By Imani Perry
The first play by a Black woman ever performed on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is a classic of Black and American literature. But not everyone in the theater establishment understood it when it had its premiere sixty years ago on March 11, 1959. Nor did everyone understand Hansberry’s intellectual basis for the play. In this selection from the PEN/America Award-winning biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, author Imani Perry shows us how she responded to her critics. Hansberry had some choice words for her craft, too.
Lorraine was frustrated by some critical evaluations of the play, even as she understood them. She was particularly frustrated that Walter Lee’s “ends” were read without complication. They were deliberate and clearly shaped by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, the WPA Negro in Illinois project’s publication Black Metropolis, and Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which she considered an essential companion to the writings of Karl Marx. Walter Lee’s yearnings were a manifestation of Veblen’s theory of desire in a capitalist society, one that cut across class and caste. Her mastery of full characters, her sensitivity to speech and personality so that the characters never read as types, made the politics invisible to so many. But Lorraine intended to correct that.
In May of 1959 she wrote a letter to Bobby about a lecture she delivered at Roosevelt University. In it, she compared Arthur Miller’s classic character from Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, and her Walter Lee Younger and argued that Walter Lee had more heroic potential. The audience responded with a standing ovation. In an essay from the New York Times based on that talk, “Willie Loman, Walter Younger, and He Who Must Live,” Lorraine argued that Loman, that iconic figure of American drama, was a sign of the crisis provoked by the closing of frontier. He is “left with nothing but some left over values which had forgotten how to prize industriousness over cunning; usefulness over mere acquisition, and above all humanism over success.” Walter Younger, though wholly American, according to Lorraine, possessed a typicality that was different because he is Black and at every turn denied. His actions might affirm life rather than be caught in the death cycle of manifest destiny and consumerism.
This was in the tradition of Black Americans, according to Lorraine, a people who she says “have dismissed the ostrich and still sing ‘Went to the rock to hide my face, but the rock cried out: No hidin’ place down here!’” quoting the traditional Negro spiritual “Sinnerman,” which her dear friend Nina Simone would record six years later. Walter Lee’s assertion that they will move into the house despite the resistance of the white neighbors does not change the basic social order, according to Lorraine. It is not revolutionary. But it nevertheless matters a great deal, because it puts him at cross-purposes with “at least certain of his culture’s values” and he draws “on the strength of an incredible people who historically have simply refused to give up.” He has “finally reached out in his tiny moment and caught that sweet essence which is human dignity, and it shines like the old star-touched dream that is in his eyes.”
Even while defending her play, she accepted that in some quarters any critical judgment of it was attacked as racist, and she found that amusing. And yet “the ultra sophisticates have hardly acquitted themselves less ludicrously, gazing coolly down their noses at those who are moved by the play and going on at length about ‘melodrama’ and/or ‘soap opera.’”
Though she said some critics got the play terribly wrong, Lorraine admitted her own failures. The problem was just that Raisin’s critics had failed to actually ascertain what was wrong with it. She instructed them that the real problem with Raisin was it lacked a central character who anchored the play. She said that while some saw that as an inventive choice, it was a consequence of her indecisiveness and the limits of her skill. I am not sure Lorraine was correct. Mastery of the ensemble form was perhaps her greatest gift. But regardless of whether one takes her position or mine, her confident reading of her own work is unusual in its sharp assessment. It often amounted to quite brilliant ways of saying “they have no idea what they’re talking about.” In particular, and this became a recurring point of hers, she was highly critical of those who believed obscurity, total uniqueness, and inscrutability were markers of artistic sophistication. They attacked her play’s simplicity and use of convention or what she called “old bones,” but she believed more meaningful discussion tended to “delve into the flesh which hangs from those bones and its implications in mid-century American drama and life.”
Then she commented that though people made comparisons between her work and that of O’Casey and Chekhov, only one critic had noticed the connection between Raisin and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. (She noted this is partly because the ensemble overwhelms Walter Lee so he doesn’t stand out the way Willy Loman or Hamlet do.) But she also thought people failed to see Walter as like Willy because they couldn’t help but see Walter as an exotic character of the sort previously imagined in American drama in “‘Emperor Jones’ or ‘Porgy,’ . . . the image of the simply lovable and glandular ‘Negro.’” That figure of emotional abandonment and joyfully tolerated poverty, according to Lorraine, acquitted white viewers of their haunting guilt about American racism.
These observations were all part of Lorraine’s effort to show why so many people couldn’t really understand Walter Lee, and his motivations, as distinctly American. She ended that section of the article with a joke about a critic who remarked “of his pleasure at seeking how ‘our dusky brethren’ could ‘come up with a song and hum their troubles away.’ It did not disturb the writer that there is no such implication in the entire three acts. He did not need it in the play, he had it in his head.” This is funny, but it is no laughing matter. Lorraine identified a problem that persistently dogs Black artists. How does one navigate racial perceptions that overlay everything, that obscure and cast such that they effectively become part of the production no matter what the artist does? For Lorraine the answer was to become a critic.
It was unusual for a playwright to function as a critic. And in her critical assessments Lorraine eviscerated many of those who diminished her characters. That was even more unusual. Shortly after the publication of the Willy Loman essay, Lorraine ran into Brooks Atkinson, who had refused to publish it in the New York Times precisely because it was so strange for a playwright to write her own criticism. Years later, Philip Rose recounted this meeting. It took place in a theater, shortly after Atkinson announced his retirement from the New York Times after thirty-five years. At the intermission Lorraine walked directly up to him and introduced herself: “‘Mr. Atkinson, my name is Lorraine Hansberry.’ She reached out and held his hand as she continued to speak. ‘I have just read and been saddened by your announced retirement. I have admired and respected for years your contribution and love for the theatre and its playwrights. Your leaving will be a tremendous loss for all of us.’” Rose believed this encounter had quite an effect on Atkinson, because a few days later he sent a note of apology to Lorraine, explaining he had been suffering from personal problems when he declined her essay.
She was just so unusual. Lorraine was not a typical figure of the New York theater establishment because of her gender, race, and politics but also because of her relation to art as an intellectual. She pushed against all sorts of barriers and seemed to often captivate people despite their disinclinations.
About the Author
Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, where she also teaches in the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, and in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and spent much of her youth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago. She is the author of several books, including Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @imaniperry.