Lorraine Hansberry and the Pursuit of Black Liberation

In February 1964, six months after W. E. B. Du Bois’ death in Ghana at age 95, friends, comrades, and advocates gathered at Carnegie Hall to memorialize his life. Among the speakers was noted Black historian John Hope Franklin, who eulogized his friend and mentor. Activist and writer Eslanda Robeson, Paul Robeson’s spouse, commented on his global influence. A short play, which featured Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, dramatized Du Bois’ Civil Rights advocacy. Prominent Black artist and intellectual Lorraine Hansberry eloquently addressed his legacy, praising the breadth and depth of his intellectual and cultural production. She called Du Bois “an institution in our lives, a bulwark of our culture” whose work inspires “us to disavow racism of any nature wherever it raises its head.” Honoring Du Bois’ memory, Hansberry stated, “tells us to honor thought and thinking; to keep always as our counsel distinguished scholarship and hold sacred strong and purposeful art.” Behind Hansberry’s reflection on Du Bois’ legacy were many years of exposure to and engagement with his ideas. Hansberry had occasion to spend time with and get to know Du Bois personally and intellectually. In the difficult days of Cold War anticommunism, their political radicalism, socialist commitments, and efforts to resist repression brought them into frequent contact. The familial, journalistic, and organizational settings through which Hansberry and Du Bois experienced rich fellowship and collaboration showcase the power of African American knowledge networks, and the role solidarity plays in artistic and intellectual pursuits. One stream of influence came from William Leo Hansberry, Lorraine’s uncle and a scholar of Africa and world history who taught at Howard University for many years. When he first read Du Bois’ 1915 book The Negro, William began to understand the importance of Black Americans’ knowledge and understanding of African history. He and Du Bois carried a long correspondence over several decades and respected one another’s work. Another arena of shared endeavor took place with Hansberry’s role as writer and editor at Paul Robeson and Louis E. Burnham’s publication Freedom, a monthly newspaper which published from 1951 until 1955. Du Bois wrote regularly for it, and his wife Shirley Graham Du Bois — also one of Hansberry’s friends — served as a contributing editor. Hansberry covered topics of cultural and artistic production, as well as the global importance of decolonization in Africa. She also denounced anti-Black violence across the United States.

In the early 1950s, Du Bois taught at the Jefferson School of Social Science, a Communist Party-affiliated institution in New York City that invested in adult education and aimed to recruit new members into the Party. Hansberry took Du Bois’ 1953 class called Background of African Liberation Struggles. On the course syllabus, Du Bois handwrote Hansberry’s name to note her research subject: the Belgian Congo, about which she wrote her term paper. The following summer, she directed a Community Party-sponsored summer camp in upstate New York called Camp Unity and invited Du Bois to speak at its July 4 program. His speech, “Our American Heritage,” reflected on democracy, land, cultural pluralism, religious tradition, and economic equality. Such a vast heritage, Du Bois cautioned his audience, should not be considered finalized and complete. Rather, they should be seen “as expressions of ideals, partly accomplished, partly perverted, but still promising for the future greater and brighter civilization.” While it was often elusive, freedom’s quest became concrete through the struggle. One of the most important, and most beautiful, expressions of the intellectual, political, and social connection between Hansberry and Du Bois was a poem she wrote about him. The inspiration Hansberry felt from his teachings and being in his presence produced the untitled verse that she wrote on the inside cover of her copy of his 1939 book Black Folk: Then and Now. While she easily and freely conversed with Du Bois in person, there is a powerful aesthetic symmetry through the act of inscribing her own words on the inside cover of her copy of his text. Writer and scholar Imani Perry printed the poem in full and contextualized the broader contours of the Hansberry-Du Bois kinship in Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. She writes that Hansberry was Du Bois’ “spiritual and political daughter.” The first word of Hansberry’s poem is “Imagine.” She invites the reader into Du Bois’ classroom and describes the blue suit he’s wearing, how “his back [is] against the sunlight of the May afternoons.” She’s moved by his “vast knowledge and his splendid sense/of interpretation of history.” Her meditation concludes with an expression that Du Bois embodies “freedom’s passion, refined and organized.” Hansberry’s poem exemplified her call to “hold sacred strong and purposeful art,” and recognized the urgent counsel of Du Bois’ distinguished scholarship. Through their interrelated pursuits for the liberation of Black people, Hansberry and Du Bois defined their solidarity through networks of family, journalism, and activism. Their passion for freedom demonstrates how, across the corridors of Black history, intellectual vitality impacted the production of knowledge through books and essays, as well as creative ventures such as poems, songs, and plays. Their historical collaboration continues to inspire and inform contemporary freedom efforts.

About the Author

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a sections editor at The North Star. He is a historian who writes on race, religion, culture, and society. He teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately Black school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is the author or editor of several books including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History; Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity; and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.