Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry is a watershed biography of the award-winning playwright, activist, and artist Lorraine Hansberry. If people know anything about Lorraine (Perry refers to her as Lorraine throughout the book, explaining why she does so), they’ll recall she was the author of A Raisin in the Sun, an award-winning play about a family dealing with issues of race, class, education, and identity in Chicago. Lorraine’s extraordinary life has often been reduced to this one fact in classrooms—if she is taught at all.
Lorraine’s papers, including her letters and unpublished works, were private for years, with the public hearing only whispers or half-formed truths about some of the most significant aspects of Lorraine’s identity: her sexuality and her radical political leanings. In 2014, the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust published a wealth of never-before-seen letters, writings, and journal entries, “her heart and her mind put down on paper.” Perry pored over these pages, and four years later wrote Looking for Lorraine. In the book, readers get bits and pieces of Perry, too, as she describes her journey with Lorraine, detailing her thoughts as both an admirer, and a biographer.
Perry truly brings Lorraine to life in this intimate book. I found myself wishing I could have been Lorraine’s friend, or at the very least, a fly on the wall during some of her passionate discussions about politics, race, literature and art with friends and colleagues. It seems illogical that someone who was such a font of creativity, so full of life and laughter and accomplishments, had such a tragically short life. Lorraine died at age thirty-four from pancreatic cancer. Here are nine radical and radiant facts from Looking for Lorraine to introduce you to one of the most gifted, charismatic, yet least understood, Black artists.
Fact 1: The one fact you might already know! Lorraine Hansberry was the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. She was also the youngest playwright and the first Black winner of the prestigious Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play.
Fact 2: Lorraine was raised in the South Side of Chicago. When she was young, her family famously fought against racial segregation, attempting to buy a home that was covered by a racially restrictive covenant—ultimately leading to the Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee.
Fact 3: Lorraine was a talented visual artist. In college, she took classes in stage design and sculpture, and turned her dorm room into an art studio.
Fact 4: Lorraine worked at the progressive black Freedom Newspaper (published by Paul Robeson) with W. E . B. Du Bois, who served as one of her mentors. The paper published articles about feminist movements, global anti-colonialist struggles, and domestic activism against Jim Crow laws. Lorraine identified as an American radical and believed that extreme change was necessary to fight against racism and injustice internationally. Perry explains that though the term “radical” has negative associations, for Lorraine, “American radicalism was both a passion and a commitment. It was, in fact, a requirement for human decency” (150).
Fact 5: Indeed, Lorraine was an outspoken political activist from a young age. She was the president of her college’s chapter of Young Progressives of America, she and worked on progressive candidate Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign. Her friend Nina Simone said, “we never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always, Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.”
Fact 6: In 1963, she met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in New York City days after the protests and unrest in Birmingham Alabama (along with her close friend James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Clarence Jones and Jerome Smith, among others). Lorraine was graceful, poised, and elegant (journalists and critics always also seemed to mention her petite frame or “collegiate style”), but could be icy and confrontational when the situation demanded—and sometimes it was demanded. The group told Kennedy that the federal government was not doing enough to protect the civil rights of African Americans, but the attorney general didn’t agree. Baldwin remembers:
“Her face changed and changed, the way Sojourner Truth's face must have changed and changed . . . ‘We would like,’ said Lorraine, ‘from you, a moral commitment.’ He did not turn from her as he had turned away from Jerome. He looked insulted--seemed to feel that he had been wasting his time . . . Then, she smiled. And I am glad she was not smiling at me. She extended her hand. ‘Goodbye, Mr. Attorney General,’ she said, and turned and walked out of the room. We followed her.” (James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption)
Fact 7: Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was written in memory of her close friend Lorraine. The song has also famously been recorded by artists including Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. The title of the song comes from a speech she gave to young people.
Young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
This is a quest that's just begun
Fact 8: Though she married a man, Lorraine identified as a lesbian. Risking public censure and process of being outed to the larger community, she joined the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization, and submitted letters and short stories to queer publications Ladder and ONE. In one of her stories, “The Anticipation of Eve,” Lorraine describes the moment the protagonist Rita is about to see her lover Eve with lush, tender language:
I could think only of flowers growing lovely and wild somewhere by the highways, of every lovely melody I had ever heard. I could think only of beauty, isolated and misunderstood but beauty still . . . Someday perhaps I might hold out my secret in my hand and sing about it to the scornful but if not I would more than survive (86).
In Perry’s words, this moment captures “the tension . . . between family and gender expectations and the way homophobia could crush intimacies in the most heartbreaking of ways even as romantic love made space for them” (86).
Fact 9: This isn’t a major life milestone of Lorraine’s, but it’s too fascinating not to include it!) In April 1960, she wrote a fascinating list of what she liked and hated. Among the “likes”: her homosexuality, Eartha Kitt, and that first drink of Scotch. Among the “hates”: being asked to speak, cramps, racism, her homosexuality, and silly men.
About the Authors
Emily Powers joined Beacon in 2016 after three years at Cornell University Press. Previously, she worked as an intern at the UN Refugee Agency and Harvard Common Press. She is a graduate of Le Moyne College. Follow her on Twitter at @emilykpowers.
Bella Sanchez is a recent graduate from Boston University, and the marketing intern for Beacon Press.