FEBRUARY 23, 2018
ON MARCH 1, 1959 — two weeks before A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway, securing her legacy — Lorraine Hansberry delivered the closing address of the American Society of African Culture’s “First Conference of Negro Writers.” Her indictments of everything from US imperialism to white avant-gardists’ “various revolts of the merely revolted” may explain why the speech remained unpublished until 1981, when it finally appeared in The Black Scholar under the title “The Negro Writer and His Roots: Toward a New Romanticism.” Tellingly, it wasn’t included in the 1960 publication of selected papers from the conference, despite having received a standing ovation.
Hansberry’s assertions about the political and moral stakes of art-making were remarkably unequivocal for a 28-year-old at the start of her career: “The foremost enemy of the Negro intelligentsia of the past has been and in a large sense remains — isolation.” In this speech, as throughout her work, Hansberry surveyed US unfreedom against a sprawling global backdrop, insisting on both the networked magnitude of the challenges facing humanity and humanity’s shared obligation to resist despair. Her steady apprehension of the Cold War as “the worst conflict of nerves in human history” led her not to cynicism, but to a sense of urgent purpose. “The task of the thoughtful,” she proposed, “is to try to help impose purposefulness on the absurdity” of contemporary life. The speech is thrilling in its range of referents, the vast authority it claims for itself to weigh in on the world’s disparate events, literary and otherwise. This authority and range, she implied, are not privileges a writer earns with success, but ideals in the shadow of which she must consciously labor. For Hansberry, they’re what make the writer a writer.
“The Negro Writer and His Roots” runs through Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart like a buried wire, largely unattributed though responsible for much of the film’s energy and rhythm. Quotes from it punctuate the documentary, which aired last month as part of PBS’s long-running American Masters series, and inspire the film’s title. (“I say all of this to say that one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know and react to the miseries which afflict this world.”) Directed by Tracy Heather Strain, the documentary admirably strives to convey both the breadth of Hansberry’s political vision and the depth of her interest in human particularity, highlighting the connections between the anti-racism of A Raisin in the Sun and the less well-known communist, anti-imperialist, and feminist commitments more directly evident in Hansberry’s speeches and activism.
The enthusiasm with which Hansberry threw herself into a range of causes; the speed with which she achieved fame; and the volume of journals, notes, and unfinished drafts left behind when she died prematurely in 1965 all make her life impossible to narrate without glaring omissions and simplifications. This challenge may partly account for how few have tried. Strain’s film is the first feature-length documentary to “impose purposefulness” on Hansberry’s daunting, varied, and often fragmentary archive. (Racism, sexism, and institutional neglect have surely also contributed to this belatedness: Strain’s film was independently produced and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Kickstarter, and the filmmakers’ own money.) If Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart occasionally struggles to communicate the full substance of Hansberry’s political vision and the interrelation of her various commitments, it deserves praise for how gamely it sets about filling the gaps that persist in our popular memory of the playwright.
Born in 1930 to a Chicago real-estate broker, philanthropist, and anti-segregation crusader, Hansberry’s short life spanned a period of dramatic political and cultural transition. The film opens with Hansberry’s own words (from, again, “The Negro Writer”), narrating her birth and maturation against the backdrop of “man’s very real inhumanity to man” as Nazis, lynchings, and mushroom clouds flash across the screen. Despite their broad range of settings and subjects, each of Hansberry’s plays struggles to link these two scales of experience; her most abiding interest was in the imaginative and moral drama of individuals navigating historical forces that threaten to engulf them. Though it adopts the standard chronology of biographical documentary, Strain’s film follows its subject’s cue by shuttling consistently between private and public life.
