Young, Restless, Gifted, and Black: Exploring the Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry with Imani Perry
By Janice Rhoshalle LittlejohnOctober 4, 2018
The mercurial aspect of me! Why is it so extreme? No drug, not even aspirin, and yet my mood is as different from what it was 45 minutes ago as the Himalayas are from the Sahara. Why? What does it mean? Am I so utterly a creature of my juices? Entirely? It would seem so.
— Lorraine Hansberry, from her journal entry titled “Puzzle” March 15, 1964
A RAISIN IN THE SUN playwright Lorraine Hansberry is one of the most noted names in US theater history. And yet it is only now, more than five decades since her death in 1965 at age 34, that we are beginning to uncover her influence beyond the stage. As a journalist, Hansberry was a social justice warrior whose work brought her under FBI surveillance. She was an activist who took on the Kennedys (both John and Robert); associated with the likes of Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes; and in her personal life, challenged conventional mores of race, gender, and sexual politics: she married a man, but identified as a lesbian.
Born on the South Side of Chicago, the daughter of Southern migrants, Hansberry grew up in the gap between the black bourgeoisie and abject poverty. Her move from the Midwest to the Great White Way forms scholar Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, an American odyssey and intimate portrait of an artist — young, restless, gifted, and black — at a crossroads between craft and justice; between life and dreams; between self-care and sacrifice.
“One of the great lessons from that period is what it really meant to invest one’s self in the struggle,” said Perry on the phone from her home in Philadelphia. “You think about how young she was when her passport was taken; she was under surveillance — this was her early 20s. Same with [W. E. B.] Du Bois, same with Paul Robeson. Now everybody loves Baldwin, but they were talking about him being too political after the deaths in ’68 when he was like: ‘I think we need to give up on this place.’ Then he wasn’t right anymore; he wasn’t smart anymore. You can say the same for King.
“But the point is, they were willing to give up everything for their investments and struggles for justice. We have to get to a way of celebrating not just their achievement, but their courage and their sacrifice because it really poses the question for us: What will we stand for? What are we willing to risk?”
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: In the book’s introduction, you wrote that Hansberry’s “is a story that remains in the gap,” and you go on to discuss the various people who are going into those gaps to reveal who she was and her impact on culture. What is it about this particular time that has prompted this kind of interest in Lorraine Hansberry, her story and what it means to us now?
IMANI PERRY: A piece of it is definitely the renewed interest in black women’s history, in particular, and attention to the submerged histories of black women. Combined with the fact that she’s this figure who sits at the crossroads of so much: she identifies as a lesbian, she’s a woman who comes of age in Chicago in the midst of this period of intense discrimination and upheaval and migration. There’s all of these forces that are part of her identity and her story that are in some ways very similar to the kinds of questions we’re talking about now, whether it’s about the inequality — just this morning on Twitter there was this robust conversation about violence and racial inequality and policing in Chicago, all of which were central to her life — or this kind public conversation about intersectionality, and for her she’s trying to figure out feminism and sexuality, race, class.
All of these issues are at the forefront of our minds right now. On the one hand, she speaks to the moment, and on the other, she’s this incredibly well-known figure, the most widely read — arguably — black playwright in the history of the United States, and yet there isn’t that much known about her life. There’s a natural curiosity that hasn’t been fully satisfied.
Tracy [Heather Strain] did an amazing job with the documentary [Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart] giving us a picture of her life, and there’s just so much work to be done.
What kind of community has developed from those of you who have been exploring Lorraine Hansberry’s life? You mentioned Tracy Heather Strain along with others in the book. How often do you connect with each other to share stories or findings, or simply borrow from one another to fuel the work you’re each doing?
Working on her and being in a community with Tracy, [biographer] Margaret Wilkerson Sexton and [scholar] Soyica Colbert has been this extraordinarily beautiful experience. So often there’s this sense of competitiveness and selfishness and guardedness with respect to work on a figure, and my experience thus far is that we all have this sense of this being a collective endeavor in trying to give Lorraine her due. We have conversations. We did a panel together at the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem] in the spring that was really wonderful. We all bring different emphases to our work, so there’s room for many books about her. I’m also excited about the different sides of her that will emerge from the different bodies of work. Given how intensely competitive academia can be this is such a beautiful, refreshing experience to work with people where everybody is really motivated by the work and not self-aggrandizement or selfishness.
In the book, you do draw some of your personal parallels that you feel have connected you with Lorraine’s story. Can you talk a bit about those similarities? And, to piggyback on that, as you were “looking for Lorraine,” were you able to gain any insights on yourself?
