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I’ve been reading about Lorraine Hansberry.
After a long time of not reading very much at all about Lorraine Hansberry. There just wasn’t that much out there about her to read. Her work is (still) not in the Library of America, and even her papers were not generally available to scholars until a couple of decades ago. So there were few major biographies or revelations. Until about five years ago, the Chicago author of “A Raisin in the Sun” (and many lesser-known plays and writings) was a literary question mark, a figure of monumental importance — “Raisin in the Sun” is routinely considered a demarcation line in the representation of Black figures in America art — whose life and output appeared to begin and end with a single play.
Then PBS’ American Masters (via Sundance) aired a well-received documentary on Hansberry; the prolific Imani Perry wrote 2018′s “Looking for Lorraine Hansberry,” an entertaining, biographical rumination; last year, Soyica Diggs Colbert took the more scholarly route with “Radical Vision,” a close reading of Hansberry’s writings and stringent politics. Still to come: Margaret B. Wilkerson, the leading Hansberry scholar, and only biographer with complete access to the Hansberry estate’s trove of writings and papers, has been knocking away for decades on the definitive history of the author.
Until that’s done, there’s “Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind ‘A Raisin in the Sun’” (Holt, $29), by literary biographer (and Park Forest native) Charles B. Shields, who aims for the rounded, traditional, one-stop book that Hansberry has lacked thus far.
Which might sound like a lot of biography.
Particularly, again, since we’re talking about a writer known for one ma
jor play, whose steady lack of a public profile gestated into what Perry called “a persistent flatness.” Indeed, Hansberry shares a kind of one-note image with two other greats who died young and left small, important catalogs, Sylvia Plath and Stephen Crane, both of whom have been the subject of major, smart, counterintuitively hefty biographies in the past year. Shields is not as long-winded as those authors, but just as committed to the biography as not merely the story of a person but a deep dive into their life and times. Alas, Hansberry’s persistent flatness continues — she often reads implacable and rigid, difficult to get a handle on — but at least now there’s a fuller context for her personality.
She believed Black artists must commit to realism, leaving the curlicues of satire and surrealism to those less serious about advancing Black people in America; yet she also wanted a broad audience. As word of the still-developing “Raisin in the Sun” begins circulating, Hansberry, young and confident, is asked repeatedly to step into the shoes of W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson and become the proverbial spokesperson for Black America on all matters of race, and again and again, those requests face a multifaceted artist unwilling to placate. On Chicago TV’s “Irv Kupcinet Show,” she cooly dismisses Otto Preminger’s “Porgy and Bess” as the filmmaker sits beside her; when TV journalist Mike Wallace asks how she responds to liberals who congratulate her for writing a play that’s not just about Black people but incredibly, “a play about people,” she says that sort of supposed contradiction was lost on her. She was under the impression Black people were people.
Shields writes: “Black public intellectuals and artists who expressed complexity and enjoyed challenging talk about racial democracy were new in the media.” Hansberry, who feels contemporary here in a way rarely seen, did not apologize for complicating the easy assumptions of white America. When she’s asked — along with Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte — to meet with Robert Kennedy in the Kennedy family apartment on Central Park and discuss the growing racial protests and violence in the South, she demands the attorney general acknowledge the moral imperative to combat racism, not merely the legal urgency. She becomes so angry with his evasiveness, she walks out.
“Afterwards, she walked down Fifth Avenue,” Shields describes vividly, “her hands pressed hard against her middle, her face registering the pain in her stomach.”
The author told me in a phone conversation that, to get a handle on her brief, furious, meteoric life, he simply read for three years, about anything that dovetailed with her. The history of Harlem, real estate in midcentury Chicago, gender theory, histories of Black theater, Cold War politics, the thinking of American progressives in the 1950s.
She was vast.
“Ultimately, there are so many rich threads feeding into her life, unless you are really dedicated to knowing her, it would be hard to even read everything you need to read to know her, regardless of how young she died.” Hansberry died in 1965 of pancreatic cancer at age 34. Yet, beyond “Raisin in the Sun,” she was “very near a Communist,” Shields said. “She was upper middle class from a well-off family. She had the same kind of blind spots that many of us have with her own families, but hers, they were engaged in something that was antithetical to what she was saying as an artist. And still, she couldn’t let them go.”
Shields — who worked for years as a textbook author for Houghton Mifflin’s Evanston division, and later became a biographer of both Kurt Vonnegut and Harper Lee — is particularly good on detailing Hansberry family business and its myriad contradictions.
To put it mildly, the Hansberrys and Chicago’s Daley administration did not get along, and the subsequent tension and legal wrangling lends a compelling heart to this biography. If you know anything about Lorraine Hansberry, you know “Raisin in the Sun” — about a Black family that moves into a South Side neighborhood and struggles against housing discrimination as they aspire to middle-class lives — was based on her family. Her father, Carl, “came to Chicago intending to be a big success, and he was,” Shields said. His father had been a professor of ancient history in Mississippi, his mother made sure her children went to prep school. The family were Republicans, even as Black families were leaving for the Democrats. In Chicago, Carl ran a Blank-owned bank (that closed during the Red Summer of 1919), then realized a talent for real estate.
Specifically, he would attempt to break the practice of restrictive covenants, which denied housing to middle-class Black families (like the Hansberrys) eager to move into new neighborhoods. Long story short: The family buys real estate in Woodlawn, and then face a lawsuit brought by the Woodlawn Property Owners Association. The case goes to the Supreme Court. Carl, who anticipated all of this, wins. Soon, he is drafting off confidence, becoming an influential, society-minded building owner — whose own questionable tactics become a target for City Hall. Previous Hansberry biographers, Shields notes, couched these troubles as the result of vindictive, racist local officials.
But “Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind a Raisin in the Sun” wonders, and often documents, how opposing thoughts can be true at the same time. Discriminatory housing practices would not go quietly, but also, the Hansberrys were not sterling landlords. Lorraine — whose name is often attached to their holdings and gets asked by journalists if she herself is now a slumlord — eventually instructs her attorney to put legal distance between herself and her family’s business. She was growing famous. She died soon after. She loved Chicago, but called it dismal, dirty, “Dreiser-esque.” She loved the lake and the wind, but characterized herself as the product of a South Side “caldron.” She returned one Christmas and found the homecoming nostalgic, but also, troubling.
She went back to New York, but she had a good idea for a new play.