Review: Emily Bernard on Imani Perry's Lorraine Hansberry

Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry is a story about a story. Author Imani Perry describes the book as “less a biography than a genre yet to be named.” In tender, elegant prose, Perry establishes her literary mission, which is to honor the ambition of the late Lorraine Hansberry, the first African American writer to have a play produced on Broadway, “to put down the stuff” of her life. But what exactly constitutes the stuff of a life? Perry, a formidable scholar with a poet’s voice, attends to the big-ticket events that turned Hansberry into a target for the FBI with the same nuance and compassion with which she treats the private self that Hansberry revealed in journals and correspondence. Looking for Lorraine is a refreshing and unusual life study that gives readers insight into the challenges, temptations, and limitations inherent in biography itself.

This singular book tells the story of a singular individual. Hansberry’s life intersected with broader historical changes early, when her father staged a legal battle to buy a home for his family in a neighborhood restricted to white buyers, a case that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. Carl Hansberry plotted strategy with his lawyers and the NAACP while Mrs. Hansberry stayed at home to fend off a “howling white mob” with her German Luger pistol. Someone hurled a block of cement through the window that “almost caught Lorraine’s head,” Lorraine’s sister recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. The trauma of this experience, as well as the determination and fortitude of her father and mother, left its mark with young Lorraine, who revisited these events in fictional vignettes years before she composed her best-known work A Raisin in the Sun, still the most famous play produced by an African American writer.

When it came to the Civil Rights Movement, Hansberry was born with skin in the game, and she was compelled to assume public roles that did not align with her actual political convictions. For instance, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy invited Hansberry, as well several other famous black public figures, like her close friend James Baldwin, to discuss racial discord in Birmingham in 1963. Hansberry walked out of the meeting when Kennedy refused to name racial discrimination as a moral problem. It is not a coincidence that, a month after Hansberry’s dramatic exit, Kennedy used the language of morality in his now famous speech on civil rights. But Hansberry’s politics ran far to the left of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, she had fully embraced communism a decade before her meeting with Kennedy. “Lorraine rejected the American project but not America. She saw her embrace of radical politics as a commitment to it, to what it could be.” Perry corrects popular misreadings of Hansberry’s politics and her person. “Her middle-class background formed the basis for her dismissal by many Black leftists who ought to have known better,” Perry writes, like Malcolm X, who once berated Hansberry for having married a white man. Hansberry took him to task and the two went on to build a strong relationship. Malcolm X was at Hansberry’s funeral when she died of pancreatic cancer at the age of thirty-four. He was assassinated three weeks later.

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“The task of the biographer is always incomplete,” writes Perry. “No matter how meticulous she takes herself to be, the biographer mustn’t venture from archaeology to intrusion or wild speculation, despite the intriguing possibilities of the latter two.” The writer risks flattening out nuances, or imposing order or logic where it doesn’t exist, for the sake of narrative coherence. Perry avoids the pitfalls by allowing Hansberry her contradictions, and leaving some mysteries intact.

Primary among those mysteries is the stuff of Perry’s romantic life. Hansberry was a lesbian who was, not surprising for her time, ambivalent about her sexuality. Hansberry had passionate relationships with women during her short life. She also had an authentic and abiding connection with her husband, Robert Nemiroff. “He was a friend until her death, a caretaker, one who encouraged and facilitated her writing, and after her death the one who ensured her legacy.”

In Looking for Lorraine, Perry introduces us to Hansberry’s rich interior world, where she both liked and disliked her homosexuality, judged herself harshly for her lack of creative discipline, and battled with depression and loneliness. Perry’s Hansberry was a passionate, searching, and powerful thinker. She was lonely but also deeply loved, a “political daughter” to her mentor, W. E. B. Du Bois, and a spiritual sister to activist-artists like Nina Simone and James Baldwin. She describes Baldwin and Hansberry’s bond as an ability to “swim in each other’s imaginations. Neither one imitating the other, but after bathing in the other’s words they return back to the shore, to the work, shaped by the beloved’s waters. That is what I see, what was so special, about these friends.”

It is Perry’s own vision that ultimately makes Looking for Lorraine an evocative and resounding experience. Perry ends her biography with a visit to Hansberry’s grave, an affecting journey that echoes the job of the biographer, which is to make a life visible. It is a deeply humane and nearly impossible task, the work of trying to reveal a true self. “I try to catch a likeness of her,” Perry tells us in the first pages. The careful balance of vulnerability and authority in Perry’s narrative makes Looking for Lorraine more than just a study of an extraordinary individual and something closer to a meditation on memory itself. In the end, all of us reside in the stories others tell, the stuff of our lives becoming the stuff of their own.

The paperback of Looking for Lorraine will appear on September 17 and is available for preorder now.

Emily Bernard is the author of Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White. Her newest book, Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine will be out in paperback in December. 

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