How Often the Word “First” Appears in the Life of Writer Lorraine Hansberry

From a New York Times book review by Parus Sehgal headlined “The Brief, Brilliant, and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry”:

The curtain rises on a dim, drab room. An alarm sounds, and a woman wakes. She tries to rouse her sleeping child and husband, calling out: “Get up!”

It is the opening scene — and the injunction — of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” the story of a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago. “Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of Black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” her friend James Baldwin would later recall. It was the first play by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. When “Raisin” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play, Hansberry — at 29 — became the youngest American and the first Black recipient….

Hansberry seemed to anticipate it all. At the triumphant premiere of “Raisin,” at the standing ovation and the calls for playwright to take the stage, she initially refused to leave her seat. “The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all,” she later wrote, “is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”

Hansberry died in 1965, at 34, of cancer. The fact still feels intolerable, almost unassimilable — her death not merely tragedy but a kind of theft. “Look at the work that awaits you!” she said in a speech to young writers, calling them “young, gifted and Black” — inspiring the Nina Simone song of the same name. Look at the work that awaited her….

But a flurry of recent renewed interest attests to how much Hansberry did accomplish — the range of her interests and seriousness of her political commitments. There has been Imani Perry’s 2018 book “Looking for Lorraine”….The pre-eminent Hansberry scholar Margaret B. Wilkerson has a book in the works.

To this Soyica Diggs Colbert, a professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University, adds her contribution with “Radical Vision,” positioned as the first scholarly biography. Here is Hansberry resurrected from the archives, from her scripts, scraps and drafts. Through a series of close readings, Colbert examines “how her writing, published and unpublished, offers a road map to negotiate Black suffering in the past and present.”

To quote Simone de Beauvoir, an important influence, Hansberry could not think in terms of joy or despair “but in terms of freedom.” And she could not think of freedom as a destination but as a practice, full of intervals, regressions….

Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in the first Black-owned and -operated hospital in the nation. She was a “movement baby,” Colbert writes. Her father built a real estate empire by chopping up larger apartments into smaller units to provide housing for the waves of Black migrants who fled the South only to encounter deeply segregated Chicago.

In 1937, the family moved to a white neighborhood — the story she revisits in “Raisin.” A segregationist landowners’ association challenged the sale of the house. White mobs harassed the family, on one occasion throwing a concrete mortar through the window. It narrowly missed Hansberry, who was 7 years old.

These years taught Hansberry the necessity of fighting on all fronts. Her father filed a lawsuit, and Hansberry recalled her “desperate and courageous mother,” home without him, “patrolling our house all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children.”

Colbert’s study is loving, lavishly detailed, repetitive and a little stilted in the telling. (The notes, however, are splendid — fluent, rich and full of a feeling of discovery; here she permits herself to speak more freely.) The book circles a few points very dutifully — even as we feel Colbert itching to rove. She has a habit of making arresting asides and then refusing to follow their trail: “Hansberry’s writing suggests that she understood Blackness to implicitly include what we would now describe as queerness.”…

Hansberry exhorted students to “write about our people, tell their story. Leave the convoluted sex preoccupations to the convoluted.” And yet out of her own convolutions, a new self was emerging, a new understanding. “I feel I am learning how to think all over again,” she wrote anonymously to a lesbian magazine.

What would this thinking have wrought? Her impatience, her greed for work, for thought — for more life — is palpable until the end. The final journal entries burn. She is desperate for her lover (“I consumed her whole”) stuck in the hospital, she is hungry to return to her play. “The writing urge is on,” she wrote. “Only death or infirmity can stop me now.”

Radical Vision:
A Biography
Of Lorraine Hansberry
By Soyica Diggs Colbert
Illustrated. 273 pages. Yale University Press. $30.

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