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The Lasting Legacy of 'Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart'
January 19, 2018  | By David Hinckley

J. Edgar Hoover’s team had it right. Lorraine Hansberry was a commie.

They apparently never did find out the late writer was also a lesbian, which clearly would have compounded the crime. But really, they just got one part wrong: Hansberry wasn’t trying to subvert America. She was trying to make it better. 

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart, a two-hour documentary in the PBS American Masters series, makes a compelling case that she did just that when it debuts Friday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Hansberry, who died in 1965 at the age of 34, remains best known for writing A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by a black female in Broadway history. Debuting in March 1959, it dramatized how racial oppression corrodes the lives and souls of the everyday people who are among its millions of victims.

Tracy Heather Strain’s Sighted Eyes traces the tortuous path by which Hansberry’s then-husband Robert Nemiroff and rookie producer Philip Gold forced the ultra-reluctant Schuberts to finally give Raisin a chance on Broadway.

The battle to get the play produced parallels, and pales next to, the real-life racism that drove Hansberry to write it.

She had seen her father, who played by all the rules and built a successful life, rejected in his efforts to open white Chicago neighborhoods to all families, give black soldiers equal status in the military and extend voting rights. In the end, he moved to Mexico.

Lorraine moved to New York, where she went to work at Paul Robeson’s radical newspaper Freedom and plunged into civil rights activism. A good friend of James Baldwin, she was an early skeptic that nonviolence alone would change white America’s ingrained attitudes on race.

Hansberry was also active in lesbian rights causes, though with a low profile that reflected the isolation of the LGBT community in those years. The documentary itself, interestingly, addresses Hansberry’s lesbian writings and references in one fairly brief section of its own, while largely staying away from it elsewhere.

Sighted Eyes also seems to suggest that while Hansberry’s writings and speeches had passages of anger and militance, she was calm and modulated. One wonders if that was always true, given her passion and frustration over inequality.

In any case, she maintained a high public profile throughout the famous part of her life. She joined panels, spoke to writing and youth groups, did frequent interviews and hosted regular events and fundraisers for activist causes.

One fundraiser, she hosted for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee raised $5,000, which SNCC used to buy a Ford station wagon for volunteers in Mississippi during the 1964 voter registration campaign known as Freedom Summer.

Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Cheney were driving that car when they were murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen.

Hansberry, like Baldwin, argued that contemporary events like that ambush or the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, seen in the context of America’s long violent racial history, suggested there was little hope that any rapid sea change in attitudes would be possible.

She and Baldwin were among the attendees at a private 1963 meeting called by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy to discuss race relations. After Kennedy talked about what his brother’s administration was doing to uphold the law, a young civil rights worker named Jerome Smith bluntly told RFK that he had seen federal officials do nothing while he was being beaten.

Hansberry joined Smith in saying Kennedy clearly did not understand the depth of the problem. The meeting broke up awkwardly, though other historians – not in this documentary – say it ultimately inspired Kennedy to take a more aggressive position on civil rights. 

Hansberry herself ran into frustrating racial attitudes in her professional life, even after she became an established, well-respected writer.

Her movie screenplay for Raisin was diluted from her vision when Columbia Pictures executives got nervous about offending Southern viewers. She wrote a television screenplay about slavery, The Drinking Gourd, that was praised but rejected by NBC as potentially too controversial. 

In 1963 she began suffering from the pancreatic cancer that would kill her in January 1965. Her later personal writings reflect swings between determination and a desire to “do something else.”

Sighted Eyes strongly suggests she would never have abandoned the cause, while friends lament the work she might have created. This much is clear: What she did leave has endured.

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