Lorraine Hansberry at an NAACP rally in New York City, 1959. (Courtesy of Joi Gresham and the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust)
For the playwright and activist, neither liberal reform nor countercultural art were enough. The very foundations of American democracy needed to be transformed.
In October of 1964, three months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Lorraine Hansberry’s play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window opened on Broadway. At the time, Hansberry was already famous for A Raisin in the Sun, but the intervening years had not been kind. Shingles racked her body, and she’d been diagnosed with cancer. Weakened by the disease, she moved into a hotel next to the theater so she’d be closer to the rehearsals. The singer Nina Simone went to visit her there, and she recalled Hansberry saying, “I must get well. I must go down to the South.” Even with her play in production and cancer killing her, she hoped to join the civil rights protests that had engulfed the South and “find out what kind of revolutionary” she was.
Most people these days know Hansberry for A Raisin in the Sun, a play that took housing segregation as its subject. But as Imani Perry chronicles in her new biography, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, the revolutionary Hansberry has long been hidden in plain sight. A Raisin in the Sun is often understood as the story of a black family fighting racist housing discrimination to purchase a home in a white neighborhood. Yet Hansberry always insisted that the play was not simply about black people’s right to spend their money freely. It was also a critique of employment discrimination, Northern white racism, and American poverty. Hansberry’s death in 1965, at the age of 34, curtailed her work’s more radical, materialist, and socialist analyses. Later liberal histories of the civil rights era would likewise narrow the scope of a movement that was opposed not only to segregation and disenfranchisement but also to the inequalities and violence that capitalism and liberalism produced—a set of concerns central to Hansberry’s oeuvre.
Consulting her unpublished writings and diaries as well as her published work, Perry recovers this more radical side. Although raised in an elite milieu in Chicago, Hansberry was every bit as committed, from an early age, to undoing the injustices that enabled that culture as she was invested in decrying poor housing conditions. As she grew older, these commitments manifested themselves in an increasingly radical politics. Amid the rabid anticommunism of the 1950s, she risked getting blacklisted by advocating for socialism, both at home and in the still decolonizing world, because she believed that freedom from racism also required global freedom from capitalism. After Raisin’s success made her a de facto spokesperson on African American politics, she openly criticized black leaders who neglected the poor to advance their own careers.
Black freedom, for Hansberry, required amplifying the voices of the black working class. At times, this commitment caused her to focus more on politics than on her art, and at times it put her at odds with her less radical peers. Yet, as Perry shows, Hansberry was hard to pin down. “Though she was an internationalist, and something of a Black nationalist, a Marxist, and a socialist, she was also deeply American.” Her critique of capitalist and racist America stemmed from a deep attachment to the culture and people who felt its violence. Her investment in American politics did not lead to a simplistic patriotism or a belief in American exceptionalism but rather to a desire to see her country realize its (not unique) democratic potential. Hansberry, in this way, was deeply committed to the United States, wanting to make it a more equitable and humane force—for women, for black people, for queer people, and for colonized people across the globe.
Hansberry was born in Chicago in 1930, to parents whose wealth and social status helped buffer their family in her early years from the full brunt of the Depression. Her mother, Nannie Hansberry, was a teacher and a representative in local politics. Her father, Carl Hansberry, made enough money in the real estate business, providing housing for poor black Chicagoans, to send Lorraine to school in a fur coat (where her poorer classmates beat her up). Because the small number of people in the black elite were politically diverse, many of the family friends who visited her childhood home were socialists or radicals of various kinds. The Hansberrys lived above Ray Hansborough, a member of the Communist Party and secretary of the National Negro Commission, and Carl Hansberry worked with Truman Gibson Sr., the executive director of the American Negro Exposition, a kind of African American World’s Fair. In time, Lorraine Hansberry’s politics would resemble less her parents’ than their friends’.
The influence of her parents’ social network, combined with her early exposure to racism, helped radicalize Hansberry when she was still young. In 1937, when she was 7, the family moved into a home in Washington Park, a white neighborhood, where angry white mobs gathered in the hopes of forcing them out. Around the same time, a segregationist landowners’ association challenged the sale. Suspecting he might one day need legal support, Carl Hansberry had already reached out to the NAACP to take the segregationists to court, which the organization proceeded to do. While he was away fighting for their legal right to remain in their new home, Nannie Hansberry stayed up in the evenings with a pistol to protect their children. Though Carl Hansberry ultimately prevailed in a Supreme Court case, Hansberry v. Lee, in 1940, his daughter’s experience in Washington Park taught her that wealth and the legal system provided no guaranteed security against racism.
