History, Myth, and Revolt in Lorraine Hansberry's 'Les Blancs.' (Drama by African American Woman Author)

By Effiong, Philip Uko | African American Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

History, Myth, and Revolt in Lorraine Hansberry's 'Les Blancs.' (Drama by African American Woman Author)


Effiong, Philip Uko, African American Review


Lorraine Hansberry began drafting Les Blancs (The Whites) as early as 1960, soon after the publication of her remarkably successful A Raisin in the Sun (1959). But it was not until 1970 that Robert Nemiroff, her former husband, put together the published version of the drama. In Les Blancs Hansberry expands on the attention given to Africa in Raisin, where Asagai, the Nigerian intellectual and activist, is used to fortify and scrutinize the familial, political, and cultural bond between Africa and Black America - subsequently portraying an African ancestral milieu that is credited but not idealized. Raisin is the first major play by an African American to translate into dramatic form the European exploitation of the lands and peoples of Africa, and the ensuing rebellion against European rule. When Raisin was produced in 1959, African struggles for independence had begun to receive international attention; by the 1960s, African nationalist movements had assumed vast and powerful proportions.

In recreating an African colonial scene in Les Blancs, Hansberry advances the need for dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressor, yet she insists on action and commitment, supports the procurement of sovereignty at any cost, and visualizes the genesis of a new black world. The play does not resolve any problem but raises thought-provoking questions about history, Africa, America, anger, and confrontation; it shows that people are largely a fusion of evil and good, valor and fear, conviction and confusion, indifference and involvement. Hansberry argues for humanism even as she directs her themes through a predominantly African historical and socio-artistic experience.

African-based folklore, chanting, drumming, and dancing in Les Blancs energize the action and tempo of the plot, heighten the tone and moods transmitted through dialogue, and celebrate indigenous African practices. Such musical patterns reaffirm the everyday impulsive role of music and dance in traditional African life, where they are used interactively during occasions such as work, war, ceremonies, and storytelling sessions. The musical quality of Les Blancs makes information accessible and provides an outlet for expressing creative talent.

As in her play A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry's thematic and textural approach in Les Blancs is structured on standard realism.(1) But she occasionally intersperses this realism with an expressionistic slant,(2) sustained mostly by a dancing African Woman who animates and sensationalizes Hansberry's thematic vision, and who embodies and actualizes the African socio-aesthetic attributes and belief systems that Hansberry advances. The Woman's role is paradoxical - on one level initiating and preserving principal African prototypes, and on another level perpetuating a European-generated literary doctrine. Instances of expressionism rarely and briefly, but notably, digress from, but do not distort, the predominant realistic frame.

Herein lies the peculiarity of Hansberry's dramatic vision: her success at reevoking and reenacting history through an essentially Western model, yet ritualizing and mythologizing history through the use of certain African cultural and folkloric devices that exhibit an African and human yearning for, and attainment of, the rite-of-passage from servitude to affirmation. The juxtaposition among the play's realism, sporadic expressionism, and black aesthetic ritualism, situated in key folkloric practices and the ceremonious maturation of some principal characters, corroborates Hansberry's ability to tap African and Western constructs, and to fuse history with myth, drama, and folklore. She achieves what would become a central goal of the 1960s Black Arts Movement in its pursuit of a black aesthetic, and what Paul Carter Harrison in the 1980s - in reference to African-rooted ritual dramas - would describe as "the urgency to formulate an aesthetic based upon the American experience but informed by the ethical sensibilities of Africa" (xliv). …

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