to acknowledge that she’s sexually attracted to her friend, deflects Clare’s attention onto her husband. Irene, then, is passing for a happily married woman. Reading the novel now, you have to wonder if readers missed the lesbian theme 50 years ago, or chose to find Passing innocent of sexual content. Al­though Larsen appears to have been wary of making the theme overt, its presence is sig­nificant to the tradition.

Ann Petry’s novel The Street is a bleak tale of a black woman’s failure to stop the crushing hand of a hostile environment. Lutie Johnson’s decline is set in motion right at the beginning when her husband loses his job and she takes a live-in domestic position to support the family. Lutie finds she must protect herself from exploitation, sexual as­sault, and her own dreams of upward mobil­ity. Trying to get better-paying work, she ends up killing a man who wants sexual favors in return for a job, and has to aban­don the son she tried to keep off the streets.

The writing in The Street is grim, unre­lenting, and contrived to strip the environ­ment of the lively, beautiful motion that also comes with a black neighborhood. Lutie lives like the women of Brewster Place — or perhaps I should say the Brewster Place women live like Lutie, since Gloria Naylor acknowledges a debt to Petry. But there is a crucial difference between Petry’s charac­ters and those of recent novels: Naylor’s women live with a sense of female commu­nity, and so do the characters in nearly all the novels written by black women in the ’70s and ’80s. The stories of younger women in Brewster Place or Corregidora, for in­stance, belong in a continuum going back several generations. And yet the tales of women who have gone before do not en­snare their daughters like the “sins of the fathers visited upon the sons”; they stand as warnings. So we see Petry revised by a gen­eration which has found a community not perceived by Petry and her characters.

Books written from the ’20s to the ’50s offer portraits of isolated, powerless women with little self-esteem and little mobility. Their troubles are much like those of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, and Celie in The Color Purple. Their concerns are personal, racial, sexual, and economic. They struggle against class and color consciousness among blacks and against the destruction of once supportive communities. They sometimes lash out with violence against the violence wrought against them. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry wrote about the women who stand in the shadows or do the ironing in novels by Wright, Baldwin, Williams, and other men of this century. They shift the eye’s focus from the street to the interior, throw light from the preacher to those silent women swaying in the back row, and the scene we’ve seen before becomes complete.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718384″ /]

***

A small group of scholars who have poli­ticked with presses and written some excel­lent studies have managed to get the most significant works by black women lined up to come back into circulation. Fauset, Lar­sen, and Petry’s books are part of a major reclamation. With the combined efforts of Beacon Press, the Feminist Press, Rutgers and Oxford universities, virtually all the fic­tion (and lots of everything else) written by black women will soon be available.

Henry Louis Gates, who found Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, is a one-man cottage in­dustry specializing in black literature — and he’s been turning up more books by black women. He is currently working on two ma­jor collections: The Oxford Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers, and a 30-volume series to be produced in collabora­tion with the Schomburg Center for Re­search in Black Culture. Gates is also editor of The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature.

Oxford is bringing out two pioneer novels by Emma Dunham Kelley: Megda (1891), to be edited by Molly Hite, and Four Girls in Cottage City (1898), to be edited by Deborah McDowell. This last was located by Gates’s Periodical Literature Project at Cornell, and members of the black bourgeoisie will be amused to hear it is about four young black women who move to Oak Bluffs on Mar­tha’s Vineyard. Iola Leroy, the highly re­garded 1892 novel by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, long assumed to be the earliest nov­el by a black woman, is being reprinted by Beacon. Beacon has republished Petry, Marshall, and others, and clearly has made a commitment to this retrieval process. Deborah McDowell is editing the Frances Harper book, and has overseen the reprint­ing of Fauset and Larsen. And Hazel Carby is editing the serialized novels of Pauline Hopkins, which have never been collected. Taken together these books will publicly establish the tradition — a literary tradition created by black women.

In the late ’70s and the ’80s, the work of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and a number of others has seemed like an intimate conver­sation, swirling around these questions which we now find resonating back through the tradition of black women’s fiction. The conflicts arising from color and class differ­ences among blacks are carefully dissected in all of Morrison’s work, suggested in Walker’s, and assumed in Shange’s.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718477″ /]

What is new in recent fiction would seem to be a greater freedom to experiment with form and style, artful uses of the kinds of folklore resurrected by Hurston, and a growth in the complexity of characters. The books share a concern with madness, dreams, and the woman’s psyche often found in work by other contemporary wom­en — European and American. (Schizophre­nia is almost the signal metaphor for breaking loose from repression in the novels of the ’70s.) While sexual liberty is often at the core of earlier novels, now it is the “outward journey” for the black female character.