In interviews, Strain has bemoaned the reductive image — perpetuated by high school curricula across the country — of Hansberry as a “one-hit-wonder” and “this kind of bougie integrationist person” whose legacy begins and ends with A Raisin in the Sun. Though Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart still devotes its most sustained and nuanced attention to Raisin, the film makes valuable steps toward broadening the frame through which Hansberry’s most famous play is remembered, read, and (hopefully) taught. Strain asserts Hansberry’s leftist bona fides by contextualizing that play’s composition in the political and artistic milieus from within which Hansberry launched her career, as narrator LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Strain’s assembly of esteemed commentators celebrate rather than apologize for Hansberry’s memberships in the Communist Party and Labor Youth League. Of her time as a staff writer for Paul Robeson’s black leftist newspaper Freedom in the early 1950s, we learn that Hansberry joined a “sprawling ad-hoc family” with a number of formidable women contributors including Alice Childress, Vicki Garvin, and Eslanda Goode Robeson. The film later pays sensitive attention to Hansberry’s love of women, never claimed publicly during her lifetime. Though this privacy around her sexual life is often invoked to distinguish her lesbianism from the political battles she fought more openly, Hansberry still contributed to what was then known as the homophile movement through her anonymous letters to the lesbian publication The Ladder. “I am suggesting here that perhaps it is pat and even unfair to suggest that all that remains for the married lesbian [is somehow to] make a happy marriage without in any way denying her nature,” she wrote in 1957; “I am afraid that homosexuality, whatever its origins, is far more real than that, far more profound in the demands it makes.”
The impulse, shared by initial audience members and contemporary readers alike, to reduce A Raisin in the Sun to either integrationist fable or universal human drama appears all the more willful against this kinetic political backdrop. The story of one family’s struggles under and ultimate resistance to poverty and housing segregation on Chicago’s South Side, Raisin is a classic of 20th-century theater. Strain emphasizes the significance of its Broadway run in 1959: few black playwrights before Hansberry had received the support and investment necessary to mount a Broadway production, and serious dramatic roles for black actors were still rare. But rather than marking the full extent of Hansberry’s achievement, Raisin reflected a broader political vision that challenged every manifestation of US state power and subjection. Anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and feminism did not simply sit alongside but foundationally informed Hansberry’s anti-racism. I assume this to be what Strain and her interviewers are getting at when they insist on the timeliness of Hansberry’s vision and of this film — comparisons to recent documentaries about her friends James Baldwin and Nina Simone recur — but it’s also what the film most risks fudging. While rightly centering her involvement in the US Civil Rights movement, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart sprints through Hansberry’s other political commitments, leaving the substance of those projects vague. Though we learn that she joined the Communist Party upon her arrival in New York, for example, we’re not given any thick sense of why (beyond the self-evident injustice of racialized poverty) or what it actually meant to be a communist in the early 1950s. Similarly, we are told that Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was a formative read in this same period, but the revelations it may have sparked in Hansberry’s own thinking are neither elaborated nor tracked as they manifest in her later plays and public speeches.
All biographical documentaries participate in contests over their subjects’ legacies, implicitly or explicitly throwing their weight on one side or the other of the scales of memorialization. Only two of Hansberry’s plays had been staged when she died at 34; most of her work has surfaced posthumously, and her legacy has therefore been more actively contested than most. In 1967, two years after her death, Harold Cruse famously devoted an entire chapter of his monumental polemic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual to an attack on the playwright’s reputation and the “politics of accommodation” he believed her to embody. Characterizing Hansberry and her colleagues at Freedom as part of a “radical leftwing elite” that obscured its own privilege, Cruse condemned Raisin for exemplifying a “forced symbiosis in American interracial affairs wherein the Negro working class had been roped in and tied to the chariot of racial integration driven by the Negro middle class.” (In an interview for Strain’s film, the late poet and playwright Amiri Baraka retracts similar criticisms made during the height of the play’s popularity.)
In its excavation of Hansberry’s participation in a radical, often combative black left, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart does much to counter the school of critique represented by Cruse, though viewers who already know Hansberry well may wish it had done more. More troubling than the speed with which it summarizes her diverse political commitments is the fact that the film ends with her death in 1965. Hansberry’s unfinished plays are among her most ambitious and inventive work: the 1969 staging of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a collage of play drafts, speeches, and journal excerpts assembled by her ex-husband and executor Robert Nemiroff, and 1970’s Les Blancs, about the emergence of armed anti-colonial struggle in the fictional African country Zatembe, were essential events in the consolidation of Hansberry’s public memory. (Many of the biographical materials collected in To Be Young are sprinkled throughout Strain’s film.) These omissions are especially unfortunate in a film that resists the sanitizing of Hansberry’s politics, because we encounter the strongest repudiation of Cruse’s critique in this posthumous work to which he did not yet have access in 1967 but which has now been in print for decades.