While Lorraine Hansberry’s early life exposed her to the difficulties that black people had appealing to the state for protection, her education gave her hope for a different kind of society. In 1947, when she was 17, white students at her high school went on strike to protest the increasing number of black students there. As she recounted in To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, the black students from a nearby school, “the children of the Unqualified Oppressed,” came “pouring out of the bowels of the ghetto” to demonstrate. The mayor and the school board intervened, and the police dispersed the striking white students. In Hansberry’s eyes, the victory showed that change came from below: Working-class people were central agents when it came to ameliorating black suffering.
In 1948, Hansberry left Chicago for the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she began to tie her interest in the politics of poor black people to a growing interest in art. Reading the work of the Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey and then studying in Ajijic, Mexico, with the Guatemalan painter Carlos Mérida and others, she was introduced to an art that aimed at representing the global working class, those colonized people around the world who were being exploited in similar ways as black people in the United States.
Hansberry’s budding interest in art took her to New York in 1950. There she published her first poem, “Flag From a Kitchenette Window,” which depicts the American flag as seen through the window of a poor black person’s apartment. In the poem’s middle section, the hinge connecting racism at home and abroad appears in one perfect line: “Black boy in a window; Algiers and Salerno.” While her life would undergo many changes in the coming years, the view from this window would remain her compass.
The next few years saw Hansberry’s entry into black radical politics on the page and in the streets. In 1951 she moved to Harlem and began working for Paul Robeson’s Marxist newspaper Freedom—”the journal of Negro liberation,” in Hansberry’s words. There she wrote about everything from Richard Wright’s novel The Outsider, which she disliked, to Kwame Nkrumah’s election as prime minister of Ghana, which she applauded. She also began taking and teaching classes at Marxist adult education centers alongside such famous black radicals as Claudia Jones, Alice Childress, and W.E.B. Du Bois. In March of 1952, when Robeson couldn’t attend a conference in Uruguay because the United States had stripped him of his passport for being a communist, he sent Hansberry in his stead. She was not yet 22, but thanks to her writing and teaching, preeminent black Marxist intellectuals of an earlier generation looked to her to carry on their legacy.
That position made her marginal to many of her less radical peers in the civil rights movement, especially those who had turned away from the communist politics of the 1930s and ’40s. In 1952, as the movement entered its pivotal years and Brown v. Board of Education went before the Supreme Court, Hansberry grew increasingly interested in what was happening abroad. In a letter to Reporter magazine, she declared her support for Jomo Kenyatta, an anti-colonial activist in Kenya arrested for his putative affiliation with the Mau Maus, a militant group that fought to expel the occupying British colonial forces. Her growing internationalism was motivated by her belief that the battle against racism must be fought on all fronts and that any progress on the home front was only a beginning: Colonialism and capitalism still needed to be uprooted.
In 1952, Hansberry began dating Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish graduate student at New York University, and married him the following year. Like her, he was a dedicated leftist; the day before their wedding, they protested the death sentence imposed on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Politics dominated their family life as much as it did their public lives. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Hansberry identified as a lesbian, even though she remained married to Nemiroff. She joined the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization, and wrote a letter to its publication arguing that sexism and anti-queer oppression sprang from the same source and that combating one required combating the other. Later in the decade, she continued this project by writing queer fiction under the pseudonym Emily Jones. “She was a feminist, anticolonialist, and Marxist,” Perry explains, “and her sexuality became an essential part of her thinking through human relations.”
In 1959, Hansberry’s life changed dramatically. A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway—a feat never before accomplished by a black woman playwright—with a cast that included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil. But even more important was how the radical play was received: America’s mainstream (and often conservative) theater critics applauded it. “One of the biggest selling points about Raisin,” recalled Ossie Davis, who eventually replaced Poitier as Walter Lee Younger, “was how much the Younger family was just like any other American family.”
