Lorraine Hansberry’s Radicalism: An Interview with Soyica Diggs Colbert

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

In today’s post, Black Perspectives interviews Dr. Soyica Diggs Colbert, author of Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry (Yale University Press, 2021. Colbert is the Idol Family Professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University. 

Julius B. Fleming, Jr.: What inspired you to write this book?

Soyica Diggs Colbert: I wrote about Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in my first book, The African American Theatrical Body. My second book, Black Movements, considers late-twentieth century and early-twenty-first century currents of Black cultural production. While I don’t write about Hansberry’s postcolonial drama, Les Blancs in Black Movements, the play informed my thinking about the multiple meanings of movement in artistic and political contexts. As I finished Black Movements, I wanted to better understand how Hansberry’s art expressed her political vision. Radical Vision helped me realize that her art and political vision were inseparable and that her writerly practice was a key part of her political work.

Fleming: Could you talk about your title and how you define “radical vision”?

Diggs Colbert: Cultural critics have debated the impact of artistic work on formal politics. The title of the book seeks to redirect the debate about whether or not cultural production has a material impact on political outcomes to the ways artists provide a vision for how to live and build a more just society. In Hansberry’s case, her artistic work provided a “radical” vision because it called for the transformation of how we understand our material conditions and Black people’s place in history and society. The title also seeks to emphasize that Hansberry participated in and contributed to intellectual histories of the left by calling attention to the social, economic, and historical positions of women, Black and queer folks.

Fleming: Throughout Radical Vision, you productively tease out the distinction between Hansberry and Lorraine, or between Hansberry’s personal and public lives. In this vein, you write that “the public wanted the beautiful middle-class housewife” (141). But, as you show us through her personal and unpublished writings in particular, Hansberry was hardly the “middle-class housewife.” You argue convincingly that she was instead a radical Black feminist “heterosexually married lesbian” who critiqued capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. Can you talk about the distinction you make between Hansberry and Lorraine—or between the artist’s personal and public lives, and how this distinction helps us to better understand Hansberry as a key thinker and cultural producer of the mid-twentieth century?

Diggs Colbert: Radical Vision is an intellectual biography. I describe it as a story of Hansberry’s ideas. As such, I initially had some reticence about including personal details from her life, but I came to realize that those moments contributed to her thought. At the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge that any form of life writing requires constituting a subject, and in Hansberry’s case—as is the common for many well-known Black women—the public perception differed significantly from the public presentation and the private person.

Fleming: You carefully detail how Hansberry regarded the idea of freedom. For her, freedom was a practice; it was processual; it was grounded in what you call “the encounter”—which you describe as collaboration and community. You show how this approach to freedom often manifested in Hansberry’s work as a forceful rejection of the pessimistic and individualist logics that saturated so much post-war philosophical thinking and aesthetics. On the other hand, though, you provide a stark portrait of Hansberry, or Lorraine, as an artist who suffered from isolation and even depression, and who wrestled with doom and despair, even as she struggled, as she put it, “to live.” Can you say more about this relationship between community and individualism, hope and despair?

Diggs Colbert: Hansberry occupied multiple public positions. She was a central figure in the American theater scene and she actively participated in the global movement for Black freedom as an organizer, activist, and spokesperson. While many of her fellow theater artists were coming to terms with the horrors of WWII and the possibility of Cold War catastrophe, Hansberry simultaneously grappled with the impact and aftermath of WWII and engaged in freedom struggles in the US through the civil rights movement. As such, Hansberry did not operate within the dichotomy of hope or despair; she had her mind set on freedom.

