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story behind the book | kate tuttle

An important writer forgotten amid a season of loss

david wilson for the boston globe

Best known for her groundbreaking play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry died from cancer at just 34. Her 1965 death came, Princeton professor Imani Perry noted, during “a season of early loss,” including the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. “In some ways, she gets lost in the shuffle,” Perry added. “She was this incredibly important midcentury figure, and there just hasn’t been that much written about her. She was ahead of her time.”

In her new book, “Looking for Lorraine,” Perry attempted to explore not only the trove of writing and activism Hansberry left behind, but also the mind behind the work. “It was a really deeply emotional process. I was looking into her interior life,” Perry said.


“There are moments when she’s self-critical or self-doubting, and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, be more tender with yourself,’ ” Perry said. “When you have the opportunity to look at the full spectrum and the full substance of a person’s life, the small things seem so much smaller, and the big things just seem so profound. I feel like biography is like a philosophical journey, about how to really think about what’s meaningful.”

Part of that journey included Hansberry’s sexuality. “Both feminism and lesbianism, and the relationship for her between the two, were an important part of her work and what she was exploring” she said. “It’s indecent for us to pretend as if we cherish certain figures and yet don’t stand boldly in support of the fullness of their identity.”

Although she died half a century ago, Hansberry’s story remains “so timely,” said Perry. “She was on the pulse of so many of the issues that we’re trying to figure out today. I think that kind of commitment to justice, to creativity, to exploration, and that kind of courage that she had is actually what we really need now.”


Perry will read at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at