First produced on Broadway in 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a groundbreaking play about an African American family in inner city Chicago, won the New York Drama Critics Circle award and in 1961 was made into an iconic film starring Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands and Ruby Dee. Arguably one of the most famous works of art produced during the Civil Rights Era, the play made its author a star. Six years later on January 12, 1965 at the age of 34, Hansberry, intelligent, beautiful, and charismatic, died from pancreatic cancer leaving behind a trove of plays, unpublished and unfinished TV screenplays, and various writings. Her premature death has frozen her image in time and obscured the full-flower and dynamic range of her artistic, social, political and personal complexity.
Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (Beacon Press, Sept.) is expected to change all that. Written by Perry, the Hughes-Rogers professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, the book is a well-written, and superbly-researched biography that reveals the entire spectrum of Hansberry’s art and life. Hansberry’s work is influenced by a Midwest tradition of black writing exemplified by poet Gwendolyn Brooks and novelist Richard Wright; and an apprenticeship in New York under playwright Alice Childress. Her turn to more radical advocacy included Pan-Africanism, anti-colonial movements, and the works of Martin Luther King as well as Amiri Baraka and Malcolm X. Her mentors included Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and she was close friends with such iconoclastic artists as Nina Simone and James Baldwin.
“Here was a woman who is the most widely-read black playwright in U.S. history, and yet we know very little about her,” Perry says from her suburban Philadelphia home. “She was at the crossroads of so many important events in the 20th century: she meets with Robert Kennedy in the White House in 1963, she’s involved with SNCC and the Communist Party, and she was targeted by McCarthyism - all of those important movements and moments, and she’s been left out of the story. Those are the reasons I wanted to write the book.”
Perry was also inspired to write the biography by her adoptive Jewish father, Steven Whitman, a Chicago-based social epidemiologist who died in 2014. Whitman introduced Perry to A Raisin In The Sun during her summer visits to the Windy City. “He was a radical; a self-identified Communist who believed in black liberation, and was involved in organizing political prisoners.
”People couldn’t quite figure out what it meant that this white man was teaching me all of this about black liberation,” Perry remembered. “There was a moment after my dad passed, when I was looking at a speech he had given on YouTube, where he had quoted her about ‘admitting the true nature of a problem before setting about to rectifying it.’ There was something about hearing him cite her. In the midst of my grief, I was like, yeah, I really have to get back to doing this work on her.”
An interdisciplinary scholar and critic of racial, feminist, American, and hip-hop history and culture, Perry wanted to write a book that “depended upon the kind of research that all of my writing depends on,” she says. Her exhaustive account chronicles Hansberry’s birth in Chicago to college-educated parents: her mother, Nannie, a teacher and ward leader, and Carl, her politically active, real estate entrepreneur father, who was dubbed “the Kitchenette King.” Hansberry’s uncle, William Leo Hansberry, was a pioneering scholar of African Studies at Howard University. Perry paints a compelling, contrapuntal portrait of Hansberry: a black bourgeoisie-born champion of the working and underclass; a celebrity who endured bouts of loneliness, a Harlemite who sermonized on the streets, a bohemian resident of Greenwich Village, and a race woman who was a Lesbian, and married a Jewish man, Robert Nemiroff, who also became her first literary executor.
As she writes in the book, Perry draws from the, ”sketches, snatches and masterpieces [Hansberry] left behind; the scrawled-upon pages, and memories; her own and others from people who witnessed and marveled at, even some of those who resented, her genius.” With access to Hansberry’s expansive archives, Perry literally reads Hansberry’s mercurial mind, unveiling her artistic methodology.
“Being in the archives, you can see her process all of her research and events and the development of characters,” Perry says. “She wrote a lot of vignettes of scenes, and you can see in the work how, in the briefest number of words, she gives a person a sense of the feeling of the characters, and in doing so, she really wound up being an instructor, as I was writing about her.”
In one of Perry’s observations about A Raisin In the Sun, Perry also detects the influence of Herman Melville on the play. “You could see that she was playing with bringing different types of people together in those confined spaces, and having them work through human questions in that kind of proximity.”
Hansberry’s post-Raisin play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, ran on Broadway in 1964, and dealt with issues of race, suicide, homosexuality, and the struggles of a writer and his wife in Greenwich Village. The play Les Blancs, was produced posthumously in 1970. ”I think it was amazing as one of the earliest anti-colonial plays,” Perry says. “[Eric/Ngedi], the biracial gay brother, is the moral center of the play, and is modeled on James Baldwin, and I think that’s a big deal,” Perry says with a laugh. Hansberry’s other friend, pianist/singer/composer Nina Simone, composed a musical version of To Be Young, Gifted and Black (with lyrics by keyboardist Weldon Irvine), an adaptation of Hansberry’s writings that Nemiroff turned into To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in her Own Words, a revue that toured in the early seventies.
In addition to Beacon Press’ Looking for Lorraine, Perry published two more books this year. May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem (University of North Carolina Press), is a study of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the anthem co-composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, and his brother, J. Rosemond. “I wrote about how the black community used the song,” Perry says, “as part of curricula, and as part of black teacher associations. The book for me connects to Hansberry, because she benefited from those types organizations when she says things about African civilizations and slave revolts.” And Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (Duke University Press) is a work of feminist theory that examines the meaning of patriarchy, and legal personhood. “It’s a non-doctrinal book. It’s not a set of positions,” Perry says. “Lorraine was a feminist. But her feminism wasn’t a set of positions. It wasn’t a doctrine. It was about looking for justice, and that’s what I tried to model in that book.”
Perry’s talents as an intellectual polymath are the result of a lifelong love of learning. Born in Birmingham, Alabama on September 5, 1972, she grew up in the South, North and the Midwest. Her mother, Theresa Perry, is a professor of Education and Africana Studies at Simmons College, and a former Dean at Wheelock College in Boston. Perry, who was raised Catholic, went to school in the Quaker-associated Cambridge Friends School and Concord Academy, an elite, college-prep school, while her mother was studying for her Ph.D at Harvard.
“I would sit and read while she was writing her dissertation, or she would drop me off in the bookstore for a couple of hours,” Perry says. ”I spent a lot of my childhood in bookstores around books. So I knew by the time I was eight that I wanted to write. By the time I was a junior in college, I knew I going to be a professor when I came home from break and said to my mom, ’this is what I want my life to be like,’” she says. “I showed her a book, Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, and she said, ‘oh, I know Pat. We used to work together at St. Joe’s High School.’ And even though I knew my mother was a university dean, and I grew up in an academic intellectual [environment], I think it crystallized for me a path that was nourishing for me,” Perry says. Her path, she adds, was further nourished by the works of Toni Morrison, Hortense Spillers, Lani Guinier, and Octavia Butler.
Perry earned her BA from Yale in American Studies and Literature, a Ph.D in American Civilization from Harvard, and Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School - both at the age of 27 - and an LLM from Georgetown University Law Center. She taught at Rutgers School of Law-Camden for seven years before coming to Princeton in 2009, where Perry now teaches a master class on Hansberry, and whose multifaceted life and art mirrors the infinite variety of her own intellectual pursuits.
“She had all off those different interests, running in different directions,” Perry says. “My interests are pulled in so many different directions. I thought it was wonderful that she was so passionate about life. She helped me get a greater sense of generosity to myself and my work.”
Eugene Holley Jr. is a freelance writer who contributes often to Publishers Weekly.