The contemporary black woman writer is more skilled than most of her predecessors. In the ’70s she showed off an ecstatic lan­guage unique to the work of black women, full of poetry, dreams, hallucinations, mag­ic, recipes, potions, song, fire, and flight. The language is often body-centered, as in Shange. Or one finds passages of seemingly improvised narrative, as in Alexis DeVeau, unimaginable in Petry. And then there are writers like Morrison and Gayl Jones, who exert extreme control over the language to capture the rhythm or flavor of blues, or to emphasize the fantastic. Styles vary from safe to adventurous, but they can all be said to acknowledge a reading of some parts of the tradition. The connections between the works of so many women who were both reading Hurston and writing fiction at the same time could not be linear. They cross each other like threads on a loom.

It’s difficult to know what we’ll find — the conversation is really just getting started. We will be talking about the prevalence of issues such as personal independence, racial struggle, the criticism of traditional roles, the use of folklore and myth, and female bonding. We may ask if women aren’t mov­ing toward holistic forms that embrace the objective and subjective at once, to escape the narrative confines of naturalism. We will be able to argue about whether writers have conformed to the expectations and conventions of their time, and how they have differed from the male writers in black literature. What it is to be black and woman will be shown in the colors and textures we have been weaving. We will define ourselves by our own processes. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”716024″ /]

MOTHERLODES

QUICKSAND & PASSING. By Nella Larsen. Edited by Deborah McDowell. Rutgers Uni­versity Press, $25; $7.95 paper.

THE STREET. By Ann Petry. Beacon, $8.95 paper.

PLUM BUN. By Jessie Fauset. Pandora, $15.95; $8.95 paper.

CONJURING: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Indiana Uni­versity Press, $29.95; $10.95 paper.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Will Eno and Lorraine Hansberry Write Home in Two New Productions

Is New York theater suffering a housing crisis? How else to explain the glut of this season’s plays (Fun Home, The Open House, A Doll’s House, The Tribute Artist, The Mystery of Pearl Street, Appropriate, The Velocity of Autumn, Between Riverside and Crazy) that center on abodes — getting them, having them, keeping them, leaving them, selling them, blowing them to bits. Home, it seems, is where the art is.

This week, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, dynamically revived at the Barrymore, and Will Eno’s funny, wrenching The Realistic Joneses at the Lyceum suggest that we move from house to house in the hope that real estate can redeem us, save us. We don’t really crave a home mortgage, these plays intimate. What we want is a new lease on life.

Fifty-five years past its premiere, Hansberry’s play remains vital and wise. Set in a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side, it fixes on the Younger clan (played ironically by somewhat aged actors) as they struggle toward a better, more generous life, symbolized by the house that matriarch Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) hopes to buy.

Kenny Leon directs in broad strokes, encouraging his cast to telegraph emotion with each gesture and expression. This should oversimplify the play; instead it somehow lends it clarity, particularly when performed by actors as skillful as the staunch Richardson, the spirited Anika Noni Rose, the affecting Sophie Okonedo, and Denzel Washington, who throws himself into the role with reckless grace.

Though the relevance of a few cultural and political references has faded, the play remains somehow urgent, in ways both gratifying and sorrowful. Though the final scene dangles hope like a ring of new cut keys, the preceding ones emphasize the corrosive consequences of having opportunity and reward denied. In these close, dark rooms, as Washington’s Walter says, “there ain’t never as much understanding as folks generally thinks there is.”

It’s a sentiment Will Eno wouldn’t dispute. In The Realistic Joneses, John Jones (Michael C. Hall), an incomer to a little town near the mountains, remarks with some awe, “There’s a lot to not know, isn’t there?” How little we comprehend even familiar rituals and phrases is a notion sustaining all of Eno’s plays. He has a gift for taking the trivia of daily life and making it fresh and strange, as when John describes having glimpsed his neighbor, Jennifer Jones (Toni Collette), some weeks before: “You were on the phone, crying, and eating a PowerBar. I thought, wow, that’s one sad busy person.”

