“Fearful of the Written Word”: White Fear, Black Writing, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Screenplay Lisbeth Lipari
In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry was hired by Columbia Pictures to write a screenplay for her award-winning Broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun. By the time the ﬁlm was released in 1961, over one-third of the original screenplay had been cut. In this paper I undertake a rhetorical analysis of a particular historically contextualized instance of the cultural production of whiteness. Speciﬁcally, I trace the metamorphosis of “whiteness” through its journey from Hansberry’s original screenplay to its transformation into a ﬁlm mediated by Columbia Pictures’ Hollywood production and marketing machine. Drawing on archival memoranda from studio executives, I examine the studio’s editorial suppression of the screenplay as an example of the maintenance, containment, and repair of the cultural production of whiteness. Although both the theater and ﬁlm version of A Raisin in the Sun unquestionably made signiﬁcant contributions to the afﬁrmative depiction of African Americans on stage and screen, the unﬁlmed original screenplay had presented the radical but unrealized possibility of contesting Hollywood constructions of whiteness. Keywords: Critical White Studies; Lorraine Hansberry; Rhetoric of Whiteness; Cultural Studies; Film Studio Censorship
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like A Raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— Lisbeth Lipari is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Denison University. Correspondence to: Denison University, Granville, Ohio 43023, USA. Tel: (740) 587-5766; E-mail: lipari@ denison.edu. A previous version of this paper was presented at The Colors of Rhetoric: A Critical Symposium on Race, Communication, Media, and Counter-Racist Scholarship, Southwestern University, September 2002. ISSN 0033–5630 (print)/ISSN 1479-5779 (online) 2004 National Communication Association DOI: 10.1080/0033563042000206790
And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode?1 At this moment the paramount crime in the United States is the refusal of its ruling classes to admit or acknowledge in any way the real scope and scale and character of the oppression of Negroes. For that oppression is not a random helter-skelter hit or miss matter of discrimination here and there against people who just happen to be a different color. It is not that at all. It is, as that ruling class perfectly well knows, a highly concentrated, universal and deliberate blanket of oppression pulled tightly and securely over 20 million citizens in this country. This matter of admitting the true nature of the problem before setting about rectifying it is of utmost importance.2 Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy million sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is a mockery and a snare.3
The title of this paper, “Fearful of the Written Word,” comes from a 1959 letter, quoted in detail below, written by Arthur Kramer, a Columbia Pictures Corporation executive, to other studio executives involved in producing the ﬁlm version of Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning Broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun. Kramer’s letter laments the extensive editorial excisions he and other studio executives have made to Hansberry’s original screenplay (purchased by Columbia Pictures Corporation in 1959), deletions that will radically alter the ﬁlm’s scope and vision. Although masked in the language of apologia, Kramer’s confession, “I am fearful of the written word,”4 unintentionally evokes a long tradition of white fear of black writing. In particular, Kramer’s words evoke the primarily white fear of black writing that challenges what George Lipsitz...