REVIEW by Frédéric Lefrançois, Université des Antilles
Without a shadow of a doubt, the name Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) stands tall in the American literary hall of fame. This recognition derived from the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, a theatrical masterpiece that won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play of the Year, and catapulted its author onto the proscenium of the cultural stage. A patchwork of personal and collective memories coalesced into this major landmark of U.S. literature.
In the wake of her late father’s commitment to desegregation in Southside Chicago, Hansberry became the first African American female playwright to receive the national distinction and enjoy instant appraisal by Broadway. More than four decades after she passed away, her pioneering work continues to elicit praise and offer guidance to generations of Afrodescendants, like a beacon connecting the trans-colonial lives of the Black Atlantic heirs. How did this seminal work emerge in a mid-century North-American context rife with gender and racial discrimination?
It stands to reason that personal experience played a great part in this vast and variegated cultural field travailed by aesthetic considerations, but also by gender and ethnic issues. It is the scope embraced by Soyical Diggs Colbert’s meticulous biography of Lorraine Hansberry. Colbert, who is a professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University, offers here a vivid portrayal of this iconic figure of the Civil Rights era. In so doing, she engages a “multipronged approach” to the authorial figure, providing a multifaceted, and riveting picture of a larger-than-life writer who pitted all her strengths against the odds and evils of her time.
To achieve this goal, Colbert has delved into the archives of the playwright’s life, collecting a wealth of first-hand raw materials and unpublished (and often unfinished) manuscripts. In the process, she has crisscrossed artistic and political perspectives, with a view to revealing how Hansberry’s theater operated as a “rehearsal room for [her] political and intellectual work.”
The book is divided into eight sections organized around the principle of communicating vessels. A richly informed introduction entitled “Notes of a Native Daughter” — an eloquent tribute to Baldwin’s stylistic genius — centers on the architectonic family and individual antagonisms that usher in the larger picture of political struggles.
Chapter 1, for instance, draws in the connection to fatherly figures such as Paul Robeson, or Carl Hansberry (Lorraine’s father) whose struggle informs the aspirations for success and integration into American mainstream society. In the subsequent sections — engaged in the furrow of aesthetic innovation, the biographer intertwines the rhetoric of action with existentialist considerations that were dear to Hansberry. Addressing the extra-realistic urge to stand on “the ground to imagine and show the artifice and reality”, Colbert shows in Chapter 2 — “The Shaping Force of A Raisin in the Sun” — how Hansberry has appealed to class consciousness, racial emancipation, and joined the combat for ending segregation thanks to a dramatic art instilled with social justice. Chapters 5 and 6, respectively entitled “From Liberals to Radicals” and “With Her Mind Stayed on Freedom”, branch out on the last phases of the writer’s career and pave the way for a brilliant synthesis of Lorraine Hansberry’s political and literary evolution.