Certainly, the kind of space she occupied between the radical left and black working-class life and bohemian counterculture, all those spaces were very familiar to me — and really the environment I came of age in — so she was always this figure to me that felt like the reflection of the kind of coming-of-age experience that I was having. But I think actually working on her, more than the stuff about identity and where she was situated, but her dispositions, the sense of restlessness, this feeling of wanting to do everything and feeling kind of all over the place and being so overwhelmed by passion to do this project and that project, I really identified with that. My tenderness toward her — seeing how she was very self-critical in a way that I can tend to be self-critical — actually allowed me to have more tenderness toward myself; to not see this sense of hunger to explore as a weakness, but one of the many kinds of dispositions that people who are trying to live the life of the mind and are trying to do something good in the world can have. It wound up being, and was not intended as such, a very affirming process.
You mentioned earlier Lorraine’s migration story, which you discuss in the book, and how her upbringing — being the daughter of parents who migrated from the South; her father’s activism while still being part of the black bourgeoisie — not only shaped Lorraine’s social and political views, but also inspired her art.
It’s one of the things that is such a sign of her sophistication and maturity well beyond her years — because she died at 34 years old. Her parents were very much traditional mainstream civil rights bourgeois black people, and she has a very different set of politics: she’s on the far left, she’s radical, she’s unconventional. And yet, she really has a great deal of respect and appreciation for the labor of her parents — and in particular her father — for their struggles and their commitment to black people. I find it really intriguing and also useful as a model to think about how she could have a different set of politics and yet see a real value and integrity that motivated the work that they did. She was a communist and a socialist, and at points anticapitalist and not patriotic, and yet she understands her family’s efforts at accumulation were still an effort of racial uplift. That I thought was really powerful.
In terms of seeing her as a child of migration, and this is one of those pieces that certainly resonated — although I was born in the South — but feeling the proximity of a migration story, and I always think of Chicago — actually to echo Langston Hughes’s poem that forms the title of A Raising in the Sun — is this site of the dream deferred. There’s a deep anger and also a melancholy that she carries that is really at the heart of it; both about the aspiration that this was going to be better and the reality of how deep racism and inequality were in Chicago.
That finds itself in both the way she talked about migration and what it ultimately didn’t provide, and also in the way she talked about her father’s journey and how he spent his whole life doing things the “right way” and then dies embittered in Mexico. He ultimately gives up on the United States. That, to me, is something that’s very much a sign of her as a second-generation migrant — and I often use the language of immigrants when I talk about migrants because we don’t talk about migrants as such, but it really is a profound displacement and rearrangement of one’s life. There’s something powerful about her in that role generationally that comes out repeatedly in her work.
There’s a scene in the book in which you describe the white mobs that frequently harass the Hansberrys in Chicago, and “that the failure of police to protect black residents from white mobs was to be expected,” but that “what Lorraine meditated upon with some frustration was gender,” and that seems evident throughout the book. Although race and class were issues in which she was politically and artistically involved, was there a burden for her in being a woman?
It’s complicated. On the one hand, she very clearly identifies as a feminist and is also very explicit about the particular burdens that black women bear. But there’s also a way in which she is really chafing against not just gender roles, but sometimes I read her deep identification with male writers and male activists as almost a real frustration about being confined to the spaces that women were traditionally confined to. So sometimes it feels like there’s a little hitch in her feminism. [Laughs.] That’s one of the great things about being in her archive because you see all of these characters who start as women or stories that begin centering around women and then she changes the protagonists to men over and over again, and I feel like I know why she’s doing that. Partially it’s because it’s the way that genders work in a society, but it also, for me, complicates her feminism. These characters do become more believable as men, but what’s the cost of not having women at the center in that way?
Many of her early influences while she was in college were also men: Seán O’Casey and Frank Lloyd Wright and Carlos Mérida. Not only were they people from whom she drew artistic inspiration, but she also admired them for the way they could unapologetically live and move in the world.
There are a couple of figures she’s less explicit in talking about their influence but obviously Gwendolyn Brooks and Alice Childress — and the Brooks thing is interesting because she seems to me to be so influential and Hansberry didn’t talk about that at all, which is surprising. It may have been more about politics than anything because Hansberry was a radical before Gwendolyn Brooks became more radical, so her influences did tend to be men.
At the same time in her work, even when men were the central characters, she was very critical of men and masculinity, so she brings a feminist lens; there’s a feminist critique going on.