By the time Hansberry became recognizable as a playwright, she already knew that fame was incommensurate with the political future she sought because it isolated and singularized the individual. As a child and young adult, she learned that freedom emerged through collective struggle across generations. She expresses that point of view in The Movement. For Hansberry death and destruction were not abstractions, she contended with the fragility of life and as I write in the book from her hospital bed she wrote,

Have the feeling I should throw myself back into the movement. Become a human being again. / But that very impulse is immediately flushed with a thousand vacillations and forbidding images. I see myself lying in a pool of perspiration in a dark tenement room recalling Croton and the trees and longing for death— / Comfort has come to be its own corruption. I think of lying without a painkiller in pain. In all the young years no such image ever occurred to me. I rather looked forward to going to jail once. Now I can hardly imagine surviving it at all. Comfort. Apparently I have sold my soul for it. / I think when I get my health back I shall go into the South to find out what kind of revolutionary I am.

Fleming: In the book, you trace how Hansberry offers a radical political vision for Black life in the mid-twentieth century. At the same time, you are transparent about how the archive reveals Hansberry as someone who “did not oppose Black people having access to ‘the good life’”—or, in other words, enjoying the affordances of US liberal democracy (162). At one moment you write that: “Unlike the title of Malcolm X’s speech in 1964, ‘The Ballot or the Bullet,’ Hansberry learned at an early age the necessity of both” (28). This complex negotiation between radicalism and liberalism is so important to Hansberry’s art, life, and political philosophies—and to your book. Can you talk a bit more about this tension between radicalism and liberalism, and how it might be useful for understanding Blackness and Black political conditions?

Diggs Colbert: As a child, Hansberry witnessed her parents fighting for civil rights in the courts and using self-defense to guard their human rights at home. For Hansberry, no tools for expanding freedom were off the table. In the book, I do not mean to suggest that Hansberry advocated for liberalism; she was a radical and thought that freedom required dismantling capitalism. At the same time, she understood the importance of strategically gaining access to institutions and structures as they currently exist in an effort to rebuild. It is also useful to know that Hansberry loved to laugh, dance, and debate. She enjoyed life and found pleasure in living.

Fleming: You show how Hansberry used realism across genres—for instance, theatre, journalism, photo-essays, visual art, and short stories—to fashion realism into a genre that is not simply about showing what is, but also about an aesthetic orientation that can show what is possible. You reveal how realism, for Hansberry, was a way of seeing that was important to what you refer to as her “radical vision.” Can you say more about Hansberry’s relationship to realism, and its potential to function as a radical mode of Black political aesthetics?

Diggs Colbert: Hansberry sought to transform the material realities of existence, which was/is no small task. She used realism as a form because she understood it as a way to imagine not only what is but what could be. Hansberry had an affinity for theater because it is a medium that demands the transformation of the physical—the body and built environment.

Fleming: In what ways do you see radical vision being employed by Black women playwrights today? Are there any artists who come to mind immediately?

Diggs Colbert: I don’t think there is a contemporary playwright that is operating precisely in the ways that I define Hansberry’s radical vision, but there are certainly Black women playwrights that are expressing Black feminist ideas and offering their own freedom visions including Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Dominique Morisseau, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Aleshea Harris, and Erika Dickerson-Despenza.

Fleming: What do you want readers to gain from reading your book?

Diggs Colbert: I hope that people gain a broader understanding of Hansberry’s work and a deeper appreciation of the multiple roles she played in society. The book challenges the way we chart Black intellectual history and calls attention to how women’s work contributes to histories of the left. It would also be wonderful if the book piqued readers’ curiosity about Hansberry and encouraged them to explore her archive.

Fleming: What are you working on next?

Diggs Colbert: I am working on a collaborative project about Black existentialisms. It’s been a gift to write in community and to develop ideas as a collective.

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Julius B. Fleming, Jr.

Julius B. Fleming, Jr. earned a doctorate in English, and a graduate certificate in Africana studies, from the University of Pennsylvania. Specializing in Afro-Diasporic literatures and cultures, he has particular interests in performance studies, black political culture, diaspora, and colonialism, especially where they intersect with race, gender, and sexuality. Professor Fleming is currently completing his first book manuscript, entitled "Black Patience: Performance, Civil Rights, and the Refusal to Wait for Freedom," under contract with New York University Press. Follow him on twitter @juliusflemingjr.