Despite its title, this drama, Eno’s Broadway debut, is not especially realistic, though it is his most conventional and most mournful. Jennifer and her husband, Bob (Tracy Letts), strike up a convoluted friendship with John and his wife, Pony (Marisa Tomei), who have rented a home down the street. As they meet in backyards and kitchens and grocery stores, they talk of nothing and everything, hoping that a new house, a new shower curtain, an exchange of pleasantries, a bevy of free iced tea can somehow stave off mortality. (Spoiler alert: No such luck.)

Director Sam Gold lends his usual precision to the play, and the actors attack the script with acuity and zeal. Tomei seems surprisingly well cast as the childlike Pony and Hall lends John a caustic energy. As he and Pony depart Bob and Jennifer’s patio one night, John calls, “This was fun. I mean, not fun, but, definitely some other word.” How about shattering? How about enthralling? How about true?

Categories
Living NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

AMERICANS DREAMING

It’s the season of Lorraine Hansberry. The Brooklyn Museum and the New York 
Public Library both recently offered 
exhibitions on her life, and now comes a Broadway revival of her 1959 drama 
A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway when she was only 28. Denzel Washington stars in Hansberry’s powerful story of three generations of a black family struggling to move up on Chicago’s South Side. Kenny Leon, who directed Washington in Fences, directs.

Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Tuesdays, Thursdays, 7 p.m. Starts: March 8. Continues through June 15, 2014

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events Listings Museums & Galleries NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters Reveal the Playwright’s Private Struggle

In her unbearably short life, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at age 34, forever transformed Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered in 1959. For this staggering chronicle of the struggles of an African-American family on Chicago’s South Side, Hansberry would, at age 29, become the youngest American and the first black playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Her friend James Baldwin exalted, “Never 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”; the play was only one of Hansberry’s numerous contributions to advancing the discussion about civil rights in this country. Yet two years earlier, around the time that Hansberry was completing her landmark work, she was engaged in another, far more private endeavor, writing excitedly — but anonymously — in a letter to the editors of a semi-clandestine publication, “I feel I am learning how to think all over again.”

That periodical was The Ladder, the first subscription-based lesbian magazine in the U.S., which ran from 1956 to 1972. What Hansberry — a closeted lesbian married to Robert Nemiroff, a writer and publisher who produced many of his spouse’s posthumous works — was reflecting on in that missive, published in the August 1957 issue and signed simply “L.N. [Lorraine Nemiroff], New York, N.Y.,” was her own identity as a “heterosexually married lesbian”; after declaring herself as such, Hansberry’s letter then dilates into a piercing feminist disquisition on homophobia and the institution of marriage itself. This dispatch is one of two published in the San Francisco–based magazine and part of a trove of the writer’s papers gathered for “Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder,” on view in the Herstory Gallery of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Offering the pleasure of discovering Hansberry’s cogent, often prescient thoughts about gay rights and sexism, this terrific exhibition provides an immediate, unfiltered look into a quick, agile mind.

The show takes its title from a roughly 45-minute radio interview, included in full here, Hansberry did with Studs Terkel on May 12, 1959, two months after the premiere of A Raisin in the Sun. (The upcoming revival of Hansberry’s play at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, scheduled to begin previews March 8, occasions an exhibition of material relating to the original production, on view at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street through March 7.) In a steady, eloquent voice, Hansberry points out that “the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, obviously,” concluding that those who are “twice oppressed” can become “twice militant.”

Though she concealed her sexuality, as the times demanded, Hansberry was essentially thrice militant, addressing the “homosexual question” in an undated, handwritten essay on three pieces of yellow legal paper. The second paragraph of this treatise stuns with its radical dismantling of the unsophisticated argument — still promulgated in today’s pro-LGBT pop anthems and Grammy winners — that gays are “born this way”: “Since it does not follow that all which proceeds from nature is in any way automatically desirable for human good, it is silly and baseless to posit the rights of homosexuality on the remote (+ in some sense irrelevant) possibility of its possible congenital character.”