If you think of her in Les Blancs, which is one of the earliest versions of an anti-colonial play, and technically unfinished, is a really strong critique of patriarchy and ideals of masculinity there, and it’s the character who is a queer man who has the greatest courage and integrity in the story. Les Blancs is not often read in that way, but I really think it’s a very strong critique of patriarchy, and even in A Raisin in the Sun Beneatha’s suitors are; even Joseph Asagai — the character who is some ways very much Hansberry’s voice as much as Beneatha’s — is still a critique of his sexism even though he’s someone who carries a lot of her political ideas in a more sophisticated way than Beneatha is doing.
All that to say, it’s complicated.
As was Hansberry. As you lay out in the chapters, be it her time in college, her political leanings from communism to socialism, her marriage and sexuality, there was always this restlessness about her.
In moving through the book, do you believe this restlessness, and even in her depression — in which she would then create poems and plays and other work — serviced her as an artist?
That is a great question, and it’s such a subjective question. I think yes. But I can also see an argument made in the alternative, and it really does depend on what people do with the archive. Most people look and say: Oh, my goodness there’s all this unfinished work, and perhaps if she hadn’t been so restless and she homed in on just one project at a time we’d have more fully fleshed out work and that would have been in greater service to her art, and the fact that she went through all these emotional ups and downs made it impossible for her to finish all she wanted to finish.
I think differently because it is such an enormous body of work for someone who was 34 years old to have completed, particularly given the last couple of years of her life she was so severely ill. But I also think that the meaning or the value of the art isn’t only in the completed artifact but that there are all of these works that are partial vignettes or stories or poems that are so beautiful, really extraordinary; poignant. When you look at the body of the work and the way that she was searching and all the different kinds of engagements of ideas and aesthetics, I do think the restlessness served her. I do think going into that space of searching, of deep loneliness, of trying to pull together all of the aspects of who she was and imagine a world in which she could exist. Just part of what that was, I do think that it led her to some insights that were really profound.
Let’s take a bit of an aside here because I’m really interested in learning more about the archive and what Lorraine Hansberry left behind. It’s known that her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, took care of maintaining her estate. Give us a picture of just what that was: a collection of notebooks and journals, or boxes of various things?
Between Robert and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton being involved in putting together the archives and archivists at the Schomburg, it’s very well organized so you can read the various drafts of given works; there are diaries, there are works in various stages of development, there are stories, there are poems, and there are a lot of letters and various kinds of communication. There’s also her library — what she was reading — in there, too. It’s a larger archive than I was anticipating for someone her age, and also for the period in which she lived. It happened quite frequently, particularly for gay and lesbian writers, that lots of their archives would be destroyed who were not out. Robert was clearly very diligent in maintaining the entirety of her archive, so you also get a sense of what was happening in her life as she wrote her pseudonymous writings, or the different kinds of explorations she engaged in when she was writing on lesbian themes than more explicitly about race or politics. I’m really excited to see what people do with it over the next decade or two because it just hasn’t been explored fully yet.
Her relationship with, and marriage to Robert is so very interesting, and really profound, in that theirs was likely not a romantic relationship, as you say in the book, but definitely a union. He certainly cared about her even when they were separated a lot during the marriage; he believes in her as an artist, but also as a human who was going through issues of her own sexuality. And I don’t want to oversimplify things by saying that he was so evolved, because we really don’t know that about him, but he does seem to have been very selfless.
It was kind of extraordinary to actually realize how much he facilitated her work. When we look at the history of men artists and intellectuals, so often they were able to do their work because there was a woman facilitating them doing their work and this was a flip of that situation. He really created the occasion, and a really deep belief in her as an intellectual and as an artist and saw a huge portion of his life’s work to be making sure that she was able to do what she was called to do in the world.
They were close friends, and I think there was intimacy there. It’s hard to know how do you account for the border between the romantic and the sexual, and the kind of friendship arena, especially after separation, it’s hard for me to fully flesh out. They’re definitely real intimates, and I also know it was really difficult for her in terms of her romantic relationships later on.
One question that many of the people who I was talking to as I was writing kept asking, “Why did he do this?” “How hard must this have been for him?” She becomes the superstar and he’s still facilitating her, and she’s having these other relationships. The question of what his motivation was is kind of an open question. I think partially it is this sense that he decided to devote his life to ensure that her work got the stage that it deserved. I also think he really loved her deeply, that much is very clear, and seems to have, in some ways, submerged his own creative work in service to hers.
