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When I walk up to my late grandmother’s house I always notice the steps. The house is a crisp but buttery yellow. The block is pretty. Yet, my attention is drawn to the steps, painted coat upon coat of rich red, now lumpy and chipped. Where we once sat, short-legged and halter-topped under the hot sun, there is a striking, if formless graffiti announcing that before we knew the world beyond, we sat here.
Time is funny. Long decades often feel quick in retrospect. Arranging funeral programs or memorial services after someone we love dies is jarring, surprising, even when death wasn’t. We are grieving, of course, but there’s also the fraught process of winnowing down a person’s life to make a final statement. It’s a dramatic reminder that there are too many details to count. Every single day thousands of moments and things and encounters happen to and with us. And we create thousands more of our own volition. A few of these millions of life-details draw our attention. We notice them for any number of reasons, some good, some terrible, like red steps, bike crashes, cruel words. The point is, we return to them repeatedly. And we use this handful of details to structure the stories of our lives.
If you ask somebody “Tell me your story?” they might demur from shyness or humility, but the odds are very good that they have a story in mind. That’s because we tell stories to make meaning of our living. I have grown to understand that when elderly people tell the same stories over and over again it is foolhardy to attribute that to some failing. It is simply a streamlining of life as we move towards its conclusion.
For writers, the work of biography, memoir, and autobiography is to deliberately craft life stories out of thousands of details: to make meaning through narration, and to forge a connection with other human beings. Writing biography involves vanity (all biography is, in part, autobiography), but its saving grace is its generosity. For readers of biography and memoir, we dig in because we are guided by the desire for knowledge, and by nosiness, but also by a yearning to hold another’s narrative up to the light, or close to the chest, as we craft our own. Reading biography is human connection at the most intimate level.
Lorraine Hansberry was an extraordinary person. She was the first Black woman to have a play she’d written performed on Broadway with a Raisin in the Sun, and the youngest winner of the Drama Critics Circle Award. An activist, intellectual, and artist, Lorraine was brilliant, charismatic, and breathtaking. But I learned something more profound as I toured with Looking for Lorraine, my book about her work and life. Lorraine makes readers weep and their hearts race. They swoon in admiration for her. Still, this many years after her death in 1965, her imagination, the sharpness of her tongue, the tenderness of her heart, and her appetite for truth and justice unlocks deep yearning.
It was Lorraine’s vulnerability that shook me. Her weakened body in her last years echoed my own young adulthood struggling with chronic diseases, in excruciating pain, often bed-bound. In those moments I reached for a part of myself that wasn’t roiling and grief-stricken: my imagination. Sometimes it offered ideas. Other times just images or color. Or inchoate yearnings.
My experiences with a body-in-distress shaped how I encountered Lorraine’s story as she was dying of cancer. It was necessary to take her life on its own terms. Tragically short, yes. But also a meaningful and robust journey. Until the very end, when the writing grew more scattered and urgent, and her voice in interviews slurred, she was still living. At the end it wasn’t so splendid. Frailty is one of the most resonant of human experiences. It is ordinary.
When I was about 18, I had a revelation that everyone had a life that was interesting enough to write about. Even the most ordinary lives include all the major elements of the greatest human drama: joy, fear, love, devastation, rage, hope, and loss. Fiction teaches that truth. But biography, usually of extraordinary people, also offers something to our daily lives: it is a model for self-narration, which is self-creation, in the mess of life. Within the constraints of our lives and the fact of who we are and who we are taken to be, we build ourselves within the grain and in our most courageous moments, against it.
I am not sure if it is because the paint is close to the color of dried blood or the dirt of Alabama, or because the sun on our shoulders felt like the color of fire, that my eyes go there, but I know that every time I mount that first red step, my story is waiting for me.
Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American studies at Princeton and author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018), winner of the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, and the forthcoming Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.
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