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Dredging Up the Ever-Living Past

Imani Perry, interviewed by Daniel Drake

In the Review’s July 1, 2021, issue, Imani Perry reviewed Conversations with Lorraine Hansberry, a new collection of interviews with the celebrated playwright edited by Mollie Godfrey, and took the opportunity to consider the life of a great American artist whose body of work remains largely unread. Drawing from the years of research that culminated in her own biography (Looking for Lorraine, 2018), Perry made the case for Hansberry’s centrality in the literary canon, and for her remarkable prescience as a writer who, as her review concluded, “remains a potent conversation partner as we navigate a fraught and conflicted world.”

Sameer Khan

Imani Perry, 2017

Perry, today a professor of African American studies at Princeton, has been engaged in that conversation since she was very young. “I don’t remember not knowing about Lorraine Hansberry. As a child, I saw the film version of A Raisin in the Sun more times than I can count,” she told me over e-mail this week. “And my father absolutely adored Lorraine because of her leftist politics.”

Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Perry was a passionate reader, but when she got to college she planned to major in math. Then, in her freshman year, she encountered Black Majority (1974), Peter Wood’s landmark history of the Black population in pre–Revolutionary War South Carolina: “I was hooked. That book pulled me away from math and into American studies.”

Black Majority, Perry explained, deployed meticulous research to make the case that, far from being passive instruments at the whim of white slaveowners, enslaved Black laborers “really built the economic foundation of the state with, among other things, their rice cultivation techniques.” This kind of scholarship—correcting the historical record to include the contributions and stories of oppressed people—has become part of her own focus as a scholar. She works not just to revivify forgotten lives, but to make the voices of those people heard. “History itself is a form of storytelling,” she noted:

But storytelling serves a very serious social function. We learn about the human condition, about decency, about love, about cruelty, about all manner of matters that are important philosophically, physically, and in every way in between, through storytelling.

My work is based in a belief that the kinds of stories we learn and share are important for the world we co-create every day. And that belief requires a rigorous contemplation of what we have at our disposal, what is missing, and what we must imagine or re-imagine over and over again. The histories and stories of the oppressed are the closest we get to understanding the core of the human condition.

Much of Perry’s writing has explicitly connected America’s history to its present, from her book May We Forever Stand (2018), a history of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that expands into a discussion of Black music over the twentieth century until now, to a workshop she ran at Princeton with the artist Mario Moore, which taught the history of Black Civil War soldiers through music and art. History and literature are “like that question Jamaica Kincaid’s character Lucy [in the novella of the same name] asks, regarding her employer: ‘How did she get to be like that?’” Perry told me. “I want to know how we got to be like this.” She went on:

And I don’t just mean the hate-filled people, although there are far too many of them, but all of us who accommodate so much suffering every day. I look to the past, I look to the imagination, I look to the interior, trying to figure out how we get from here to a future of ethical and kind human relations.

And Perry believes that Faulkner had it right with his dictum that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—an aperçu with, she observed, “a particularly Southern sensibility.” Indeed, the South’s relationship to history, and to the North, is—for her, who grew up in both—an abiding interest, as she elaborated:

The South has always had to carry this nation’s water. The United States became a global economic power because of its vast source of unfree labor in the South: Black people. Economic development depended not only upon their physical labor, and skill, but their reproductive labor. Generations of Southern Black babies were born to fill the nation’s coffers.

It’s horrifying. But it is dishonest to put the burden of all that on the South. To act as though it is some vulgar racist backwater that the rest of the country is above is deceptive.

She will take up these insights in her next book, South to America (due in 2022), but these reflections on American race and geography have a genealogy, as well—Perry sees a similar concern in Hansberry with poverty and despair in the South:

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Lorraine, like her mentor W.E.B. Du Bois before her, saw the South as an essential place of possibility, where freedom dreams could be ignited. If we want to get to something better in this nation, we need to look there, there where slave ships are still being dredged up from waterways that keep getting poisoned.

And she finds in Hansberry’s dramaturgy a preoccupation with the potential for liberation embedded in daily toil—as Perry puts it, in “the tension between the hot intensity of moments of rebellion and the plodding, slow, and deliberate work of transformation”—that continues to influence much of contemporary American theater. “And that’s not just in A Raisin in the Sun,” she said. “It’s also in her plays Les Blancs and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” 

With that prompt, I asked if she had any particular recommendations out of Hansberry’s lesser-known or unpublished work. “All of the Emily Jones writings,” Perry returned without hesitation:

“Emily Jones” was her pseudonym for her lesbian-themed work. The short stories, novellas, and mini-essays ought to be published (or republished as the case may be). She was a fierce intellectual as well as an artist: there is a body of exceptional essays by her about race, gender, sexuality, imperialism, and capitalism that I want the public to have access to. Finally, she wrote short plays that engage with the work of Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht that I love.

But really, there are so many gems in her archive. If I had my druthers, we’d have a whole shelf of Hansberry titles.

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