Lorraine Hansberry and the Black Radical Tradition

This post is part of our online roundtable on Soyica Diggs Colbert’s Radical Vision

Women viewing an exhibit at Abyssinian Baptist Church, 1939 (NYPL)

Soyica Diggs Colbert’s Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry restores Lorraine Hansberry, the artist, to the Black radical tradition. Cedric Robinson describes the history and nature of the Black radical tradition throughout his work, most explicitly in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition and Black Movements in America. For Robinson, the Black radical tradition is a liberatory project shaped by distinctly African modes of resistance and revolution that developed out of the conditions of colonialism and enslavement. He grounds his interpretation of this tradition in a rigorous critique of capitalism’s fundamental racial logics (something that Marxism itself was unable to recognize) and through the writings of exemplary Black radical thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright, each of whom came to recognize Marxism’s provincialism and its inability to fully account for Black struggle.

Restoring Hansberry to the Black radical tradition is no simple task. Misrecognitions of her work, especially after the Broadway success of A Raisin in the Sun (1959), allowed critics and supporters alike to cast her as a figure of the liberal politics of integration and assimilation. Harold Cruse and Amiri Baraka were the two most prominent Black critics to denounce Hansberry’s theater, though Baraka recanted later in life and conceded that he and others had “missed the essence of the work.”1 Colbert reminds us, for example, that when the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun decides to move into the white neighborhood that seeks to keep them out, the script itself states plainly that this is not an act of integration, but one of occupation: an act of insurgency that presses liberal allowance to its breaking point and locates the play and the Youngers’ act within “a global movement for Black freedom” (76).

While other scholars and critics have pointed toward Hansberry’s neglected radicalism, Colbert brings a comprehensiveness and a transformative engagement with Hansberry’s archive to this project, including unpublished work and close engagement with still-restricted material at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She details not only the explicit contributions Hansberry made to the Black radical tradition—her deep study with Du Bois, her time working at Paul Robeson’s radical monthly Freedom, her involvement with the Black women’s radical organization Sojourners for Truth and Justice—but also how her queer Black feminism, reimagination of dramatic realism, and theatrical experimentalism all transformed the tradition itself. Radical Vision is thus an invaluable contribution to the feminist scholarship that is expanding how we understand the Black radical tradition and its aesthetics.

But here I also want to look at a second, related line of argument that emerges in Colbert’s work: that Hansberry is a crucial, even preeminent, figure of radical Black existentialism. Much like Robinson shows how Du Bois, James, and Wright came to the Black radical tradition through a dissatisfaction with Marxism, Colbert shows how Hansberry’s engagement with philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus led her to a critique of European existentialism and the (re)finding of a radical Black existentialism. We misrecognize the existentialist dimensions of Hansberry’s work, in other words, when we see it as either a derivative dalliance with or a wholesale rejection of existentialism. It is rather a Black radical revision of European existentialism and a contribution to what Lewis R. Gordon terms Africana philosophies of existence.

When Hansberry encountered European existentialism, she found a vocabulary and set of approaches that emerged in France in the middle of the twentieth century to explore questions about human freedom, action, and contingency. This existentialism was shaped by postwar devastation in Europe and a disavowed colonialism that only later began to surface explicitly in the writing of Sartre and Camus. Hansberry took up, critiqued, revised, extended, expanded, and surpassed this European existential tradition, grounding her insurgent existentialism not in the individual, but the collective. As Colbert puts it, while European existentialism “considered how experience shaped the individual’s ability to give meaning to life and pursue freedom,” the work of Hansberry “affirms existentialist ideas of the individual’s transformational capacities and it challenges one of its central presumptions, that becoming free emerges through individual antagonism” (6) [emphasis in original]. Hansberry comes to this stance through her deep knowledge of Black freedom movements in the US, the Caribbean, and Africa.

More specifically, there are at least three main axes along which Hansberry articulates her insurgent existentialism—both an existentialism infused with an insurgent mood and a Black radical insurgency against European existentialism—and that Colbert helps us to see anew. First, Hansberry redefines the existentialist understanding of freedom within a Black radical tradition. Freedom is not, for her, “the transcendental state of an individual coming to consciousness” (23). Colbert pushes this formulation even further, from the metaphysical to the everyday. As we now understand the relationship between Sartre and Beauvoir not as indiscreet bits of gossip but as a significant contribution to their respective intellectual projects, Colbert demands that we see the radicalism of Hansberry’s interracial marriage to Robert Nemiroff and her ongoing lesbian relationships and queer political commitments as part of her theory of freedom. We are indebted to Colbert for engaging so rigorously with Hansberry’s sexuality and interpersonal relationships not as a private matter, or biographical details ancillary to her work, but as fundamental to her political, philosophical, and theatrical projects.

