African/American: Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs and the American Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

Many scholars, including Margaret B. Wilkerson, note that Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American playwright to explore, in her final work, Les Blancs, the African quest for freedom from European colonialists. Hansberry studied African history and read about uprisings in Kenya and other African nations before beginning Les Blancs to create a work that is obviously a well-informed examination of events in Africa. However, despite the play's inherent Africanness, readers must remember that it was written by an African American for an American audience. In this context, it is possible to view the play both as a condemnation of colonialism in Africa and, on another level, as a commentary on race relations in early 1960s America.

Frustrated by the inefficacy of one-sided "conversation" with representatives of the dominant ideology, both the Africans within the play and African Americans in Hansberry's society were being provoked to action. Hansberry held strong beliefs about the means by which African Americans should attain their civil rights, and these beliefs surface in the situations and characters depicted in Les Blancs. The play's setting, the fictitious African nation of Zatembe, provided Hansberry a safe distance from which she could critique American civil rights leaders' strategies and philosophies and allowed her a way to express her belief that the "ultimate destiny and aspirations of the African people and twenty million American Negroes are inextricably and magnificently bound up together forever" ("Negro Writer" 6).

Critical discussions of a text's meaning sometimes take into consideration authorial intent as well as the historical context in which the text was produced. The story of Les Blancs' creation is as complex as the play itself. Hansberry began writing it in 1960, creating several drafts but leaving the play unfinished at her death in 1965. Her literary executor and former husband, Robert Nemiroff, drawing on notes and detailed conversations he had with Hansberry before her death, completed another "preliminary draft" in 1966, and the play was first produced in New York in 1970. Nemiroff continued to edit the text until the publication of a revised edition in 1983. Determining authorship and authorial intention behind this play, which explores racial tensions, is a difficult process which is further complicated by the fact that Hansberry was an African-American woman, Nemiroff a white man. It may be impossible to know how much of Les Blancs in its present state was Hansberry's creation, and how much her original intent may have been changed, consciously or not, by Nemiroff's work.

What is known, however, is Hansberry's determination to use her work as an agent of social change. Speaking at a conference in 1959, Hansberry proclaimed that African-American writers must "address [them]selves to [any] dispute" about the" fundamental questions of society and the individual" ("Negro Writer" 3). Hansberry entered such a dispute when she wrote and titled Les Blancs ("The Whites," originally subtitled "The Holy Ones") in "immediate visceral response" (Nemiroff 32) to Jean Genet's Les Negres ("The Blacks: A Clown Show"), a play that examines black attainment of power and concludes that empowered blacks would be as susceptible to corruption as ruling whites are. Hansberry considered Genet's play "a conversation between white men about themselves," and, according to Nemiroff, she wished to write a play in which people of all ethnicities were equal participants in a much-needed "dialogue... whose purpose is neither procrastination nor ego fulfillment but clarity, and whose culminating point is actio n" ("Critical Background" 32-33).

The result is the story of Tshembe Matoseh, a young African man who returns home from his comfortable life in Europe to bury his father only to find that tensions between native Africans and European settlers in his homeland are explosive. Tshembe resists attempts to enlist him in the fight against European rule, but ultimately finds he cannot deny his responsibility to his people and to the cause of freedom. …