Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry

Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry. Soyica Diggs Colbert. New Haven: Yale, 2021; Pp. 273.

Soyica Diggs Colbert’s Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry (2021) adds to the discourse on Black Radical Thought through its examination of the life and art of Lorraine Hansberry. This biography establishes her masterpiece A Raisin in the Sun (1959) as only part of Hansberry’s story. With its focus on a black family’s dream to acquire the fruits of capitalism, the play countered pervasive stereotypes of black people by humanizing the black nuclear family. Due to the play’s popularity and the conservatism of the 1950s, however, Hansberry is not widely considered a black radical writer. Colbert, however, proves that she was.

The author’s in-depth analysis of Hansberry’s writings (published and unpublished) helps to tell a layered story of the playwright’s intersectional identity, radical activism, artistry, politics, and personal life. Colbert argues that Hansberry’s lifelong effort to “become free” in spite of racism, sexism, and homophobia has been overshadowed by her public persona as a pretty, passive, liberal, heterosexual, housewife compelled to tell the story of a black family’s struggle. Relying on archival materials, this book fills in gaps of the mainstream public’s perception of Hansberry.

The introduction to this book highlights three significant events in Hansberry’s life—her father’s death (1945), the opening of A Raisin in the Sun (1959), and her divorce from Robert Nemiroff (1964). Notably, Colbert ascribes Hansberry’s personal growth and identity formation; political and artistic development; and commitment to the collective pursuit of freedom for black people, women, and queer people in the U.S. and abroad as processes of “becoming free.” This notion is further explored in Chapter 1 as Colbert establishes that Hansberry’s writerly practice was an act of becoming free.

Taking as evidence the ideas and images in Hansberry’s short and longform writings in the decade before Raisin, Colbert unpacks the influence of mid-twentieth century leftist thought, existentialism, feminist materialism, and black internationalism on her politics. Hansberry’s work as a reporter for Freedom and for the Sojourners for Truth and Justice (STJ)—a woman-centered organization that situated black women’s experiences of oppression and resistance—are key. The author argues that Hansberry’s use of realism in her writing serves as an opportunity to represent everyday happenings while imagining change. Hansberry’s letters published in the The Ladder are offered as examples of her investment in her era’s gay and lesbian rights movement. Persuasively, Colbert asserts, “Analyzing Hansberry’s writing as both a practice of self-articulation and a political practice produces more nuanced and intersectional understanding of how to cultivate freedom and the self” (64).

In Chapter 2, the author traces Raisin from idea to production. Colbert also addresses its critical reception. By providing ideological context for Hansberry’s playwriting choices, and by examining repeated instances in which she was misquoted in interviews, the author counters misinterpretations of the play and Hansberry’s intent—including Harold Cruse’s assertion that her positionality as a middle-class black woman in an interracial relationship led her to incorporate the theme of integration to forward a universal representation of the black family for white audiences. Revealing Hansberry’s pro-Black and Marxist thought, as established in other writings and interviews, Colbert argues that Hansberry’s focus on a black working-class family aimed to show the negative effects of racism on black economic growth and legacy, regardless of class.

Chapter 3 foregrounds Hansberry’s boredom with Raisin and desire to resist the private and public (race, gender, sexual, economic, political) constraints that came with its success. Colbert writes, “In the three years following A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry created work that sought to invigorate once-degraded identities (Black, woman, lesbian) with potential. Her pursuit had personal consequences, as she continued to learn to live with her competing desires and commitments” (100). An analysis of the screenplay, The Drinking Gourd (1959), follows as an example of Hansberry’s critique of colonialism. The film was never produced because executives wanted to avoid controversy. While Hansberry’s success made it difficult to assert her political voice, she continued her activism.

Hansberry’s active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement provides the focus of Chapter 4. Her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) put her “commitment to mass and collective movement[s] for change” front and center (137). Hansberry and the SNCC created a photo essay called The Movement to show the horrors of American racism and the trappings of American exceptionalism for black people. Being a humanist and a radical, Hansberry believed that black people should pursue freedom at all costs while working across racial and class differences. The author shows how she experimented with these ideas and other existential questions in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964).

Chapter 5 recognizes Hansberry’s hope and despair as she fought cancer in 1964 at the age of 33. Having delved into her diary entries with a careful eye and critical ear, the author captures the stress of cancer, treatment, and the possibility of death that loomed over Hansberry. All this as she completed Les Blancs (produced posthumously in 1970), a play which features Tshembe, who must choose between diplomacy and revolutionary action. Colbert asserts, “The position Hansberry faced at the end of her life, confronting the failures of the civil rights movement (a movement that made her life worth living), the shortcomings of independence movements, and her impending death, mirrors Tshembe’s impossible position, teetering between violent and nonviolent action or some combination therein” (205-6). The author closes the chapter with a comparative analysis of Les Blancs with Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) and After the Fall (1964) to highlight the similarities and differences in these post-War narratives. It seems fitting to position these two American Theatre masters of realism in conversation with one another. In the inspiring epilogue, the author asserts that by envisioning acts of fugitivity, self-determination, and transgression for racialized, queer, and gendered persons in her work, Hansberry was essentially “writing herself into being” (226).

This book, reviewed by The New York Times, is a necessary addition to interdisciplinary discourse and contemporary re-evaluations of Hansberry. Like Imani Perry’s award-winning biography, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018), Radical Vision looks to Hansberry’s writing practice as a reflection of her radical, intersectional worldview. It contributes significantly to African Diaspora Studies, American Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, and Theatre Studies by presenting Hansberry as an artist and activist whose realist work reflected an ongoing process of “movement.” Colbert argues that Hansberry’s art and activism reflected a desire to put focus on and ultimately change the state, communities, and cultures for the better. In this critical biography, Colbert effectively shows that Hansberry’s politics are written into the fabric of her writing; one need only read those works closely and intertextually to hear a black radical voice.

Kristyl D. Tift
Vanderbilt University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 34, Number 1 (Fall 2021)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2021 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center