Second, through her close reading of Hansberry’s entire oeuvre, Colbert identifies and theorizes a fundamental building block of Hansberry’s Black existential poetics: the encounter. This distinctly Hansberrian configuration brings together disparate characters in concrete situations negotiating selfhood and otherness in their historical context. Hansberry composes the encounter in her work “to disrupt social scripts and cultural protocols between people.” (20). The encounter is the form at the core of Hansberry’s unflinching yet optimistic practice. Colbert describes how Hansberry’s encounters produced “resistance to racism’s slow structuring death through moments of political emergence that reveal underground forms of grassroots organizing and forecasts of things yet to come” (16). While not always harmonious, “the debates she staged in her writing use encounter to produce intimacy and, hopefully, mutuality” (151). As an alternative to Fanon’s scene of Black negation, Sartre’s allegory of the shame-infused Look, and even Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic, Colbert offers us the encounter as the affirmation of “the human necessity of mutuality in the exchange, which Hansberry depicts as building blocks that structure human freedom” (21). The encounter emerges in Radical Vision as one of the unifying principles of Hansberry’s drama, and Colbert traces its deployment through her published and unpublished plays.

Finally, the combination of freedom and the encounter informs Hansberry’s reinvention of theatrical realism within the tradition of radical Black existentialism. As Colbert shows, Hansberry consciously “intervened in the space between realism and reality to remake both” (108). Realism for Hansberry is a form that can stage the everyday encounter for an audience, conjuring new futures out of the relentless repetitions of history. Or, as Colbert puts it, the form of realism allows Hansberry to develop her ideas “about freedom and freedom movements being rooted in quotidian interactions” (174). Plays such as A Raisin in the Sun, therefore, provide “a perfect staging ground for an examination of what practices of fugitivity may exist within dramatic realism. Or, how do practices of fugitivity proliferate in the trap?” (82). While other Black radical playwrights and existentialist playwrights staged their political vision by violating the conventions of bourgeois theater, Hansberry undertook the more arduous and unspectacular creative labor of reclaiming realism for truly Black and radical ends. Hopefully Colbert’s interpretation of Hansberry’s “forms of realism” will call forth new work not only on Hansberry but on Black theatrical realism more generally (29). Radicalism and realism are not, Colbert helps us to see, necessarily oppositional.

While rooted in a single and singular life, Radical Vision’s reach is both wide and deep. Colbert restores Hansberry to the Black radical tradition and outlines her insurgent existentialism as an important part of that tradition. She recovers a radical Black existentialism that has been misrecognized by many of Hansberry’s critics as a simple modification of European existentialism. In doing so, Colbert joins other philosophers of radical Black existentialism, such as Lewis R. Gordon and Henry Paget, who have theorized this tradition. Moreover, her elegant and comprehensive reading of Hansberry’s works and archive synthesizes the “seemingly disparate traditions” of Black radicalism and existentialism from which Hansberry drew, showing us that they are not, in fact, disparate at all (97). Unlike conventional literary biography that uses the life as a reference point to understand the work, Colbert uses the work to understand the life (see especially 6-7, 26-65). In doing so, she gives us a Hansberry making herself—that is, becoming free—through the ongoing, relational, experimental, radical act of writing as a practice of freedom.

  1. Amiri Baraka, “A Raisin in the Sun’s Enduring Passion,” in Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (Vintage, New York: 1995), 9-20
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Shane Vogel

Shane Vogel (he/him) is a Professor of English and African American Studies at Yale University. He is the author of The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (University of Chicago Press, 2009); Stolen Time: Black Fad Performance and the Calypso Craze (University of Chicago, 2018; winner of the John W. Frick Award from the American Theater and Drama Society); and co-editor, with Soyica Diggs Colbert and Douglas A. Jones, Jr., of Race and Performance after Repetition (Duke University Press, 2020; winner of the Errol Hill Award from the American Society for Theatre Research). He is also co-editor, with Uri McMillan and Sandra Ruiz, of the NYU Press book series Minoritarian Aesthetics.