restricted access To Be(come) Young, Gay, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry’s Existentialist Routes to Anticolonialism

This essay argues that Lorraine Hansberry’s black, queer anti-imperialist and anticolonial dramatic vision was shaped by her engagement with post-World War II European and American existentialisms and their politics of race and sexuality. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hansberry debated Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet over the meanings of human existence, responsibility, and freedom. While these writers and thinkers presented diverse worldviews, Hansberry understood them to be linked by a bankrupt nihilism and solipsism that precluded historical materialist analyses of social change. She saw in their work a denial of social change that relied upon and re-articulated heteropatriarchal, racist ideologies. Of these existentialists, Jean Genet was especially important to Hansberry because of his play, The Blacks, which became a vital part of African-American theater and cultural politics. Hansberry criticized not only Genet’s cynicism about anticolonial struggle, but the sexual and racial ideologies through which this cynicism was expressed. In framing her own anticolonial play, Les Blancs, as a response to The Blacks, Hansberry drew upon the Beauvoirean existentialist feminism that had informed her early feminist plays featuring lesbian protagonists. Like this earlier feminist work, Les Blancs represents homosexuality as a site of interracial, international reciprocity in order to counter Genet’s exoticized, eroticized “Blacks,” and to represent black national liberation. Recovering Hansberry’s engagement with existentialism, I argue, illuminates the ways in which feminist as well as queer critique were for her integral to a nationalist internationalism linking the struggles of First World minorities with Third World anticolonial nationalist movements. Consequently, while Hansberry’s work exemplifies some of the transnational and cross-cultural dimensions of black thought, it also contests the anti- or post-nationalist perspectives of contemporary studies of diasporic and transnational blackness.