The play’s popular reception proved, over the years, to be a gift and a curse. The central arc of the story focuses on an inheritance. After Walter’s father dies, his mother receives a life insurance payment and decides to purchase a home in a white neighborhood. Yet the Youngers are soon confronted by a representative of a segregationist homeowners’ association, which offers to buy the house from them for more than they paid for it in order to keep them from moving into the neighborhood. The play was a powerful indictment of American racism and segregation, but it also left room for both conservative and radical interpretations. Many audience members identified with the Youngers because they saw their conflict as quintessentially American: What could be more so than acquiring a home? But in doing so, audiences ignored how it was a uniquely black story about the ways the capitalist housing market limited black people’s liberties.
While some chose to ignore the issues of race in the play, others ignored its none-too-subtle socialist politics. The play argued that white homeowners collaborated to use their wealth to enforce segregation and, where possible, dispossession. An FBI agent who watched the play as part of the bureau’s surveillance of Hansberry, however, reported that Raisin “contains no comments of any nature about Communism as such” and instead focuses on “negro aspirations,” as though one precluded the other. Everywhere she looked, people seemed to regard her as far less radical than she was.
Hansberry did all that she could to combat this misunderstanding. In 1960 she began working on Les Blancs, a play about three sons mourning their father’s death as their country fights for independence. Les Blancs tells their story by examining the mixed legacy of their father, an anti-colonial fighter, as well as the brutal and paternalistic legacy of their country’s colonizers. Through the play, Hansberry reminded her domestic audience that she was fundamentally anti-colonial in outlook and anything but an American liberal.
The following year, she was even more pointed in her criticism of both black and white paternalism in the United States. After the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1961, African Americans across the nation protested. Ralph Bunche, then an undersecretary-general of the UN, called the protesters “misguided misfits.” In response, Hansberry wrote a letter to The New York Times, arguing that “Negro leaders” who gained their position by telling “the white community exactly what the white community has made it clear it wishes to hear” shirk their duties to black people around the world. African American equality also required anti-colonial liberation.
Hansberry was often willing to criticize black elites in her pursuit of a more radical and egalitarian society, one that was socialist and feminist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, that would uplift working-class people—and in particular, women—around the world. She recruited other artists to this capacious cause. The night Nina Simone debuted at Carnegie Hall, Hansberry called not to congratulate her but to discuss what she could do to aid the civil rights movement. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk,” Simone recalled of their friendship. Within two months, they were fundraising together. In addition to fundraising, Hansberry continued to critique the inclusion of a privileged few black people (including herself) while excluding voices from the black working class. At the 1963 Negro History Week program of the Liberation Committee for Africa, she gave a speech in which she insisted:
Fair and equal treatment for Ralph Bunche, Jackie Robinson and Harry Belafonte is not nearly enough. Tea parties at the White House for the few will not make up for 300 years of wrong to the many. The boat must be rocked for the good of all.
When “inclusion” meant an entrance into the unequal distribution of power and wealth—even when it meant her own material gain—Hansberry wanted no part of it. Instead, she wanted “the good of all.”
As time went on, Hansberry grew increasingly frustrated by the special treatment accorded the black elite and began to believe that she could help poor black people only by giving them her platform. She followed through on this commitment in 1963. After the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy invited Hansberry, James Baldwin, and other black intellectuals and activists to discuss the protests. During the meeting, Kennedy spoke to the more famous intellectuals, ignoring Jerome Smith, a founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. This incensed Hansberry; according to Baldwin, she told Kennedy, “You have a great many very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General, but the only man you should be listening to is that man [Smith] over there.” After a moment in which Kennedy sat absolutely still, staring at her, she added, “That is the voice of twenty-two million people.” Afterward, Smith spoke about his work at some length.
As Hansberry interrogated her own position and those of other members of the black elite in the civil rights movement, she also began to question their commitment to nonviolence. At a forum hosted by the Association of Artists for Freedom called “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” she discussed the long history of racist repression and black resistance. “Since 1619, Negroes have tried every method of communication, of transformation of their situation from petition to the vote, everything,” she said. The time had come to consider violence as well as nonviolence as a tool for social change. Almost a year before Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” speech, Hansberry insisted that black people had exhausted nearly every other means and still hadn’t won substantive equality. In an essay from the year of Malcolm X’s speech, written for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s fundraising book The Movement, she again raised the question of whether nonviolence was enough. “Twenty million people began to ask with a new urgency,” she wrote, “IS nonviolence the way?”
