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Lorraine Hansberry: Radiant, Radical — And More Than 'Raisin'

Imani Perry, author of <em>Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry</em>
Sameer A. Khan
Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry

You think you're accomplishing something in life until you realize that at age 29, playwright Lorraine Hansberry had a play produced on Broadway. Not only did she have a play, but her drama, A Raisin in the Sun, beat out Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill to win the prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle for the best play of the year. Let that sink in.

Raisin made Hansberry famous almost overnight. And while it's what most people remember about her, there was so much more, says Princeton professor Imani Perry. Perry's new biography, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry paints a much fuller picture of the playwright's life.

It begins with her childhood as part of the politically active black elite on Chicago's South Side. Perry examines Hansberry's relationship with mentors W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, to name a few, and her rich and complicated personal life.

In many areas Hansberry was ahead of her time, says Perry. "She was a feminist before the feminist movement. She identified as a lesbian and thought about LGBT organizing before there was a gay rights movement. She was an anti-colonialist before independences had been won in Africa and the Caribbean."

In other words, she was intersectional before intersectionality became a thing.

And even though Hansberry's fame put her in the company of some of the country's most celebrated artists and intellectuals, Perry argues that she never lost grasp of her culture and people.

Radiant race warrior

"She reveled in her identity," Perry explains, "even as she railed against injustice." And Hansberry did it with perfect diction and aplomb.

The early 1960s was years after Brown v. Board had been decided, but that didn't mean separate-but-equal had been erased. (In fact, Hansberry's father, a prosperous local businessman, made history when his lawsuit to break racial covenants in Chicago's housing market went all the way to the Supreme Court. Carl Hansberry won, but the neighbors in the family's new, formerly all-white neighborhood were about as welcoming as the white residents of Clybourne Park were in Raisin. Memories of that time eventually inspired the play.)

So Negroes, as we were then called, were getting impatient with the abundance of segregation that remained. In New York, a group of protesters proposed blocking city streets to tie up traffic. Many New Yorkers were furious.

In a town hall meeting soon after, Hansberry tried to explain the thinking behind the protest (which actually became much smaller in scale because not all groups got behind it). "It isn't as if we just got up today and said 'What can we do to irritate America?' " Hansberry pointed out, to faint chuckles. "It's because since 1619 Negroes have tried every method of communication, of transformation of their situation ..." And white people, most of them, were still urging patience.

Hansberry was not just talking the talk, Imani Perry says. "She was willing to risk her fame and her recognition for her political convictions."

In May 1963, she was invited to meet Robert F. Kennedy when the Attorney general had a glittering group of black activists and celebrities over to pat him on the back for the work the Kennedy administration had done in civil rights. Instead, Hansberry told him to get the lead out and do more. When Malcolm X chastised her publicly for having a white husband, she clapped back — and he later apologized. (He thought so much of her that when Hansberry died, Malcolm, then a convert to orthodox Islam, quietly came to her funeral, even though he was under a very public death threat from the Nation of Islam, and would in fact be assassinated three weeks after her service.)

Close, complicated relationships

Many people who knew Hansberry knew she had an interracial marriage at a time when, in some parts of the country, such unions were illegal. She and Robert Nemiroff met on a picket line, and married soon after. Perry says that by the time Raisin debuted on Broadway, the two were no longer a romantic couple, "but he remained her best friend and closest confidant" until her death.

(She chose Nemiroff to safeguard the integrity of her literary work, and since his death, in 1991, his heirs have taken on the job.) They talked nearly every day, and saw each other often — which became a source of puzzlement and annoyance for her lesbian friends in her Greenwich Village neighborhood.

"She wasn't out in the traditional sense," Perry says. During Hansberry's time, homosexuality was illegal in New York. Gay gathering spots were often raided, and the people in them arrested. "It would have been very difficult and dangerous for her to be out in multiple ways."

Hansberry and James Baldwin were exceedingly close. "She was one of the few people he could turn to in every way," Perry says. They wrote each other often, exchanging opinions about their works-in-progress, gossiping about the black intelligensia they knew.

"Usually they spoke in the language used by many educated black people in the last part of the last century," Perry observes. She means their speech was very careful, perfectly articulated. But when it was just them, Hansberry and Baldwin relaxed into what Perry calls "down-home talk," full of cultural short cuts and easy vernacular.

When Hansberry died at 34 on Jan, 12, 1965, of pancreatic cancer, the arts community mourned. At her funeral, the Church of the Master near Harlem's Morningside Park was filled; some 700 mourners had assembled.

There was standing room only inside the church. Outside, people who couldn't get in stood in the bitter sleet. Her old mentor Paul Robeson sang. So did her friend Nina Simone. Langston Hughes read a poem. Baldwin, home in France with the flu, sent a tribute.

Since then, many have fretted about what Hansberry's early death had stolen from the rest of the world. Imani Perry says they are focusing on the wrong thing, and it irks her.

"There's been this constant theme for the past several decades," she says: " 'Oh she died so young; what would she have produced had she lived longer?' But the reality is she produced so much."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.