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Charles J. Shields on the Profound and Playful Friendship Between Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin

“Baldwin loved her caustic wit.”

During that year of intense writing and rewriting, Hansberry became friends with James Baldwin. They met in April, at a workshop reading at the Actors Studio of his novel Giovanni’s Room, which he had adapted into a play.

The work is about an interracial love affair. In America, Baldwin said, “the sexual question and the racial question have always been intertwined.” Lorraine went out of curiosity.

David, the narrator—“a good white Protestant” and heterosexual—lives in a mansion in the South of France. He describes what it was like falling in love with a darkly beautiful Italian bartender, Giovanni. But then David sees another young man and feels the same keen desire. Overwhelmed by this impulse, he finds his excitement leading to faithlessness, and the situation turns violent. David blames Giovanni, “the other,” for tricking him and damaging his manhood. “There opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.”

This is how David recalls events, but then, no one remembers things reliably because of their need for self-preservation and their perception of who they are. An important metaphor occurs when David studies himself in a mirror. Proud of his masculine appeal, he tells himself that he’s not like other people—not like Giovanni, who’s dark, instinctual, and lower-class.

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Being white provides David with a mythology about superiority. “My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow. My blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past.” Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin said, is not so much about homosexuality as it is about the sadness of convincing ourselves that we’re incapable of loving others.

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Only one attendee defended what she had heard: “a young black woman at the back of the small workshop audience,” Baldwin said.

As the reading at the Actors Workshop ended and the discussion began, most of the reactions to the play were negative. Baldwin sat listening to his work faulted again and again. Only one attendee defended what she had heard: “a young black woman at the back of the small workshop audience,” Baldwin said. “She had liked the play, she had liked it a lot, she said firmly. I was enormously grateful to her, she seemed to speak for me.”

Afterward, he went over to introduce himself to Lorraine; his impression was that she was a shy but determined person. “She talked to me with a gentleness and generosity never to be forgotten.”

As it happened, they lived not far from each other—he was on Horatio Street, a ten-minute walk from Bleecker Street—and they began spending time together, usually at her apartment having drinks and listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of their favorite groups. She was 28; he was 34.

Hansberry tended to be reserved around people at first, which some took to mean that she was cold. Harold Cruse, from the moment he met her at Freedom, decided she was “demonstrably anti-male, especially towards those she considered socially beneath her.”

She tended to speak carefully, which could give the impression that she was unemotional. To her, conversation was supposed to move toward something, in pursuit of a point, or to clarify an issue.

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You could see her thinking hard when she was feeling serious. An acquaintance said, “You had to know her pretty well to feel the great warmth she possessed. But there was great joy in this girl. She loved music, the dance, everything. And when she felt relaxed, in an environment where she could let herself go—she was a lively one—a lively one.”

Baldwin found this to be true. Hanging out at Lorraine’s apartment, the two enjoyed arguing and teasing. He was the eldest in his family, and she was the youngest.

The way she picked on him affectionately, like a sister, tickled him. “Just when I was certain that she was about to throw me out, as being too rowdy a type, she would stand up, her hands on her hips (for these downhome sessions she always wore slacks) and pick up my empty glass as though she intended to throw it at me. Then she would walk into the kitchen, saying with a haughty toss of her head, ‘Really, Jimmy, you ain’t right, child!’”