Lorraine Hansberry: the Organizer

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

Studio portrait playwright Lorraine Hansberry, David Cogan, Lloyd Richards, Philip Rose and Sidney Poitier from the original 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun

As I completed the research for Radical Vision, I wished I had more to write about Lorraine Hansberry’s relationship with Alice Childress. Two Black radical women playwrights of the mid-twentieth century that both wrote for Paul Robeson’s monthly newspaper, Freedom, and organized with the feminist civil rights group the Sojourners for Truth and Justice (STJ). During my fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, archivist Steven G. Fullwood and former assistant curator of the Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Books Division at the Schomburg offered a point of entry in my search to better understand the two women’s relationship. He shared that Alice Childress’s Papers contained a pageant that the women co-authored to celebrate Negro History Month in 1952. Staged on February 29 at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem actors included Alice Childress, Sidney Poitier, Beulah Richardson, and Paul Robeson. Harry Belafonte also participated in the event as a singer. Childress and Hansberry’s pageant detailed Black life from ancient Africa to the present and the struggle for freedom during and following enslavement. In Radical Vision, I mention the pageant as a part of Hansberry’s larger contribution to Freedom. But thanks to the careful attention paid by Shane Vogel, Leticia Ridley, and Isaiah M. Wooden to my book in this AAIHS roundtable, I now realize there is more to say about how this event encapsulates Hansberry’s intellectual and political practices and investments.

As Vogel attentively details, Radical Vision is equally interested in Hansberry’s contribution to Black radicalism and her rendering of existentialism. Vogel’s response describes the specific ways Hansberry makes a unique contribution to Black thought, drawing from an international Black radicalism that she learned as a student and an activist. At the same time, she expanded mid-twentieth century renderings of existentialism circulating among writers, artists, and playwrights in particular. While Richard Wright is often placed in the African American literary tradition as a precursor to Hansberry and in philosophical thought as a Black writer that also engaged both traditions: Black radicalism and existentialism, Vogel’s response drew forth a connection I had not observed in Radical Vision of Childress as an intellectual precursor as well. While Vogel does not mention Childress, he notes the book’s “contribution to the feminist scholarship that is expanding how we understand the Black radical tradition and its aesthetics” and its attention to how “Hansberry took up, critiqued, revised, extended, expanded, and surpassed this European existential tradition, grounding her insurgent existentialism not in the individual but the collective.” Working alongside Childress with the STJ and subsequently drawing from their collective political action as an inspiration for art not only serves as an artistic model for Hansberry, it informs her philosophical development as well.

In Ridley’s response, “What Kind of Revolutionar[ies] [are we]?:’ Lorraine Hansberry and the Praxis of Freedom,” the title performs incorporation, asking the reader to participate in Hansberry’s freedom practice. The response considers how Radical Vision contributes to Black radicalism by “building upon various methodologies of theater and performance studies.” While Hansberry wrote in various forms and occupied several social positions: artist, intellectual, spokesperson, activist, and organizer, she focused on the embodied and material form of theater, finding it a fitting tool to express her ideas. As Fred Moten and Daphne Brooks have demonstrated, performance studies has an important contribution to make to theories of racial capitalism. Additionally, Hansberry expressed her theories of Black life in her writing as Ridley notes, foregrounding the idea of collaboration. While the book focuses mostly on collaborations detailed through correspondence or interviews, the 1952 pageant for Negro History Month shows that the two playwrights shared an investment in foregrounding the voices of women as central to the contemporary phase of the movement. Using an ensemble form, the pageant, as a  means to educate its audience, Childress and Hansberry, to paraphrase Ridley, created “dramatic literature” to mobilize “Black feminist freedom work.”

I am grateful for the deep consideration that the three respondents gave Radical Vision because, as the book suggests, freedom practices require engagement, reflection, and, as Wooden notes, revision. He writes, Radical Vision depicts Hansberry, “in the process of becoming: more curious, more creative, more self-assured—more free.” Wooden’s response focuses on Hansberry’s growth as an artist and thinker. He asserts, “To be sure, Hansberry was unafraid to change her mind” and then goes on to reference the alternative endings of her work detailed in the book’s epilogue. Hansberry’s “penchant for revision” not only informed the versions of her plays, it also contributed to her early storytelling that would ultimately lead to her dramatic work. As early as 1952, Hansberry shared ideas with labor organizer and writer Lloyd L. Brown about transforming her childhood memories into creative work. Those memories would find their most profound expression in A Raisin in the Sun.

As Wooden details, Hansberry’s writerly practice also served as a form of self-fashioning. Revision requires reflection and accounting, two habits that appear in the annual lists that the playwright kept of her likes and dislikes. Hansberry’s ideas and ways of being in the world shifted over time and yet, as Wooden writes, “she never wavered in her deep love for and dedication to Black people.” As I detail in the book and Wooden reminds me, she returned to ideas again and again, another way of thinking about freedom practice as I returned to her 1952 pageant.

If I had more space, I would trace how Hansberry’s experience with Childress prepared her to act as an organizer through the remainder of her life and informed the fundraisers she planned for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), American Committee on Africa, and in support of Freedom Summer. Given more space, I would detail how Hansberry gathered people together through her artwork, friendships, and political work, offering an example of how to live as an organizer. That will have to wait. For now, I appreciate how this AAIHS roundtable offered me an opportunity to think with Vogel, Ridley, and Wooden, to engage again with Hansberry’s work, and to consider anew a collaboration that continues to inspire wonder about Black feminist friendships in the archive.





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Soyica Diggs Colbert

Soyica Diggs Colbert is the Idol Family Professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University. Colbert’s most recent book, Radical Vision, a “loving, lavishly detailed” (New York Times) and captivating portrait of Lorraine Hansberry’s life, art, and political activism—one of O Magazine's best books of April 2021 is also described as "A devoted and deeply felt account of the development of an artist’s mind," according to Dave Itzkoff, New York Times Book Review. In this acclaimed biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Colbert narrates a life at the intersection of art and politics, arguing that for Hansberry the theater operated as a rehearsal room for her political and intellectual work.She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support a residency at the Schomburg Center, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Stanford University, Mellon Foundation, and the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University. Colbert has also lectured nationally and internationally at universities, high schools, and middles schools as well as for civic and arts organizations.Colbert’s writing has been featured in the Washington Post, Public Books, Metrograph and American Theatre. She have been interviewed on NPR and commented for the New York Times, USA Today, CNN, and the Washington Post.She is an Associate Director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. In addition to Radical Vision, Colbert is the author of Bodies: Theory for Theatre Studies, Black Movements: Performance and Cultural Politics, and The African American Theatrical Body. Colbert co-edited Race and Performance After Repetition and The Psychic Hold of Slavery. Most recently, she served as a Creative Content Producer for The Public Theatre’s audio play, shadow/land. Her research interests span the 19th-21st centuries, from Harriet Tubman to Beyoncé, and from poetics to performance. Follow her on twitter @DrSoyica.