Looking for Lorraine

By Imani Perry

Beacon Press | 2018

Reviewed by Kalamu ya Salaam

We’ll Understand Her Better, By and By


What makes anyone want to write? Especially stage plays, for which there is not a ton of money to be made nor easy fame to achieve. Moreover, in our Anglo-centric culture there are serious literary mountains you’ll be required to surmount, and, if not surmount, at the very least you will be compared to and contrasted against thousands of years of drama going back to the ancient Greeks. I mean, why even try?

Early in my career as a dramatist, I remember being accused of Brechtian tendencies. This was before I had even heard of Brecht and at that time was oblivious to his work and influence, or so I surmised. The paradox is that we often are committed to ideas we were not the first to think of, even though we may have come to those ideas based on our own thinking about things.

That’s because life is life, and we should not buy into the false notion that any individual, or any particular culture is the origin of a specific idea when the idea may be common to different people at different times. Yes, our articulation may have particular wrinkles, but the fabric as a whole is common to many.

But while there are commonalities to the human condition, there are also distinctive particulars into which perceptive writers are able to plummet and bring specific observations to the surface of their times. Lorraine Hansberry was one of only a handful of writers, of any culture and any time period, who had relevance in both her time period, as well as for decades and decades after her death.

I believe her lasting impact is precisely because although she wrote about her people and their experiences, she was not searching solely for immediate impact. She seemed to be searching for answers to the eternal conundrum: what are we here for and what does life mean? Her search started at home and included the people surrounding her life, but her vision was stretching out into the vastness of human life and struggle.

Looking for Lorraine is important because it gives particular context to the life and literary work of Lorraine Hansberry. Imani Perry is an inventive writer, and more importantly, an honest writer. Rather than veil her investigation in some mystical connection to Ms. Hansberry, at each phase Perry is honest and articulate in making clear what her investigation reveals not only about Lorraine Hansberry but also what her search reveals about Perry herself as the biographer.

Perry drew extensively on the New York City Schomburg Research Center Hansberry archives, and I found her notations both brutally honest and often intimately striking, particularly with regard to Hansberry’s personal life. One impression about Robert Nemiroff, Lorraine’s husband, was noteworthy to me.

Nemiroff was an indefatigable caretaker of the Hansberry legacy. In 1984 I wrote a short appreciation of Lorraine Hansberry’s work and encouraged my readers to delve into a deeper re-reading beyond Hansberry’s major work, A Raisin in The Sun. In preparation for my essay, I contacted Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s former husband, and he was both extremely helpful and very forthcoming in offering his personal views and insights. It was obvious to me that there had been a deep love between him and Lorraine Hansberry.

I found myself a bit taken aback when I read “On March 10, 1964, Lorraine and Bobby obtained a divorce in Juarez, Mexico.” Why? Somehow, over a half century after her death in 1965, I too felt protective of Lorraine Hansberry and wanted only the best for her. My instinctive view was that the best did not include divorce, which was a reality in her life.

Based on my brief contact with Nemiroff, I believed their love was a deep love; I never thought about them separating, even though they had long been divorced when he and I conversed. His serious caretaking for her work and legacy, obviously was greater than the separation of divorce.

Perry does not delve into the impact of Hansberry’s divorce and focuses instead on Hansberry’s work and activism throughout her brief 34-year lifetime, concluding as she struggled to survive a terminal illness. Rather than speculate about what she doesn’t know, Perry instead sticks to the facts she has uncovered and the documentation she successfully searched through in preparing a well-researched book. This biography successfully illuminates Hansberry’s friendships and associations with major figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, and Nina Simone. While not exhaustive, this 200-page biography, is instead both factually informative as well as sensitively rendered.  

Lorraine was a first in many ways, and in other ways she was more than a first. In the community of Black artists, she was simply Lorraine. As the first Black woman playwright to have work featured on Broadway, she was referred to both formally as Ms. Hansberry as well as sometimes in a most familiar way as “sweet Lorraine,” signifying both respect and affection. But beyond being “first Negro to. . .” Ebony magazine material, Lorraine Hansberry was also a political radical. She was totally committed to being both a witness of the turbulent times within which she was born, and an activist committed to fanning the flames of social struggle.

Imani Perry’s wonder-filled biography is accurately and prophetically subtitled “The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.” There are indeed those for whom writing is a means to work at making life better than the world into which the writer is born. Writers who are resolute about helping to create not only a different world but indeed a world that approaches, even if it and they never achieve that goal: a world better than what surrounds them. Lorraine Hansberry was such a writer, and Imani Perry helps us see Lorraine for the committed artist that she was.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a new writer for the Neworld Review

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