In the public eye, she was the slim and pleasing housewife, the accidental playwright featured in a photo spread in Vogue. “Best Play Prize Won By a Negro Girl, 28,” The New York Herald Tribune declared. “Mrs. Robert Nemiroff,” The New York Times profiled her, “voluble, energetic, pretty and small.”
Studies of Hansberry excavate her behind-the-scenes activism. There is the now famous story of her confrontation with Robert Kennedy, who as attorney general in 1963 convened a group of Black activists and intellectuals. Hansberry demanded Kennedy acknowledge racism as a moral problem, not a purely social one, before walking out in disgust.
Colbert adds detail and dimension to Hansberry’s work — covering, for instance, the years she spent writing for Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedom, reporting on the Mau Mau Uprising and child labor in South Africa. She held fund-raisers, and studied alongside Alice Childress and W.E.B. Du Bois. The mythos of “the first” obscures so much of the communality of Hansberry’s thinking. “We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together,” Nina Simone wrote of Hansberry in her memoir. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.”
A small interlude. Imagine another opening scene. Another dim, drab room. The alarm sounds. A woman wakes, tries to rouse a sleeping child. This is the beginning of another story set on Chicago’s South Side — Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” published in 1940. The parallels to me have always felt too uncanny for it not to be homage. Hansberry reviewed Wright’s fiction — a little uncharitably, to my mind. She had no patience for despair, for victims, really; her plays hinge on a decisive moment in which a character fends off complacency and takes a stand (quite often while making a thunderous speech about the necessity of taking a stand). There’s an odd narrowness to her vision. Her commitment to realism was absolute, a matter of moral principle. Interest in anomie, absurdity or paralysis was dismissed as liberal silliness, and an abdication of artistic responsibility.
This stringency is curious, given Hansberry’s openness when it came to tactics, her insistence that the movement required a multipronged approach. “Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and nonviolent,” she wrote. “The acceptance of our present condition is the only form of extremism which discredits us before our children.” This belief, Colbert argues, was her inheritance.
Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in the first Black-owned and -operated hospital in the nation. She was a “movement baby,” Colbert writes. Her father built a real estate empire by chopping up larger apartments into smaller units to provide housing for the waves of Black migrants who fled the South only to encounter deeply segregated Chicago.