For Hansberry, the failures of nonviolent protest not only were a matter of tactics but also reflected the intransigence of her generation—a theme she explored in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. The play follows a white couple with radical tendencies and artistic inclinations living in the countercultural enclave of New York City’s Greenwich Village. As they struggle to reconcile their romantic tensions and achieve success as artists, they also have difficulty understanding the radical nature of the ’60s.
Hansberry wrote sympathetically of this couple; she shared with them a bohemian past in New York. But she was unreserved about what she felt were their cultural and political flaws, too. “The artistic and political grounds on which they had grown,” Perry explains, had left their “generation ill prepared for responding to the struggles for racial emancipation.” Liberal reformism was no longer adequate, nor was a countercultural avant-gardism. The very foundations of American democracy needed to be transformed. A profoundly pessimistic play in Perry’s reading, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window diagnoses the problem but fails to provide a solution.
Although Hansberry’s untimely death preempted her ability to explore the kinds of solutions that might create such a foundational transformation, her funeral provided a rallying cry for activists and artists in the generations to come. At the service, the civil rights organizer James Forman, a former high school classmate of hers, said that her life demonstrated the importance of acting on one’s beliefs. Baldwin, who couldn’t attend the service, sent a wire insisting that “we” must not fail her. As Perry tells us, the mourners also included:
someone [who] risked his life to attend her funeral and milled about in the snow-covered crowd: Malcolm X. He was then in hiding and under constant death threats, yet frenetically trying to organize the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Like Lorraine, Malcolm was pursuing an anticolonial, internationalist model of freedom…. They both ran out of time. Three weeks after Lorraine’s funeral, on Nina [Simone]’s birthday, Malcolm was murdered.
By the second half of the 1960s, many of the most influential and increasingly radical voices of the civil rights movement were being extinguished prematurely. Helping to realize their aspirations would prove to be a task for others to take up. As Perry suggests, this work continues in the work of American leftists confronting the intertwining forces of sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and American imperialism.
Perry’s Looking for Lorraine joins a growing body of histories and biographies seeking to recover the political traditions of the black radicals of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. As Alan Wald argues in American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War, these figures have been neglected because the anti-communist hysteria of the mid-20th century “enforced forgetting” of the black and white leftists who were unsatisfied by the era’s liberalism and sought to better the conditions of the poor. Working against what Wald calls a “memory crisis,” Perry, as well as scholars like Mary Helen Washington and Lawrence Jackson, have demonstrated what has been omitted from the few histories of the left that were published, to say nothing of the liberal histories of the period. Black leftists, committed to socialist and anti-colonialist politics, not only persisted through the Cold War but also left a powerful legacy that can help us envision how to fight for anti-imperialism, socialism, and black liberation in the midst of counterrevolutionary times.
In Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1945–1995, Cheryl Higashida reminds us that “racism, patriarchy, and homophobia have combined potently with anticommunism to marginalize and silence radical Black women within communities, social movements, academia, and U.S. society at large.” A new generation of scholars is helping us recover those traditions of radical egalitarianism that were often erased by anti-communist historiography.
Much of this work has been led by black left feminists such as Perry, Dayo Gore, and Carole Boyce Davies, who have helped sustain this rich tradition of black egalitarianism that combated sexism as well as racism and poverty. In their works, they remind us that black radical women read or otherwise learned from one another. Angela Davis read the preeminent black left feminist of the postwar years, Claudia Jones. Maya Angelou admired the art of Hansberry and Abbey Lincoln. The Combahee River Collective’s identification with socialism was not surface-level or a departure from the norm but rather the result of a long history of black feminism’s concern with poverty, labor, and oppressive forms of governance.
Although Hansberry has often been incorporated into more liberal readings of the civil rights era, she remained committed to uprooting oppressive structures on a variety of fronts, like the other black left feminists of the era. She was a daughter of the black elite, but she believed working people were the agents for change and was committed to seeing the violence against them end. She was anti-imperialist but also an American. Had she lived longer, she would likely have been both a black power nationalist and an anti-colonial internationalist. As Perry deftly demonstrates, Hansberry occupied these seemingly contradictory positions because her concern for people’s suffering led her to take up a variety of positions, no matter how much they might appear, at first glance, to be in tension with one another. In this way, Hansberry remained true to her radical commitments even on her deathbed. She did not assume she knew all the answers, but she did want to see a less violent and more revolutionary world brought into existence. Hansberry never survived to see that world, but Perry’s recovery of her vision has made it all the more possible.
This article was originally published by The Nation.