Sometimes I think that “ambivalent” should have been my middle name. I am more than usually ambivalent about Imani Perry’s biography, Looking for Lorraine. This started as early as wondering why the title italicizes the first two words and rose when confronted with the subtitle, “The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry” (nothing italicized). Hansberry (1930-65) was a leftist, a member of the US branch of the communist party commanded by Josef Stalin (when her membership lapsed, Perry does not say; I imagine that it was no later than 1956, when the Soviets put down the rebellions of sorts in Hungary).
What I balk at is “radiant.” Aside from her doctrinaire attack on Richard Wright’s The Outsider (I realize the book published in 1953 that she was eviscerating differs considerably from the full version I read in the Library of America edition) and other kneejerk attack on those who left “the party” and criticized how it used black Americans (Ralph Ellison, provides another example), Hansberry (1930-65), in Perry’s own words, Hansberry’s “depression, introversion, and restless intellectualism sometimes got in the way.” And her hectoring of critics (at least white ones, though the greatest absurdities came from Howard Cruse and LeRoi Jones; the latter, now Amiri Baraka, eventually recanted his). Throw in the pancreatic cancer that felled her before she turned 35 and which she was lied to about by her physicians and ex-husband/executor (Robert Nemiroff). I’d buy “tragically foreshortened life,” for sure.
Perry spent years working through the Hansberry archives (carefully preserved by Robert Nemiroff, who finished her play “Les Blancs, put together the very successful “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” and arranged for all her papers, including lesbian-themed ones, to be preserved at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Irritatingly to me, Perry frequently does not include the date of material, only the box and file number in that collection. Also, she does not seem to have reached out to make inquiries to many of those who knew Hansberry who were alive when she began her project (many of whom are now dead). If she had, this might have been the “definitive” biography that Cornel West claims it is.
Perry is not altogether uncritical of Hansberry (e.g., in regard to the Wright review, though not in regard to “Les Blancs”) and definitely cannot be faulted for ignoring Hansberry’s lesbian relationships (and seeming orientation and identity). And she is appropriately grateful to Nemiroff for preserving the lesbian material and for supporting Hansberry’s writing, before and after their marriage, and continuing long after her death.
I guess the “radiant” in the title signals that the book is a hagiography. Nonetheless, it is often interesting and based on considerable research—along with many surmises. “Must have” is one of my least favorite constructions in any biography, followed by ones that begin with “certainly.” “I imagine” (which I borrowed myself above) is less question-begging IMHO. I also loathe “trouble” as a verb and don’t think Perry understands what “worldly” or “minor key” means, and I don’t think that Bertholt Brecht’s work was within “theater of the absurd).
Having (once upon a time) read “Les Blancs” and “To Be Young Gifted and Black” (and, of course read and seen “A Raisin in the Sun), as well as her letters as a pseudonymous lesbian to homophile publications, I did not need the book or the PBS “American Masters” program on Hansberry that was broadcast earlier this year to know who Hansberry was. I learned about her slumlord father, and her interactions with her elders Paul Robeson (on whose magazine, Freedom, she worked and whom she represented in a communist conference in Uruguay, which resulted in her passport being revoked, as his had been) and W.E.B.DuBois (from whom she took courses at the Jefferson School, where she also taught classes, having made it through less than a year at the University of Wisconsin, Madison). There is a lot on James Baldwin (much not directly about his relationship with Hansberry), some on Nina Simone (who wrote and performed the song “To Be You Gifted and Black) and Malcolm X (who attended her funeral, though he was in hiding, a few weeks before his assassination).
Heather’s Strain’s two-hour PBS documentary, “Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart,” does not mention any posthumously produced work, not even “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” or posthumous reputation (does one solid play a master make?). Perry, BTW, is one of the talking heads onscreen. “I’m pretty sure that neither “Stalin” nor “party discipline” is mentioned.
I was disappointed that the always articulate Rita Moreno, star of Hansberry’s second Broadway play, the flop “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” was not heard from.