On Ambivalence, Revision, and the Remarkable Life of Lorraine Hansberry

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

Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, New York, 1959 (Gordon Parks – Flickr)

Among the many things that captured my attention while reading Soyica Diggs Colbert’s meticulously researched and elegantly written intellectual biography of Lorraine Hansberry was the sense of ambivalence that marked so much of the influential writer-activist’s far too short life. The arrival of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway in 1959 catapulted the then-twenty-nine-year-old Hansberry into the national spotlight. The production’s success with audiences and critics would also serve to fix her image in the public imagination. As Colbert thoughtfully details in Radical Vision, Hansberry would struggle to undo the popular misperception of her as a dutiful housewife with integrationist aspirations for the duration of her life. Indeed, by 1960, Hansberry’s private notes reflected her weariness with the play that would fundamentally transform the racial workings of the Great White Way. “I AM BORED TO DEATH WITH: A RAISIN IN THE SUN,” she wrote on a yellow-lined sheet of paper that also included a litany of her likes and dislikes about the play. Colbert mines countless pages like this that she encountered in the archive to fashion a more nuanced story about Hansberry’s enduring impact on the ongoing struggles for Black liberation and freedom. What emerges is a compelling portrait of a radical artist who, because of the complex and often contradictory feelings she negotiated about the ways of the world, made repetition and revision hallmarks of her artistic and intellectual work.

To be sure, Hansberry was unafraid to change her mind. Radical Vision chronicles how this impulse to shift course almost resulted in different trajectories for some of her most beloved characters. Audiences who attended the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, for example, witnessed a final scene in which the Younger family packed up their cramped South Side Chicago tenement apartment in anticipation of their move to the house that family matriarch, Lena Younger, put a down payment on in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Colbert explains how an earlier draft of the domestic drama ended with the Younger family huddled and fully armed in their Clybourne Park home, preparing for the arrival of a “worked up” white mob with ties to Karl Lindner of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, who tried to convince the family not to make the move and threatened them if they went forward with their homebuying plans. This earlier iteration of the play’s ending revised a formative scene that would repeat during Hansberry’s childhood after her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, purchased a home in the Washington Park subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. As with the fictional Clybourne Park, Washington Park had adopted a racially restrictive covenant decades earlier that prohibited white homeowners from selling or renting their property to Black people. While Carl would ultimately secure a victory in the United States Supreme Court that would make it possible for his family to inhabit their home at 6140 South Rhodes Avenue, it did not come without significant financial or emotional costs. For Hansberry’s mother, Nannie Perry Hansberry, staying in the house required that she keep a Luger pistol close by to protect her children from the brutish white neighbors who pummeled them with blows, spit, and racist epithets as they navigated the community.

Radical Vision documents the ways that Hansberry’s subsequent writing for the stage and screen also benefited from her penchant for revision. Hansberry had been working on Les Blancs, her final play, for more than four years when, in 1965, she succumbed to pancreatic cancer at 34. The version of the play that opened on Broadway in the fall of 1970 was adapted by her former husband, literary executor, and longtime collaborator, Robert Nemiroff, from the various drafts Hansberry left in her wake. Some critics, Colbert notes, were quick to point out the unfinished quality of the Broadway version. Others, however, were able to trace how the play participated in and extended the important social, cultural, and political debates that Hansberry helped activate and transform through her art, activism, and the simultaneously fearless and vulnerable ways she often moved through life.

No doubt as striking about Radical Vision’s close engagement with Hansberry’s extraordinary body of published and unpublished writing is the book’s examinations of the artist in the process of becoming: more curious, more creative, more self-assured—more free. Colbert powerfully situates Hansberry as a revolutionary figure in mid-twentieth century thought, outlining how she helped expand conversations concerning big existential questions and ideas about Blackness, politics, social justice, and the transformative power of art. In drawing attention to some of the more personal and private aspects of Hansberry’s life, Colbert also brings into sharper relief her evolution as a Black lesbian woman activist maneuvering some of the most tumultuous and catalytic times in United States history. Ambivalence reverberates as a notable refrain here too. Colbert explains that, while Hansberry loved Nemiroff deeply and drew great inspiration from their romantic and creative partnership, she often longed to experience life and love afresh with a companion of the same sex. That Hansberry included Dorothy Secules and her eyes among her likes in her datebook jottings suggests that the neighbor-turn-longtime lover perhaps satisfied those longings (at least for a time).

Of course, even as Hansberry centered ambivalence and revision in her personal and professional life, she never wavered in her deep love for and dedication to Black people. Whether it was demanding that the Kennedy administration make a moral commitment to civil rights or pushing comrades in the movement to build coalitions and solidarities across racial, ethnic, gender, class, and geographic lines, she was unafraid to speak truth to power—and to do so while insisting that freedom was within reach for Black people. Radical Vision beautifully illuminates the ways that Hansberry created opportunities for Black and other marginalized people to experience what freedom feels like. In giving Hansberry’s life and work a deep listening in the book, Colbert opens crucial space for us to consider the actions we might take to continue to make freedom mean something for Black people in the twenty-first century.

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Isaiah Matthew Wooden

Isaiah Matthew Wooden is a director, dramaturg, and scholar of twentieth- and twenty-first-century African American art, drama, and performance. He has contributed articles and essays to The Black Scholar, Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Modern Drama, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Performing Ethos, Theater, Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, and Theatre Topics, among other scholarly and popular publications. Wooden is currently at work on a monograph that explores the interplay of race and time in post-Civil Rights Black expressive culture and is co-editing a volume on playwright August Wilson for Cambridge University Press’ “Literature in Context” series. He is also the co-editor of Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration (Northwestern UP, 2020).