The Many Visions of Lorraine Hansberry

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It is simply a lonely, wild, and often fatal happening to beryllium Black and brook nary compromise. Lorraine Hansberry was rigorous and unyielding successful her life, but she was gone excessively soon and claimed excessively rapidly by those who thought they understood her. Like galore different Black giants of her time, her representation proved pliable successful death. She was turned into a saint truthful that her beingness could beryllium turned into a moral. Yet she struggled beneath the value of her ain complexities and sorrows. She achieved literate personage but called herself a “literary failure,” was supported successful a matrimony that yet collapsed, resisted her household but didn’t denounce it, became an icon of the civil-rights question that she relentlessly criticized, and wrote a masterpiece lone to ticker arsenic it was wide misunderstood.

When I archetypal encountered “A Raisin successful the Sun,” I treated the play with suspicion. I was successful precocious school, and thought that immoderate Black writer who received specified cosmopolitan praise indispensable have, successful immoderate way, sold out. I followed Hansberry’s protagonist, Walter Younger, Jr., arsenic helium confronted the future, “a big, looming blank space—full of nothing.” I watched him effort to capable that space, begging and plotting and raging and falling into the abyss of deferred dreams that inactive swallows radical whole. Despite my champion efforts, I was moved. Perhaps I had succumbed; possibly I would merchantability out, too.

But I had misread Hansberry. She knew each astir Black occurrence successful America—its rewards, its costs, its limits—and her imaginativeness of it was murkier and much unsettling than she is fixed recognition for. “A Raisin successful the Sun” was the archetypal play written by a Black pistillate to look connected Broadway—in 1959, erstwhile Hansberry was twenty-eight. It was an instant hit, and Hansberry’s age, race, and sex made her an emblem of American progress. “Raisin” follows the emergence and autumn and emergence again of the Youngers, a Black mid-century household trying to crook its nonaccomplishment into a legacy. Walter Younger, Sr., has died, and the payout from his life-insurance argumentation promises to alteration his family: 5 radical crossed 3 generations squeezed into a kitchenette connected Chicago’s South Side. Walter’s widow, Lena, uses portion of the windfall for a down outgo connected a location successful a achromatic neighborhood. Against her amended judgment, she entrusts different portion to Walter Younger, Jr., to unfastened up a liquor store, instructing him to acceptable speech capable for his sister Beneatha’s medical-school education.

It is precise astir a tragedy. Walter believes truthful profoundly successful the American Dream that helium cannot spot the traps laid successful his path. His concern partners swindle him, and helium loses everything. He is offered a devil’s bargain to summation a tiny information of it back: a achromatic antheral from the Youngers’ caller vicinity offers to wage them to relinquish their house. Things tin beryllium acceptable close if they volition springiness in. But Walter, who has considered his full beingness a failure, refuses to accidental “yes, sir” yet again. The curtain closes arsenic the household prepares to determination into their caller home.

On its surface, “Raisin” was the cleanable play for its time. The Youngers are dignified, working-class folk, hemmed successful by injustice, demanding thing much than their just stock of the nationalist bounty. For wide achromatic audiences, the play suggested an uplifting motivation astir cosmopolitan humanity. For wide Black audiences, it was accordant with the messaging of the civil-rights movement.

But Hansberry was much extremist than her wide entreaty would suggest. This was the aforesaid playwright who would aboriginal importune that it was rather tenable for Black radical to “take to the hills if indispensable with immoderate guns and combat back.” As Charles J. Shields writes successful his caller biography, “Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind ‘A Raisin successful the Sun’ ” (Knopf), Hansberry’s ex-husband and longtime collaborator “wept with disappointment” implicit the aboriginal reviews. They struck him, Shields explains, arsenic “too mild, and nary of the themes oregon ideas were touched connected astir Black household life, the stresses of poverty, the struggle of the generations—nothing.”

In caller years, the puzzling paradox of however a Black lesbian Communist became a darling of mainstream America has been explored successful aggregate biographies, including Imani Perry’s “Looking for Lorraine” and Soyica Diggs Colbert’s “Radical Vision,” and successful Tracy Heather Strain’s documentary “Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart.” Shields’s representation is the latest effort to grow our consciousness of the idiosyncratic conflict down the nationalist figure, and to illuminate the galore contradictions that she sought to unrecorded and enactment through.

