A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is one of the foundational books behind English curricula across the country. In Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, African American studies scholar Imani Perry presents a full look at its percipient playwright.
Hansberry was born toward the beginning of the Great Depression and died toward the end of the Civil Rights Movement. In her 34 years, Hansberry became the first black woman to open a show on Broadway. She also wrote for a pan-Africanist newspaper and she was recognized as one of the up-and-coming artist-activists of her time.
“There are enticing details: she was a Black lesbian woman born into the established Black middle class who became a Greenwich Village bohemian leftist married to a man, a Jewish communist songwriter,” Perry writes. “She cast her lot with the working classes and became a wildly famous writer. She drank too much, died early of cancer, loved some wonderful women and yet lived with an unrelenting loneliness.”
Although Perry’s biography follows the standard biographical style, she notes from the beginning that she does not want the book to be some disinterested statement of facts. In fact, Perry acknowledged her own baggage and biases before she began the biography—something most biographers leave unsaid.
The point that Perry makes is that even though Hansberry was remarkable and revolutionary, she was still just a person. While her works—like A Raisin in the Sun— stay “static” after they’re written, Hansberry was a real person with real prowess and real problems.
These aspects come clearly to a reader as Perry simply recounts Hansberry’s life. She did not exit the womb with a playwright’s pen or a desire to shake the status quo. She wanted to be a lawyer before she wanted to be a journalist before she wanted to be a visual artist before she wanted to be a playwright, an activist and an icon.
That no significant biographies have been written about Hansberry as a whole person clearly animates Perry. How could a woman who moved so deliberately through the circles Hansberry moved through receive only “persistent flatness” in retellings of her life?
Perry produces many passages that roll over the reader like water, maintaining a largely readable style throughout the book. Notably, she treats Hansberry—who she refers to as Lorraine throughout—as a close friend. She’s not putting Hansberry on display for present-day readers to judge as much as she is eulogizing the life of a loved one.
Audiences who enter Looking for Lorraine expecting a biography that emphasizes an historian’s rigorous look at a long-passed public figure may be disappointed. While she declines to leave out the bad bits of Hansberry’s life, Perry explicitly describes her book as an “homage” to Hansberry.
At one point, Perry declines to further investigate a mysterious signature scratched out in one of Hansberry’s old yearbooks with the logic that “the biographer mustn’t venture from archaeology to intrusion or wild speculation, despite the intriguing possibilities of the latter two.”
Although some academic historians may still want to do those deep digs into the details, the lay reader would likely accept the agnosticism. Perry prioritizes the important parts of her subject over the salient gossip.
Looking for Lorraine is not a complete rendering of Hansberry’s life, but it is a full and holistic one. After finishing the piles of papers and assignments for the fall semester, students should pick up Perry’s book; at less than 250 pages, it may provide a much-needed palate cleanser after months of academia.