We might not have learned all that we know now about Hansberry had it not been for him …
Oh, absolutely not. I just think the world would have, in so many ways, eaten her up. Even just having the time to write and have someone take care of you; being a young person in New York and having no money … all these things. It’s hard for me to imagine how she could have done the work she did. Regardless, I think she would have been an extraordinary intellectual. I think actually the solitude and space that it required for her to be an artist, also, I think he was essential to that.
In the book, you provide insights to the lesbian-themed work Hansberry had done under her pseudonym, Emily Jones. What resonated with you about those pieces?
What was so interesting to me is that the style is different; it’s more lyrical, more attention to color and beauty than in her other writing; more “conventionally feminine” would be the term for it. Color is really important, landscape is really important, and I was really interested in the fact that in a lot of her fiction that has a lesbian theme takes place in public spaces even as she’s known for interiors and domestic dramas. It’s an interesting inversion that the work that deals with her sexuality, which is secreted — as we now would say closeted — is the work that is more out in the open, in terms of where the action takes place.
It’s also melancholic; a lot of it is unresolved yearning. It’s a really beautiful dimension of her writing, and as someone who studies black women’s literature part of what is really interesting to me is that I can really see how it fits in with the tradition of black women’s writings in a very explicit way, and I found that really intriguing. Whereas some of the other work you see the influence of Seán O’Casey, you see the influence of Du Bois, but in this work I can see so many of the kind of Harlem Renaissance black women’s writings influencing her. So, it’s fascinating.
And it’s fascinating, too, that the production of A Raisin in the Sun was not quite the Cinderella story we tend to think of it as, and you dive into the lessons that came along with her distinction of being the first black playwright to have a production on Broadway, which might not have happened had it not been for Alice Childress declining the opportunity to stage Trouble in Mind about four years earlier because she wouldn’t compromise on her indictments of racism — specifically racism in the theater world. And Lorraine knew she would have to make some compromises …
Yeah, I mean it was such a Catch-22. On the one hand, I think that probably what she learned from Childress is actually if you want to have access to The Great White Way, pun intended, [Laughs] that it made sense to not be too heavy-handed with your politics. A lot of it for Hansberry was about craft. She figured out how to tell a story that included a critique of white supremacy, of capitalism, of racism — all these things — without having to tell you that that’s what it was doing. But through the motivations of the various characters and through their interactions and the events, and the play is really masterful for that; for her to figure out how to do that, for her to actually allow people to invest before they balked; to invest and identify with the characters.
I think what she learned, and I think it was very painful for her — was that the way race works in this society so often — rather than her audience being transformed, she tried to make it fit into the logics that they have in mind like, “Oh, we can like this play because these people want to buy a house just like we do and it has a happy ending,” and obviously the ending to the play was not a happy ending, but so many people read it as such. She was really stuck because if, one, she had hit people over the head with the politics it wouldn’t be as well crafted a play, and, two, it probably wouldn’t have made it to Broadway. On the other hand, this care with crafting almost gave people a vehicle not to deal with the issue directly and so it was real frustration for her.
And it was particularly painful to have people from the black left attack her work and then attack her work on the basis of her class background, even though she had spent all these years as a member of the black left working diligently in various political organizations, and a lot of that I think was motivated as much by sexism as much as anything else, like, “Oh, she’s the little bourgeoise princess. We don’t have to take her seriously.”
Alice Walker’s cover quote to Looking for Lorraine that “to miss the larger story” of Hansberry’s life “is to miss a huge part of ours.” Considering what a fearless artist and also a fervent activist — even up to the end of her life — what are the lessons we can take from Hansberry in our own resistance?
For me, part of what makes her so inspiring — and some of it is connected to her youth — but there’s a way in which there are moments where she’s self-deprecating and you think, “Okay, this is a genius and she’s being self-deprecating,” but she’s really always asking herself the questions: “Am I a revolutionary? What do I need to do?” And that kind of interiority combined with a sense that she has to be present with other people around questions of justice, that’s such an important model.
In so much of the current landscape, interiority is about taking care of one’s self, but not about: How do I become the kind of person I want to be in the world? I think that’s really powerful. Being in community is really powerful. All these people who she was talking to and hanging out with and at times arguing with, they thought there was a sense of responsibility of being — to borrow from Hamilton — in “the room where it happens”; like being present. That’s very hard for us today because we tend not to be socialized to do that; to do the work that’s not your job, or caring for your family. But how do we work together to make a better world? They’re models for that.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles–based journalist, author, and producer exploring issues involving women, culture, and media.
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