Soyica Diggs Colbert—
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech at an Independence Day celebration that asked, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” His question troubles America’s founding democratic myths and the idea that July 4, 1776 marks a day of freedom. For the enslaved, emancipated, and their descendants, understanding the July holiday as “Independence Day” is ironic at best. In order to chronicle black people’s pursuit of Freedom in the US, other dates emerge, including 1619 and June 19, 1865, better known as Juneteenth. June 19, 1865 marks the day Union General Gordon Granger traveled to Texas to inform enslaved people of their freedom. Granger arrived in TX, two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation order took effect. In terms of national histories and black histories, Juneteenth functions as a holiday to remember freedom delayed. It also challenges the idea of freedom as an event. Rather, it is a movement, a process that unfolds over time and requires perpetual action to sustain it.
Lorraine Hansberry thought of freedom as a process installed through daily acts that resist black people’s dehumanization and degradation. She understood her political and artistic work as connected to what she called “the Movement,” a set of practices and events unfolding from slave insurrections to the civil rights movement. Hansberry’s ideas have an even more expansive timeframe than she thought. Through her archive, Hansberry’s contribution to the Movement extends past her death in 1965 into the present. Engaging with Hansberry’s archive, located at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, offers another opportunity to rethink black history and the idea of freedom.
Hansberry’s story does not end in death. The encounters at the heart of her work extend to the archive, inviting the reader into alternative worlds and future possibilities. In the version of Hansberry’s never televised screenplay The Drinking Gourd submitted to Dore Schary at NBC, she depicted an alternative to the ending of the published version. At the end of the published version, Hannibal, the central enslaved figure in the play, runs away with his lover Sarah and his nephew Joshua. In the version submitted to NBC, she offered another set of fugitives and, therefore, rethinks fugitivity. She depicts Rissa, Hannibal’s mother, stealing a gun and taking it with Joshua to Sarah in the clearing. Hansberry directs, “We stay with them until they come to Hannibal’s clearing where Sarah stands, poised for traveling, and trembling mightily. Rissa locks the other woman’s hand about one of those of the child and thrusts the gun in the other. There is a swift embrace and the woman and the child turn and disappear in the woods. Rissa watches after them and the singing of the ‘Drinking Gourd’ goes on as we pan away from her to the quarters.” Hansberry’s ending tableau of an armed woman with child recalls her own mother’s posture of protection at 6140 South Rhodes Avenue in the neighborhood that the Hansberrys desegregated. It also calls to mind the fierce determination of Harriet Tubman for self-defense and determination. These expressions of Black womanhood contextualize activism historically and particularly during the civil rights movement. Hansberry’s mother, Nannie Louise Perry, taught school, served as a ward leader for the Republican Party, and protected her family with a gun. Her movements for freedom combined institutional reform and fugitivity. Hansberry understood that becoming free required both forces. Her archive bears witness to this mutuality and writes her radical feminist self into being as an encounter in the archive.
Holidays offer the opportunity to encounter the past anew, to remember and to reconnect to what has come before. They also offer a chance for commitment, to affirm what you plan to do. As Hansberry remarked in a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, “For me this is one of the most affirmative periods of history. I am very pleased that those peoples in the world whom I feel closest to, the colonial peoples the African peoples the Asian peoples they’re in an insurgent mood and are in the process of transforming the world, and, I think, for the better.” For Hansberry, becoming free required investment in life, the living of it, every day as a protest.
Soyica Diggs Colbert is the vice dean of faculty and Idol Family Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University.