Among the many accusations Cruse hurled at Hansberry and her cohort was an overreliance on “empty ‘radical’ language.” But in her plays and speeches Hansberry worked hard to imbue her radicalism with specificity, complexity, and communicable stakes. The “New Romanticism” invoked in the subtitle to “The Negro Writer and His Roots” is easily mistaken for naïve sentimentalism, especially when Hansberry’s most famous work is divorced from its concrete referents and the longer arc of her career. Since Raisin’s premiere, readers and viewers have too often overlooked its historical and material coordinates. More recent academic defenses of Hansberry’s political credibility risk overcompensating for this mainstream reception by abandoning Raisin entirely, turning instead to her more militant speeches and unpublished drafts. But Hansberry’s “new romanticism” is reducible to neither her rigorous attention to detail nor her sweeping humanism alone; her political and artistic vision hinged on her effort always to yoke the two. “We must turn our eyes outward,” she affirmed, “but, to do so, we must also turn them inward toward our people and their complex and still transitory culture.”
This injunction goes both ways. The anti-racism of Raisin is embodied in Walter Lee Younger, whose sense of manhood is compromised by his inability to provide for his family, but also by Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian college student studying in Chicago who’s neglected in the documentary’s extensive summary of the play. Asagai narrates his future role in an independent Nigeria as a lesson for the Youngers in the uncertainty of progress: “At times it will seem that nothing changes at all … and then again the sudden dramatic events which make history leap into the future. And then quiet again.” Asagai’s gesture toward the world-historical transitions unfolding offstage is taken up by Les Blancs, which Hansberry thought might be her most important play but which she did not live to finish. Faced with the hollow idealism of a white journalist, the protagonist Tshembe insists that an awareness of racism’s fraudulence doesn’t free one from its effects. His analysis is an apt rejoinder to Cruse’s dig at the Freedom crowd — no language, Tshembe implies, is “empty,” or easily divorced from action: “a man who has a sword run through him because he refuses to become a Moslem or a Christian — or who is shot in Zatembe or Mississippi because he is black — is suffering the utter reality of the device.”
Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart could not have offered a nuanced introduction to Hansberry’s full body of work while still including all of the rich biographical detail that it does. Unsurprisingly, the film’s most compelling words are Hansberry’s own, and she’s the most commanding speaker of them. But unlike Raoul Peck, whose acclaimed James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) consists entirely of excerpts from Baldwin’s own writings and speeches, Strain bore the obligations that come with being first. Baldwin was given the American Masters treatment in 1989 (by Karen Thorsen’s still-authoritative documentary The Price of the Ticket), freeing Peck to forgo biographical exposition in favor of complexity and style. Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart manages a commendable complexity and style of its own, given how much it tries to cover in a mere two hours.
Among the quotes from “The Negro Writer and His Roots” that get prime placement in Strain’s film is Hansberry’s faith that “posing one against the other, I think the human race does command its own destiny and that that destiny can eventually embrace the stars.” It’s an exemplary Hansberry statement in the way that it courts optimistic excerption. One can too easily imagine the line plucked out of her 1959 address and deployed in the service of any number of projects anathema to Hansberry: middle-class racial uplift, integrationist liberalism, “colorblind” centrism, or the warm fellow-feeling of no politics at all. It’s exemplary, too, in its refusal to anxiously fend off such misreadings, its conviction that the human destiny of which she speaks is too pressing a task to mince words over. Hansberry was uniquely prescient about how dramatically domestic civil rights activism and global anti-colonial struggles would escalate in the decade to come.
It is to Strain’s credit that we hear this quote in its proper context, at the end of Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart’s brief account of the conference at which it was first issued. But we do not hear Hansberry assert, against the atomizing forces of white supremacy, that “the ultimate destiny and aspirations of the African people and twenty million American Negroes are inextricably and magnificently bound up together forever,” nor do we hear of “Bombay and Peking and Budapest and Laos and Cairo and Jakarta.” We are told instead of Hansberry’s commitment to “act on questions of injustice,” and of her “radical honesty about the state of the world.” We leave in time to catch Raisin’s Broadway premiere.