Writers & Company

Imani Perry on the remarkable life and legacy of Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun

The author and scholar on the late playwright and her seminal drama about black American life in the pre-Civil Rights era.
Imani Perry was interviewed by CBC host Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (CBC, Molly Malone Cook/Beacon Press)
Listen to the full episode1:02:09

Lorraine Hansberry was one of the boldest and most brilliant dramatists of the mid-20th century. In 1959, her debut play, A Raisin in the Sun, became the first by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry was also the first black playwright and, at 28, the youngest American — of any race — to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle award for best play.

A nuanced portrayal of a black family confronting racial segregation in Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun invited mainstream theatre audiences into the real lives of black Americans. Today, it's the most frequently produced work by an African-American playwright, including a revival on Broadway in 2014 starring Denzel Washington. A Raisin in the Sun has been adapted for the screen three times, most famously in 1961, featuring Sidney Poitier, with a screenplay by Hansberry herself.

In her new book, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, biographer Imani Perry shows how Hansberry's impact goes much further than one play. Exploring aspects of her life and work that are often overlooked, Perry paints a compelling portrait of the groundbreaking writer and activist, who died in 1965 at the age of 34. Looking for Lorraine won the 2019 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

Imani Perry talked to Eleanor Wachtel while in Toronto for TIFF's Books on Film series.

Transformative moments

"The opening of A Raisin In The Sun on Broadway over 60 years ago was a transformative moment. Audiences experienced, for the first time, a black family and a drama. It was not a musical, it was not a comedic rendition, it was a depiction of the interior life and the emotional and intimate terrain of a black family. This hadn't been seen on Broadway before, and it wasn't clear at all whether or not it would be successful. It was a transformative moment in American theatre, and ultimately in international theatre, because A Raisin in the Sun became so widely embraced.

"It was one of those moments that made it clear that white audiences could not just empathize and identify with black characters but also think about the challenges facing black America. For black audiences, it brought them to Broadway in large numbers for the first time as they had not seen images of them like this before in American theatre. James Baldwin wrote about this being the first time he had seen large numbers of black people on Broadway."

A scene from the 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. (Submitted by TIFF)

The Great Migration

"The Great Migration was the greatest and the most substantial internal migration in the history of the United States. You had millions upon millions of African-Americans moving from the Deep South into northern cities with the desire of greater economic opportunity and political equality. But what they find, by and large, is that they are confronting as egregious forms of racism, but just in a different form.

"The Midwest in particular was a primary destination during the Great Migration as the site of the dream and its deferral, which is consistent with A Raisin in the Sun because that the title of the play comes from the Langston Hughes poem, Harlem. The play really does reflect all of the frustration and the disappointment that deferred dreams mean in black life. 

"Lorraine Hansberry's mother was from Tennessee. Her father was from Mississippi. They came up to Chicago like many other migrants but were in a different social location because they were professionals. her father was a real estate mogul and civil rights activist and her mother was a teacher and a ward leader. They were very prominent members of Chicago's black community. And for the people around them, they were considered wealthy, although Lorraine would say they were solidly middle class. But everything is relative, particularly in the context of the Great Depression."

Keeping the dream alive

"Not only did Hansberry die young, but she died in this season of so much upheaval and tragedy. So she dies, and then a couple of weeks later so do Malcolm X, the Kennedys and King and Medgar Evers. They're all these prominent people associated to a greater or lesser extent with the Civil Rights period who die. And I think there's a collective trauma in response to that. It's almost as though Hansberry falls in between the cracks with respect to that moment in history. And because her archive of work wasn't available until the 21st century, people assumed that there wasn't much more to discover about her in terms of her work and life.

"Her literary executor and former husband Robert Nemiroff, put together To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, a book that is a collection of her statements, interviews and some of her writing. It is, in many ways, beautifully constructed. But I think people thought that was all there was, these little scraps that were put together. So I was stunned that there are over 100 boxes of material for me to go through in writing this book. And there's so much more work to be done on her."

Imani Perry's comments have been edited for length and clarity.