BOOK REVIEW: Looking for Lorraine


Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry  by Imani Perry (Biography, 2018).

Taken by cancer in 1965, Lorraine Hansberry crammed a great deal of living and achievement into 34 years.

A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry’s best-known creation, was the first work of an African-American author on Broadway. Decades later, it’s still the most frequently produced play by any black American playwright. The Jazz great Nina Simone paid tribute to her close friend with the song “Young, Gifted and Black.” A notable posthumous collection of Hansberry’s essays put together by ex-husband Robert Nemiroff used the same title, and, like the song, was borrowed from a lecture Lorraine delivered to an admiring audience of young writers.

But there was also a great deal more to Ms. Hansberry than her most well-known literary efforts. She was an idealistic and dedicated political radical, an ardent proponent of Civil Rights whose found too many of her fellow activists overly timid, a great friend and major influence on a long list of famous individuals, among them Ms. Simone and author James Baldwin. She was also a closeted lesbian who wrote gay erotica under a pen name, while publicly calling in no uncertain terms for the rights of all people, regardless of race or sexuality. She was very much her father’s daughter, who came to question that father’s unshakable patriotism–even while remaining at heart an American above all else.

In this well-researched and tellingly written volume, African American Studies Professor Imani Perry reveals the full story (or as full as can be uncovered) of an extraordinary, if sadly brief life. Perry injects herself into the book a bit more than typical for a biographer, but does so with the worthy purpose of providing context–showcasing why and how Lorraine means so much to Ms. Perry and countless others. And it’s admirable that she resists excessive speculation regarding aspects of Hansberry’s life for which no real documentation exists.

There’s plenty here, assembled by Perry’s diligent scholarship and astute observations, to produce an intimate and honest portrait of a literary genius, a determined yet thoughtful activist and a young woman the world lost all too soon.








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