An intimate portrait of the artist as a black woman at the crossroads.
Perry (African-American Studies/Princeton Univ.; May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, 2018, etc.) feels strongly that Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) is an “important writer who has far too little written about her [and]…about her life.” This is a deeply personal book, less a biography than perhaps a “third person memoir” or “homage.” Perry infuses the narrative with a sense of urgency and enthusiasm because she believes Hansberry has something to teach us in these “complicated times.” Impressively, she tells her subject’s story in a tightly packed 256 pages. In her early years, Hansberry was radiant. The middle-class girl who grew up on Chicago’s South Side wasn’t the best student, but she had a “gift for leadership.” She displayed a sense of melancholy and loneliness as well as an insatiable intellectual yearning. After briefly attending the University of Wisconsin, she moved to New York, first to Greenwich Village and then Harlem, where she immersed herself in politics and 1950s activism with other intellectuals and artists. She married her partner in the radical left, Robert Nemiroff, in 1953. They divorced, amicably, in 1964, and Nemiroff would remain a friend, caretaker, and champion of her writings and legacy. Perry argues that we must deal head-on with Hansberry’s sexuality; it’s “unquestionable” that she was a lesbian, and the author discusses it in detail. Perry also smartly delves into the inspirations for Hansberry’s brilliant The Raisin in the Sun (kitchenette buildings, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes) and engagingly explores Hansberry’s profound friendships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. In her later years, Hansberry was an American radical; radicalism “was both a passion and a commitment. It was, in fact, a requirement for human decency.”
Throughout this animated and inspiring biography, Perry reminds us that the “battles Lorraine fought are still before us: exploitation of the poor, racism, neocolonialism, homophobia, and patriarchy.”