Beacon Press: Looking for Lorraine
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Looking for Lorraine

The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry

Author: Imani Perry

Winner of the 2019 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography

Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction

Winner of the Shilts-Grahn Triangle Award for Lesbian Nonfiction

Winner of the 2019 Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award

A New York Times Notable Book of 2018

A revealing portrait of one of the most gifted and charismatic, yet least understood, Black artists and intellectuals of the twentieth century.

Lorraine Hansberry, who died at thirty-four, was by all accounts a force of nature. Although best-known for her work A Raisin in the Sun, her short life was full of extraordinary experiences and achievements, and she had an unflinching commitment to social justice, which brought her under FBI surveillance when she was barely in her twenties. While her close friends and contemporaries, like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, have been rightly celebrated, her story has been diminished and relegated to one work—until now. In 2018, Hansberry will get the recognition she deserves with the PBS American Masters documentary “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” and Imani Perry’s multi-dimensional, illuminating biography, Looking for Lorraine.

After the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry used her prominence in myriad ways: challenging President Kennedy and his brother to take bolder stances on Civil Rights, supporting African anti-colonial leaders, and confronting the romantic racism of the Beat poets and Village hipsters. Though she married a man, she identified as lesbian and, risking censure and the prospect of being outed, joined one of the nation’s first lesbian organizations. Hansberry associated with many activists, writers, and musicians, including Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Looking for Lorraine is a powerful insight into Hansberry’s extraordinary life—a life that was tragically cut far too short.

A Black Caucus of the American Library Association Honor Book for Nonfiction

A 2019 Pauli Murray Book Prize Finalist

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“Perry approaches her subject with both empathy and a sharp, critical eye; this is a biography that exercises several muscles at once. Perry’s sentences are intimate, warm, and crisp; in considerning Hansberry in all of her prismatic multiplicities, Perry has written a singular book.”
—Nell Irvin Painter, Sam Stephenson, and Rachel Syme, judges for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award

“Perry seeks to deepen our appreciation in this richly dimensional portrait of a brightly blazing artist, thinker, and activist . . . . Perry does not dwell on the minutiae of traditional biographical coverage of what, when, and where, focusing, instead, on who and why, on inner drama rather than exterior events. Mining writings private and published, collecting memories, tracking the reverberations of Hansberry’s personality, words, and actions, and, at times, entering the narrative, Perry illuminates with arresting impact Hansberry’s thoughts, feelings, and revolutionary social consciousness . . . . Perry’s ardent, expert, and redefining work of biographical discovery brings light, warmth, scope, and enlightening complexity to the spine-straightening story of a brilliant, courageous, seminal, and essential American writer.”
Booklist, Starred Review

“An intimate portrait of the artist as a black woman at the crossroads . . . 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 200 pages. Perry also smartly delves into the inspirations for Hansberry’s brilliant A Raisin in the Sun and engagingly explores Hansberry’s profound friendships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone . . . 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.’”
Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“A must-read for fans of black and queer history, literary, biography, and women’s history.”
Library Journal, Starred Review

“Its strongest chapters — on A Raisin in the Sun and Lorraine’s coming into her own as a public intellectual — are masterly syntheses of research and analysis. It’s a joy for devotees to encounter some record of Hansberry’s influences, including the Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. . . . Perry makes a welcome case for a fresh assessment of Hansberry’s nondramatic works: her short stories, many published pseudonymously in lesbian magazines, and her many letters and op-eds on politics and literature for The Village Voice and The New York Times.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A work of scholarship and love . . . . Perry takes us into [Hansberry’s] interior life with a deft hand and a richness of language that makes every page of this book a pleasure to read . . . . [A] wonderful biography of the radical Lorraine Hansberry.”
The Progressive

Looking for Lorraine is phenomenal. I didn’t know how hungry I was for this intimate portrait until now. It feels as though Ms. Hansberry has walked into my living room and sat down beside me. What an honor and joy to read this. The writing is whip-smart, yet lovely and clear-eyed. What gifts this book, Ms. Perry, and Lorraine Hansberry are to the world.”
—Jacqueline Woodson, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and National Book Award Winner for Brown Girl Dreaming

“This is one of those books you need to read. Lorraine Hansberry was so dear, so gifted, so black, so singular in so many ways, that to miss the story of her life is to miss a huge part of ours. She left us way too soon, and yet the gift of her presence, so briefly among us, is still felt in the art she left behind. But not only in the art, but in the life. A life at last made comprehensible by this loving, attentive, thoughtful book.”
—Alice Walker

“I have always admired the brilliant Lorraine Hansberry. Now I treasure her even more. Imani Perry’s magnificently written and extremely well researched Looking for Lorraine reclaims for all of us the Lorraine Hansberry we should have had all along, the multifaceted genius for whom A Raisin in the Sun was just the tip of the iceberg. Though Hansberry’s life was brief, her powerful work remains vital and urgently necessary. One can say the same of this phenomenal book, which hopefully will lead more readers to both Hansberry’s published and unpublished works.”
—Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I’m Dying

