Lorraine Hansberry and the Praxis of Freedom

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

Lorraine Hansberry and Nina Simone singing in group, 1963 (NYPL)

How does one sharpen our focus on the multiplicity and dimension of Lorraine Hansberry’s public and private life without flattening it as so many critics have done before? The life of Hansberry does not end and begins with A Raisin in the Sun. Expanding the legacy and understanding of such a luminous figure as Hansberry is a difficult task to undertake. Soyica Diggs Colbert’s Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry masterfully achieves this task. Colbert joins the chorus of recent critical attention given to Lorraine Hansberry’s life and labors including Imani Perry’s 2018 memoir Looking for Lorraine, Tracy Heather Strains’s 2017 documentary Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, and Margaret B. Wilkerson’s forthcoming book Lorraine Hansberry: Am I a Revolutionary?. Focusing our attention to Hansberry’s radicalism, Colbert writes an impeccably researched artistic and intellectual history of Hansberry that takes seriously her commitment and participation in Black radical traditions, Marxism, and existentialism. Radical Vision asks “How does Hansberry’s art offer a radical political vision for matters and the mattering of Black life in the mid-twentieth century?” (5). In so doing, Colbert situates these histories, movements, and traditions as vital to her own artistic and intellectual praxis. As Colbert puts it, Hansberry “learned that when any one aspect of freedom work functioned independently of the others, individuals could experience uplift but not freedom. Freedom, Lorraine deduced, required cultivating a set of practices over time that were coordinated with other members of a movement that addressed intersecting forms of oppression” (3).

This turn, by Colbert to frame Hansberry’s writing as a practice of freedom (one that she extensively theorizes in chapter one) is what I find most compelling about Radical Vision. Building upon various methodologies of theater and performance studies, Colbert urges us to think of freedom not as a destination that can be achieved but as a continuous process of becoming. In so doing, Colbert captures practice as politically, socially, and artistically viable to Black radicalism and firmly places the methods of the theater in this equation. “Describing Hansberry’s writing as a practice,” Colbert writes, “calls attention to its configuration as rehearsal through repetition and routine” (63). While Colbert examines a wide range of Hansberry’s literary works (including her short stories, poems, correspondence, and essays), Colbert is clear to make critical connections with the concept of repetition (rooted in performance studies), or what Richard Schechner would call “twice-behaved behavior,” or what we might also locate in African American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s dramatic method of “rep and rev.”1 What Colbert proposes, then, is a long tradition of writing as a practice that takes seriously the rehearsal room (both the act of writing and the actual rehearsal room) as a vital space to prepare for encounters with structures of power. This rehearsal is one done in collaboration with others, as Colbert makes sure to include the various interlocutors that Hansberry engaged such as Paul Robeson, Simone de Beauvoir, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin to name a few.

Hansberry’s spirit of collaboration extended to her writing, according to Colbert. Colbert argues that Hansberry’s essays written from 1960 to 1963 “crystallized her investment in collaboration as a practice that could emerge through encounters and across differences” (133-134).  Colbert offers that collaboration rather than coalition is what Hansberry sought after in her intellectual and political partnerships. I am intrigued by Colbert’s turn to collaboration from the oft-circulated term of coalition. As Colbert describes it, collaboration is invested in “the good of the whole over individual achievement” and “required intimacy and vulnerability,” while coalition focused on “when two different and distinct performed groups come together to work toward a common goal maintaining their distinctiveness” (133 & 141). The ongoing process of collaboration opens the opportunity to return and revise, one that Hansberry understood fervently in her work, and which is illustrated across her various writings. As Colbert demonstrates, we see this in Hansberry’s interrogation of colonialism in her dramas Toussiant and Les Blancs, but also reflected in her leftist politics. The articulation of Hansberry’s commitment to collaboration by Colbert is a compelling approach to understanding the radical politics of Hansberry as deeply connected with her theatrical work. In this move, we understand Lorraine as both a radical and a dramatist, but also within a genealogy of intellectuals that found the utility of theater to the project of Black freedom.

In a similar fashion as Colbert, I situate Radical Vision as a collaborative project of Black feminism that endeavors to deeply engage with the depth and breadth of the works and lives of Black women. I think of Black feminist scholars such as Valerie Boyd, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Barbara Ransby, and Carole Boyce Davies. Like her contemporaries, Colbert infuses her prose with care for the legacy and life of Hansberry, clear in her pursuit that Hansberry is given the complexity in which she lived her actual life and that we can find in her many writings. While Black feminist tradition is not foregrounded in Radical Vision as a shaping force in Hansberry’s thinking, situating writing as a practice of freedom resonates as a Black feminist practice. Radical Vision is instructive in understanding Hansberry’s radical vision and the radical vision of Black women dramatists such as Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Childress, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Their collective commitment to writing for and about Black life via theater considers the utility of dramatic literature for mobilizing Black feminist freedom work.

Like Black feminism, Hansberry was not interested in being reduced to one single meaning, because, for her, this curtailed the possibilities and the spaces for her writing. Her writing, as Colbert instructs us to pay close critical deep attention to, is a model of trans-disciplinary work that operates on behalf of revolutionary politics. As we face the continuous violence of anti-Blackness, the ongoing fight for reproductive justice, and the flurry of legislation being passed against trans people, we may take a page from Hansberry’s writing and ask ourselves (as she did when she was dying of cancer) “what kind of revolutionar[ies] [are we]?” (201).

  1. See Richard Schechner’s Between Theatre & Anthropology (1985) and Suzan Lori Parks’ essay “Element of Style” in The America Play and Other Works (1995).
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Leticia Ridley

Leticia Ridley is a theatre historian and performance studies scholar whose research works at the intersections of Black feminism, Black Studies, performance theory, and Black digital humanities. Her research interests include Black theatre and performance, American popular culture, and sports. She is currently working on her book project, tentatively titled Hypervisibility Renderings: Black Feminist Performance in the 20th and 21st Centuries, which examines contemporary Black women’s performance cultures, or the ways that Black women artists, athletes, and musicians (who all occupy the position of celebrity) make culture that articulates their definitions of self and constructs alternative frameworks for themselves and other Black women to occupy. You can find her writing in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, and forthcoming in Journal of American Drama and Theatre and A Routledge Anthology of Sport Plays. Ridley received her Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies with graduate certificates in Women and Gender Studies, Digital Studies and Critical Theory from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work has been supported by the Ford Foundation. Follow her on twitter @LL_Ridley.