Hansberry’s two letters to The Ladder — more than two dozen issues of which are on display — evince the thrill of a writer having an outlet to discuss at length observations, about herself and lesbians in general, that could not otherwise be voiced publicly. The tone of her first epistle to the magazine, from May 1957, is particularly irrepressible: “I’m glad as heck that you exist,” she writes, before commending the editors as “obviously serious people.” Though “I” buoyantly appears throughout, this first missive, like the second, also concludes with identity-masking initials: “L.H.N.,” for Lorraine Hansberry Nemiroff. (As the concise wall text notes, by 1957, the year Hansberry wrote her Ladder missives, she was living alone in Greenwich Village, “having quietly separated from” Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953. They divorced in 1964 but remained close and continued to collaborate until her death.)

This act of self-effacement, though mandated by the era, is all the more crushing in that it terminates such vibrant letters, brimming with personal details and trenchant analyses of marginalized groups. “As one raised in a cultural experience (I am a Negro) where those within were and are forever lecturing to their fellows about how to appear acceptable to the dominant social group, I know something about the shallowness of such a view as an end to itself,” she wrote in her May ’57 letter, referring to The Ladder‘s commitment to “advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society” — don’t be too butch, ladies — that would facilitate lesbians’ integration.

For as much as these documents — which also include a poem, a short story Hansberry published pseudonymously in The Ladder, a self-portrait, and a 1961 essay entitled “On Homophobia, the ‘Intellectual Impoverishment of Women’ and a Homosexual ‘Bill of Rights'” — expose crucial if little-known aspects of Hansberry’s affective and intellectual life, the most intimate glimpses of the writer can be found in the pages she called “Myself in Notes.” Yearly inventories that Hansberry began when she was 23, these fascinating jottings record her likes, loves, hates, and regrets.

Among the many things Hansberry liked at age 28 were “slacks” and “Eartha Kitt’s eyes, voice, legs, music”; she was bored with “A Raisin in the Sun,” “loneliness,” “most sexual experiences,” “myself.” Sometimes the lists are contradictory: When she was 29, Hansberry included “my homosexuality” under both “I like” and “I hate.” Others are delightfully bawdy; at 32, Hansberry liked “69 when it really works” and “the inside of a lovely woman’s mouth.” Near the end of this catalog, she notes under “I am proud,” a rarely used category, “that I struggle to work hard against many, many things.” The invaluable “Twice Militant” shows just how brilliantly, how passionately Hansberry grappled with herself and the world at large.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events Listings Museums & Galleries VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

RISE UP

In 1956, the first subscription-based lesbian magazine The Ladder made its debut; at the time, it was legally considered lewd material. One of its faithful readers who was vocally grateful to have a publication that spoke to her was A Raisin in the Sun playwright, author, essayist, and activist Lorraine Hansberry. “Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder” honors the historic legacy of this publication with 27 issues on display along with Hansberry’s handwritten lists to herself on her birthdays, typewritten essays on “the homosexual question,” a poem titled “Le Masque,” and a self-portrait. There is also a listening station with Hansberry’s interview with Studs Terkel.

Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Nov. 22. Continues through March 8, 2013

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin: Still Just as Fresh 45 Years Later

What happens to a dream revived? Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 family drama, A Raisin in the Sun, has stood for so many years as a socio-historical icon and aesthetic touchstone—the beginning of black theater as a mainstream force—that one is often tempted to overlook its high standing as a play, a work that has an individuality and power to be relished outside its symbolic status. Hansberry not only crafted her work well, but particularized it: To see Raisin in the Sun is to feel that you know the Younger family, and have spent time with them in their Chicago apartment, during those crisis-ridden days when the advent of a life-insurance check threw the family into chaos and confrontation. Our showbizzy times have worn the edges off old-style Broadway naturalism, and such plays are often revived as if they were bits of bare, glossy theatricality. In that context, Kenny Leon’s production of Raisin comes as a revelation: Here is naturalism with the life it was meant to have.

This is especially startling given Raisin‘s celebrity-heavy cast, which makes Leon’s achievement in getting them all into the life of the play especially impressive. There is no grandstanding or self-consciousness. Sean Combs as the frustrated hero, Walter Lee, is frankly a novice: He hasn’t yet learned how to inhabit the role fully—his transitions are especially problematic—but he holds his place capably. He hardly needs to do more: Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, as Walter Lee’s mother and wife respectively, build performances so powerful (and so divested of both actresses’ usual glamour) that everyone else is swept along with them. It’s Rashad, not Combs, who gets—and deserves—the star call.