“This powerful and profound book is the definitive treatment of a literary genius, political revolutionary, and spiritual radical—Lorraine Hansberry. Imani Perry takes us beyond the widespread misunderstandings of Hansberry’s complicated text into the zone of artistic greatness and moral courage—where Lorraine Hansberry belongs!”
—Dr. Cornel West

Lorraine’s Time

Migration Song

From Heartland to the Water’s Edge

The Girl Who Can Do Everything


Sappho’s Poetry


The Trinity

Of the Faith of Our Fathers

American Radical

The View from Chitterling Heights


Retracing, May 2017

Download the Discussion Guide for Looking for Lorraine

Questions for Discussion

Chapter 1: Migration Song
  1. In what ways is Lorraine’s life a story of migration?
  2. How did the political times that she grew up in, coming from her particular family background, help shape her outlook of the world?
Chapter 2: From Heartland to the Water’s Edge
  1. What do the artists, authors, and various other influences in Lorraine’s life say about her?
  2. Because many of her influences were varied, racially and in terms of gender and nationality, can we still draw comparisons between her work and how those influences deal with issues of identity in their own work?
Chapter 3: The Girl Who Can Do Everything
  1. How do Lorraine’s political affiliations with the Communist Party play out in her life?
  2. How does her experience in Uruguay for the Inter-American Peace Conference shape her activism and artistic perspective?
Chapter 4: Bobby
  1. Why was Lorraine’s global approach to Black liberation unusual for her era?
  2. How do you read Lorraine’s marriage to Bobby?
Chapter 5: Sappho’s Poetry
  1. “Critics write about Lorraine’s sexuality in varying ways.” (pg. 79) How do you feel about this conversation around her sexuality? Where do they stand on whether or not it is pertinent to a discussion of Lorraine’s work as an artist?
  2. “This might seem like a fairly commonplace understanding today, because we associate the liberation of women generally with the liberation of desire and human connection . . .” (pg. 81) To what extent is this true? Was Lorraine an outlier of thought in her time, or is this question of separating liberation movements still important today?
  3. “Contradictions are a universal part of the human personality.” (pg. 96) How do we see Lorraine’s contradictions manifest? Are they all contradictions?
Chapter 6: Raisin
  1. How did the reactions to the play reflect or contradict Lorraine’s expressed ideas about identity, art, and politics?
  2. “We missed the essence of the work” (pg. 101) writes Amiri Baraka about Raisin in the Sun. Does the writer’s intent matter in how we read and interpret her work?
  3. Is there any merit to the Black left’s then dismissal of Lorraine and her play on the basis of her middle-class background? Do you think she was well positioned to write the play that she wrote?
  4. “She instructed them [the critics] that the real problem with Raisin was it lacked a central character who anchored the play.” (pg. 106) Do you agree? Is there a problem with Raisin and, if so, what is it?
  5. “In the process, she criticized the critics who classified poetic drama (good) on one side and social drama its opposite.” (pg. 108) What is the role of art? Is it to simply entertain us or to also ask bigger questions of us?
Chapter Seven: The Trinity
  1. How important are Lorraine’s relationships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone to her work as an artist but also to her as a person?
Chapter 8: Of the Faith of Our Fathers
  1. “Parenthetically, I might say I haven’t drawn a cent from the family since I came east nine years ago.” (pg. 138) Does Hansberry giving up her financial inheritance change your perspective of her and her politics and work?
  2. “But she doesn’t ventriloquize women, only men.” (pg. 144) How do you read Lorraine’s inclination towards writing male characters?
Chapter 9: American Radical
  1. What did it mean to Lorraine Hansberry to be a radical? “Though she was a radical in essays and letters, it was challenging for Lorraine to bring her radicalism to the American public in her art.” (pg. 158) Does this statement make her any less radical in your view?
  2. And the solution to the struggle for racial justice was “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.” (pg. 172) Do you think that liberalism is not radical enough to bring about fundamental change in the US?
  3. “Lorraine rejected the American project but not America.” (pg. 173) Is it possible to separate the two?
  4. How was Lorraine shaped by her broader sociopolitical context?
Chapter 10: The View from Chitterling Heights
  1. “Do I remain a revolutionary? Intellectually—without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle?” (pg. 180) Do you think that one needs to “give her body to the struggle” to be revolutionary?
Chapter 11: Homegoing
  1. “Lorraine, once dismissed as bourgeois, was embraced by the Black Power generation.” (pg. 197) What are some of the factors that may have brought this about?
  2. “There were always murmurs—murmurs about her sexuality, about her radicalism, about the work we’d never seen.” (pg. 198) How different would Lorraine’s legacy have looked had her private papers been released earlier?
  3. How did author Imani Perry’s connection with Lorraine Hansberry influence or affect your reading?

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Looking for Lorraine

ISBN: 978-080703983-0
Publication Date: 9/17/2019
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $17.95
Format: Paperback
Availability: In stock.
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