t is a lonely, wild, and often fatal thing to be Black and brook no compromise. Lorraine Hansberry was rigorous and unyielding in her life, but she was gone too soon and claimed too quickly by those who thought they understood her. Like many other Black giants of her time, her image proved pliable in death. She was turned into a saint so that her life could be turned into a moral. Yet she struggled beneath the weight of her own complexities and sorrows. She achieved literary celebrity but called herself a “literary failure,” was supported in a marriage that ultimately collapsed, resisted her family but didn’t denounce it, became an icon of the civil-rights movement that she relentlessly criticized, and wrote a masterpiece only to watch as it was widely misunderstood.
When I first encountered “A Raisin in the Sun,” I treated the play with suspicion. I was in high school, and thought that any Black writer who received such universal praise must have, in some way, sold out. I followed Hansberry’s protagonist, Walter Younger, Jr., as he confronted the future, “a big, looming blank space—full of nothing.” I watched him try to fill that space, begging and plotting and raging and falling into the abyss of deferred dreams that still swallows people whole. Despite my best efforts, I was moved. Perhaps I had succumbed; perhaps I would sell out, too.