“The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.” — Lorraine Hansberry
“One of the problems with activists is that they’re afraid of being lonely, and they don’t get that the road they have to go down doesn’t allow for moving four abreast.” — James Baldwin
“Direct action is necessary for democracy to flourish. And one person alone — sometimes — can stir thousands to act in solidarity, and make a difference. Like Ida, like Rosa.” — Howard Zinn
The Allan Sillitoe short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, came out about the same time that Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway. Both contributed to my being able to have intimate exchanges with Lorraine and Jimmy Baldwin at Small’s Paradise in Harlem, where we talked, among other things, about the angry young men of Britain of the day and their connection with the angry black men in America.
About a year after the Tony Richardson film version of Sillitoe’s work came out, Lorraine, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and others joined Jimmy for a private meeting in New York City with Robert Kennedy; they were slated to address viable solutions for dealing with race relations, but the cultural leaders couldn’t carve out any inroads with the Attorney General, and Lorraine — exasperated at Kennedy’s spineless stubborn stance and ignorant insensitivity — stormed out of the apartment furious. She was the angry young woman of her day.
Shortly after Lorraine premature death and funeral, Jimmy told me that he firmly believed that white ignorance and insensitivity killed her. “Killed her,” he said, “as surely as if they had stuck a knife in her heart.” His sense was that she’d been cut to pieces over a very long time, and couldn’t cut it any longer. The death certificate read death by pancreatic cancer, but Jimmy insisted that her lonely trek as a highly sensitive soul, an incomparably engaged concerned citizen, was what brought her down at thirty-four.
Most members of activist organizations are obsessed with recruiting numbers. Certainly those involved in the electoral arena feel they live and die contingent upon how many citizens they can bring on board. And that’s understandable, of course. For the normal course of engagement that we’ve come to accept.
But to create watersheds in history — like the one we all need now — we’re dependent upon quiet singular souls fighting the good fight quite alone. Dependent upon such rare figures forging a path out of the limelight to stir up the passions and creative juices of us all, bringing us to the boiling point whereby we can make our contribution.
I have an obligation to honor respecting Lorraine and Jimmy. And I believe that you must have an obligation to someone too.