Sweet Lorraine (for Lorraine Hansberry) —by Jinny Batterson
(Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago in 1930. She died in New York City in 1965 of pancreatic cancer, after having penned numerous poems, articles and plays, including “ A Raisin in the Sun,” which opened on Broadway in 1959, the first play by an African-American woman to be produced there. It dealt, in part, with the struggles of a black family to move to better housing in a formerly all-white neighborhood. Her later play, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” was produced during her final illness. Set in Greenwich Village and partly about political corruption, it was less commercially successful. A fuller biography of Hansberry is available on Wikipedia.)
It was a hot summer, 1969.
I was young and foolish and in love
With words. I sat beneath high ceilings
And slow-turning fans at the central branch
Of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library,
Devouring my latest-discovered treasure,
Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” at one sitting.
Black writers were popular then among
College-educated whites, even away
From the cultural vanguards of New York
With youthful hubris, we thought we could
Set aside racism as easily as we’d caught up
In science and math after Sputnik.
A good start was reading “black literature.”
I was taking education courses,
Sleeping in a sweltering apartment,
Breathing the soppy heat
Of a crowded Baltimore August.
Charred timbers and black crepe wreaths
From the prior spring’s MLK assassination riots
Still decorated the edges of downtown.
In the library reading room,
Portraits of the Lords Baltimore
Gazed vacantly down from huge gilt frames
At a frayed city trying to rediscover its center.
In windy Chicago, “Raisin’s” matriarch grew a windowsill
Plant, a scrawny but persistent thing.
She took it with her to the suburbs.
I imagined it as a young sapling, which, given time
And nourishment, would mature into a pavement-cracking tree.
When I later came across “Sidney Brustein,”
I devoured it, too, as it did me. I carried Sidney’s
(And Lorraine’s) valedictory like a talisman:
“I believe that people want to be better than they are…
And that desperation can MOVE things.”
I knew vaguely then that she had died young.
When I was young, too, that added to her romantic appeal.
I now want to believe that pain from her despair
At ever reconciling our conflicted American character
Helped kill her. She tried to point out white racism
Without denying or excusing black prejudice,
To skewer our failings while honoring our shared humanity—
Her frustrated attempts to help us see and hear wore her down
As surely as the cancer.
The tumor that tinged my life was less virulent
Than the systemic overgrowth that ended hers too early.
My middle-class white liberal
Strait jacket is less noticeably restrictive
Than her 1960’s black militancy. It still chafes.
So I cultivate my scrawniness, imitating “Raisin’s” plant.
I will persist. I’ve breathed in Sidney’s challenge:
I WILL move something, whether a small stretch
Of pavement, or an iceberg of attitude, some of it my own.
Rest well, Lorraine, and keep pestering me.