Chicago native Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin
in the Sun” premiered on Broadway in March 1959,
Hansberry received “what one critic called a
tremendous personal ovation when audience and cast
called her to the stage for repeated curtain calls,”
the Tribune reported at the time.
was just 28 when she became the first black woman to
have a play produced on Broadway. “A Raisin in the
Sun,” which centers on one black American family
living on the South Side of Chicago, was immediately
hailed by The New York Times as having “vigor as well
as veracity,” further arguing that it was “likely to
destroy the complacency of anyone who sees it.”
Perry, a Philadelphia resident and Princeton
University’s Hughes-Rogers professor of
African-American studies, considers Hansberry her muse.
As a child who spent her summers in Chicago, Perry was
exposed to the playwright’s work at a young age; as
Perry grew, so did her admiration of Hansberry — which
is why, Perry said, she wrote her new book, “Looking
for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine
really interesting because she’s such a singular
figure: the most widely read black woman playwright in
American history, the most widely produced black woman
playwright in American history,” Perry said. “She
lived a short life, but was extraordinarily accomplished
and there’s relatively little that has been written
about her in comparison to her contemporaries and
closest friends, like James Baldwin and Nina Simone.
was the product of (a) variety of communities — black
Chicago, the Greenwich Village crowd — she’s this
person who really pulled together so many identities and
experiences, and I think through her we can understand
(not only) so much about 20th-century American history,
but also … the pressing social issues of today.”
Tribune talked with Perry on the eve of her book’s
release about the complexity of Hansberry’s creative
scope, Chicago’s role as an incubator for her talent,
and what Hansberry would think of our current political
climate. Hansberry, who died at 34 in 1965 of pancreatic
cancer, wrote about policing and race, using her
platform to challenge inequality and racism. Perry
think the daily press lulls the white community falsely
in dismissing the rising temper of the ghetto and what
will surely come of it. The nation presumes upon the
citizenship of the Negro but is oblivious to the fact
that it must confer citizenship before it can expect
reciprocity. Until twenty million black people are
completely interwoven into the fabric of our society,
you see, they are under no obligation to behave as if
they were. What I am saying is that whether we like the
word or not, the condition of our people dictates what
can only be called revolutionary attitudes.”
said she hopes her book will be an invitation to delve
into Hansberry’s life further.
many biographies do we have about Abraham Lincoln or
Frederick Douglass or James Baldwin? She deserves a lot
of work,” Perry said. “We all learn about the Harlem
Renaissance in school, but we don’t tend to learn
about the Chicago Renaissance, and I think Lorraine
Hansberry can be a vehicle for us to begin to really
insist that we put Chicago in its proper place in the
history of black life.”
interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Do you
think Hansberry would be saddened by the current
political and racial climate?
think she would be outraged at the moment we’re in. I
think she would be incredibly outspoken, she would be
someone who would advocate being in the street, in the
courthouse, in the voting booth, in every possible way
in this moment. I don’t think she would necessarily
think that we would be further along; she understood how
trenchant inequality and racism are in our society.
Being from Chicago was so important for her, in part,
because it was the location of so much of both the dream
and its deferral for black Americans — this primary
migration destination, this place full of hope where
dreams are being snatched away. I think it gave her
insight into really how difficult the struggle was.
was the most remarkable thing you found out about her?
A: I will
say the thing that most surprised me was how prolific
she was. She just produced so much work in a relatively
short life and she was so incredibly well-read. She
wasn’t just a genius as a playwright, she was a
hardcore intellectual. I didn’t really have a sense of
that. The other piece was being in her papers and
letters; seeing her vulnerability and her places of
insecurity was profound. We think of these figures so
often — these great figures in history — in sort of
iconic ways and she was very real, very vulnerable. She
had a lot of self-doubt. And I was so moved by that,
because it really is an example of we all have to go
through that in order to do the work that we’re called
to do in this life.
Who’s picking up the mantle that Hansberry left
don’t know if I could identify a singular person, but
I do think there are organizations and individuals who
are asking the kinds of questions that she asked. I
think of a playwright like Lynn Nottage, a novelist like
Jesmyn Ward, an activist like Charlene Carruthers of the
Black Youth Project. They’re people who I think are
really sort of descendants of her, intellectually and
politically and artistically.
Q: Do you
think that if her family had opted to go to New York
instead of Chicago, she would be a different person?
hard to imagine her having become precisely who she was,
had she come of age in another place. If for no other
reason, to come of age on the South Side at the period
in which she did, the fact that her family was affluent
and highly educated, did not remove her from the larger
black community. She was in the middle of it; she felt
deeply connected to black poor and working-class people.
And she was also impacted by the very particular and
ugly brand of exclusion and racism that existed in
Chicago. One thing that is really interesting to me, in
light of the present moment, is she talked about
policing and racism a lot and her anger over that —
which certainly comes from her experience seeing how
police officers failed to protect black people and often
targeted and harassed black people.
else should we know about Hansberry?
think it’s really important to say that Hansberry is
someone who didn’t finish college and struggled
academically. James Baldwin (struggled) similarly. I
think it is important to tell young people that academic
success is wonderful, but it’s not the only way to
cultivate your mind or to become excellent and those
types of models. We need to have them and to acknowledge
them in that way, because we have kids who think that
they are stupid because they struggle in school. There
are these models, geniuses, for whom that institution
didn’t necessarily work, but that didn’t get in
their way of their intellectual development.
are you hoping readers of the book take away from it?
A: I hope
it has an impact on people. At this moment, she’s so
young. She gets this huge success, and for many people,
the impulse might be to protect that, but instead she
uses her platform to be bold and challenging. She takes
the access and fame she has and instead of using it to
protect her work, she uses it to fight on behalf of
black people, of poor people, of oppressed people all
over the world. I hope that we’re all inspired by
that, to be willing to (take a) risk for the sake of
what’s right and good.