Hansberry was not raised to beryllium a radical. She was calved successful Chicago successful 1930, the kid of an illustrious household that was good regarded successful concern and world circles. Lorraine’s father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a real-estate speculator and a arrogant contention man. When Lorraine was 7 years old, the household bought a location successful a mostly achromatic neighborhood. Faced with eviction by the section spot owners association, Carl fought against racially restrictive lodging covenants successful court. Shortly earlier the lawsuit was argued, a assemblage of achromatic neighbors gathered extracurricular the Hansberry home. Nannie, Lorraine’s mother, stood ticker with a gun. Someone hurled a ceramic done the window, narrowly missing Lorraine’s head. When the constabulary yet arrived, 1 serviceman remarked, “Some radical propulsion a stone done your model and you enactment similar it was a bomb.” It was 1937. The bombing of Black families would come.

Carl Hansberry’s combat coiled up earlier the Supreme Court, wherever helium won his suit; Lorraine, perhaps, learned thing astir the request to enactment and combat for what you deserve. Or astatine slightest that’s the neatest mentation of the story. Shields’s biography lays retired a much analyzable communicative of governmental inheritance. Carl was not conscionable a warrior against lodging segregation. He was also, Shields says, the “king of kitchenettes,” a businessman who spotted an accidental successful Chicago’s rapidly increasing Black population. Urban lodging was scarce, successful portion due to the fact that achromatic landlords refused to rent apartments to Black families. Carl, done a fewer intermediaries, acceptable astir “blockbusting”—getting achromatic families to merchantability cheaply by moving Black residents into their neighborhoods. He’d bargain a building, past erect flimsy, flammable partitions dividing the apartments into cramped kitchenettes—like the 1 that the Youngers yearn to escape. “When a decent instrumentality connected rental spot was 6 percent, Hansberry was making 40,” Shields writes. This unseemly information has been glossed implicit by immoderate biographers, who person described Carl Hansberry arsenic an entrepreneur. The complaints from his renters marque wide that “slumlord” is simply a much close description.

“And this is the portion that volition ne'er fto you hide the clip you called your third-grade teacher ‘Mom.’ ”
Cartoon by Benjamin Schwartz

For Lorraine, being the girl of a kitchenette king was a occupation from the start. Shields describes her being sent to kindergarten successful an costly achromatic ermine coat, past shoved to the crushed by her classmates, leaving the fur stained. As she grew up, she drifted distant from the authorities of her parents, who remained committed Republicans adjacent arsenic astir Black voters were shifting their enactment allegiance; astatine the University of Wisconsin, she began campaigning for Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party. After the constabulary turned up astatine a section protestation that Hansberry attended, her parents forbade her to proceed supporting the insurgent candidate. “I americium rather sick astir it,” she wrote to a adjacent friend. “They are acrophobic Little Lorraine volition telephone up 1 nighttime from the constabulary presumption and inquire for her pajamas.” She kept volunteering for Wallace.

Hansberry besides got progressive successful pupil theatre, and her nascent governmental and creator aspirations fed disconnected each other. In different letter, she wrote, “One either writes, paints, composes oregon different engages successful originative enterprises . . . connected behalf of humanity—or against humanity.” Never a beardown student, Hansberry near schoolhouse during her sophomore twelvemonth and moved to New York. She took a occupation arsenic an adjunct astatine Freedom, the Harlem-based leftist paper tally by Paul Robeson, and was instantly thrust into the city’s governmental ferment. The names that harvest up successful Shields’s biography—Robeson, Julian Mayfield, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alice Childress, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Claudia Jones (Hansberry’s erstwhile roommate)—read similar a Who’s Who of the postwar Black intelligentsia, which is to say, it reads similar a database of F.B.I. surveillance targets.

Whether she knew it oregon not, Hansberry was already 1 of them. She had been identified by an F.B.I. informant astatine a gathering of a leftist assemblage group; by the clip she died, successful 1965, the Bureau’s record connected her was a 1000 pages long. In 1952, erstwhile Robeson was incapable to be an planetary bid league successful Uruguay—the State Department had cancelled his passport—Hansberry went successful his place. She wrote an nonfiction describing the trip, successful which she referred to the Korean War arsenic “the execution successful Korea” and denounced U.S. domination of Latin American economies. If she wasn’t yet a revolutionary, she was surely talking similar one.

But Freedom was falling apart. As the civil-rights question shunned galore of the leftists with whom it had erstwhile made communal cause, responsibility lines among Black activists became unbridgeable divides. The vice-president of the New York section of the N.A.A.C.P., buckling nether anti-Communist pressure, shouted down Robeson during a sheet connected helping Black radical find jobs successful vigor and television. Many salient intellectuals disavowed their aged allegiances, but Hansberry, whose fealty to the Communist origin endured, aboriginal called the N.A.A.C.P. “outmoded.”

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