Lorraine Hansberry possessed a distinctive, timeless American voice as a playwright. Indeed, director Robert O’Hara is directing her A Raisin in the Sun this summer in Williamstown with a cast headed S. Epatha Merkerson as the widowed family matriarch Lena and Francois Battiste as her son Walter Lee Younger. “In program notes,” Ben Brantley tells us in his enticing review of the production in The New York Times, [O’Hara] writes about Hansberry’s prescience in exploring divisive topics that remain of vital relevance: racial assimilation, African heritage, the changing role of women, self-sabotage within African-American communities and the uneasy balance of power among the sexes and generations within the extended black family. This production is devised, above all, to make us listen with new intent to what Hansberry was saying.”
But we seldom listen to Hansberry’s real voice. Here below is a rare recording of that voice and it is a rather radical one. She is giving a speech here at Town Hall.
Some background, from American RadioWorks:
Hansberry’s 1959 success with A Raisin in the Sun gave her a prominent voice in the struggle for black liberation. She delivered this speech at the Town Hall forum in 1964. Having tried “respectable” ways to battle injustice, she said, it was time to get radical.
The forum was sponsored by the Association of Artists for Freedom, a loose coalition of well-known black performers and writers that included Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, and actress Ruby Dee. One of the founders, Ossie Davis, told The New York Times, “We meet from time to talk and argue…about what we as artists can do, how we can express the anguish for the moral situation we find in this country, but not as civil rights pleaders.”
The Town Hall forum was designed for white liberals and black activists to have an open conversation about tensions mounting between them in the civil rights movement. Charles Silberman, one of the white panelists, described the strain in a book he published in early 1964: “When the struggle for Negro rights moves into the streets, the majority of [white] liberals are reluctant to move along with it. They are all for the Negroes’ objectives, they say, but they cannot go along with the means.” During the forum Hansberry blasted this reluctance, declaring, “We have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”
Writing in her journal two days later, Hansberry described the event as explosive: “Negroes are so angry and white people are so confused and sensitive to criticism.” The black panelists included writers Paule Marshall, John O. Killens and Leroi Jones, along with actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. James Wechsler, a columnist for the New York Post, was another of the white panelists. He wrote that the Association of Artists for Freedom was “ambushing captive white liberals.” Meanwhile, Nat Hentoff argued in the Village Voice that the white panel members were “estranged from Negro reality.” He said Wechsler “simply did not have the capacity to really listen to what was being said.”
During the Town Hall forum, Lorraine Hansberry was battling more than ideas – she was fighting cancer. Her body was beginning to whither and she was on painkillers. Robert Nemiroff, her former husband, says she “rose from a sickbed,” determined to participate in the forum and “set forth the need for a new militancy and a radically new relationship between Blacks and Whites in the freedom struggle.”
Privately though, Hansberry worried she was becoming a coward. “Do I remain a revolutionary?” she wrote in her journal. “Intellectually – without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts?…Comfort has come to be its own corruption.” In July of 1964, Hansberry wrote that when she regained her health she might travel to the South “to find out what kind of revolutionary I am.”
Hansberry never got the chance. She died on January 12, 1965, at the age of 34.
James Baldwin wrote the below essay, “Sweet Lorraine,” about his dear friend Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer at the age of 34 in 1965, for the November 1969 issue of Esquire magazine.