A Q&A with Imani Perry
Just in time for Pride Month! Our favorite playwright and civil rights activist, Lorraine Hansberry, has been immortalized with a statue unveiled on June 9 in Times Square. Created by sculptor Alison Saar under the auspices of the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative, the installation, To Sit Awhile, features a figure of Lorraine surrounded by five bronze chairs, each representing a different aspect of her life. It will tour several US cities, including Washington, DC, Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia, until it takes up permanent residence in Chicago, Lorraine’s hometown. Is she finally getting her moment in the sun? Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Imani Perry, author of the PEN and Lambda Award-winning biography, Looking for Lorraine, to chat about it.
Christian Coleman: PBS’s documentary about Lorraine was released months before your biography on her was published. Looking for Lorraine swept up major awards and was even a clue on Jeopardy! And now there’s the installation. Do you feel she’s finally getting the long-overdue recognition she deserves?
Imani Perry: I believe that Lorraine is having a well-deserved extended period of recognition. I am also thrilled that A Raisin in the Sun is reportedly returning to Broadway in the fall. But I’m still holding out hope that her other work, especially Les Blancs and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, will be produced more frequently. They’d also be incredible films. Part of what I tried to show in Looking for Lorraine is that she had a substantial body of excellent work and that remains elusive. But there’s a beautiful community of women who I think of as Lorraine’s daughters, and we are all doing the work of sustaining her legacy, and so I have to believe it will happen.
CC: What was your reaction when you found out that the installation was being sculpted in her memory?
IP: I was deeply moved when I heard about the installation, and I’m grateful to have been in conversation with the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative. The sculptor is the great Alison Saar, and her sister, Lezley Saar, allowed me to use her art on another of my books, Vexy Thing. And of course their mother, Betye, is also an extraordinary artist. I think the Saar family, all of whom do work that rigorously interrogates the politics of race and gender, share common ground with Lorraine Hansberry, and so that makes it especially profound.
CC: The installation features five chairs that represent different aspects of Lorraine’s life. Do they match up with or overlap with what you wrote in your biography? Do you see the installation as a piece in conversation with Looking for Lorraine?
IP: I think what the sculpture captures is the way Lorraine’s life is an invitation to contemplate a range of key human issues, and that’s something I tried to capture, too. She was a brilliant artist and an intellectual but also a soulful feeling person with an identity at the crossroads. There’s something so viscerally satisfying about literally being invited to sit awhile with her. It makes the emotional experience of being in her life corporeal. I think she would have loved that. And, of course, when she was younger, Lorraine was a visual artist as well, and the lines of the sculpture are reminiscent of her print work, so it really is beautifully immersive.
CC: In our times today, amidst a pandemic, continued anti-Black violence, and pearl clutchers ranting about their phantasms of critical race theory, what do Lorraine’s legacy and your biography mean to you now?
IP: At every turn, there are attacks in this society on everything Lorraine stood for as a radical leftist anti-imperialist Black lesbian feminist with a Black nationalist sensibility who loved the study of history in the service of freedom. I love when I hear that people are reading Looking for Lorraine because, to me, it is a sign that they are refusing the bigoted anti-intellectual forces of our time. I’m grateful to have written in the service of liberation and for Lorraine, who modeled how to do so, so beautifully.
About Imani Perry
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.