By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Imagine a monument to someone famous — a person considered worthy of admiration or even emulation. Do you imagine a somber image towering above you? Do you stand below the statue and look up? Perhaps you feel awe and humility. Or perhaps there’s a sense of disconnection, a rift between yourself and the subject depicted.
But what if, instead, a sculptor’s work invited you to sit down, at eye level, and even have a conversation, as it were, with a person whose relevance resounds today?
Artist Alison Saar has created such a piece, commemorating with an approachable, solid statue of the artist and iconic quotes on five bronze chairs symbolizing several phases in the life of Lorraine Hansberry. Saar’s monument, “To Sit Awhile,” has been shown to crowds at the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and in the city’s Times Square.
This month, the “To Sit Awhile” sculpture is visiting the Twin Cities, at Pillsbury House + Theatre.
The personal meaning of a monument
For Ayaan Natala, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in American Studies at the U of M, Saar’s Hansberry monument struck a ringing, emotional chord.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to see a monument like this again,” she says. “I say that because, personally, I do not remember seeing a sculpture or monument dedicated to a Black woman that had no reference to slavery.” There may be others, she adds, but they are rare.
“To have exposure to this creative work and interpretation of Black history and Black feminist history is just really humbling.”
She has been working with the Pillsbury House + Theatre staff to bring this exhibit fully to life. A few days before the official opening, she is working on a digital story map so those not able to attend in person can visit the monument to Hansberry.
Help from librarians
Working closely with Natala to fill out the popular understanding of Hansberry, Kat Nelsen of the U of M Libraries and staff from the Hennepin County Library have compiled lists of other works, biographies, criticism, videos, and related audio — lesser-known aspects of Hansberry’s life.
“Being a millennial, I think I underestimate what the library can do and how it can be helpful.”
The University Libraries’ research guide on Hansberry and Hennepin County Public Library’s reader’s guide introduce people of all ages and backgrounds to Lorraine Hansberry, born in the Midwest, who grew to become a daring activist, journalist, and playwright before dying in 1965, at age 34, of cancer.
Initially, she was a little overwhelmed and unsure of how to get started on the research about Hansberry. From a class project in spring, however, she learned that “so much of this is like a scavenger hunt.”
In pursuing this hunt, she asked Nelsen for help. Natala says she deeply appreciates Nelsen’s support, both in terms of research and resources, and the occasional psychological boost.
Says Natala: “I was joking, and I said the library is my best friend now” because she has used the U of M Libraries so much. She adds: “Being a millennial, I think I underestimate what the library can do and how it can be helpful.”
It’s a collegial relationship, one in which Nelsen says she would like to see Natala “toot her own horn” more.
It was Natala who thought of including both public libraries and the U’s Libraries in this project that springboards from the life of and inspiration provided by Lorraine Hansberry.
Illuminating the artist’s other facets
“[P]ersonally, I do not remember seeing a sculpture or monument dedicated to a Black woman that had no reference to slavery. To have exposure to this creative work and interpretation of Black history and Black feminist history is just really humbling.”
The sculpture’s title derives from a quote by Hansberry: “Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.”
Hansberry was truly fearless, says Nelsen, Social Sciences Librarian who is the subject librarian for U students and faculty in several departments, including American Studies. In doing her own research, Nelsen found that Hansberry had joined Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, James Baldwin, and the Freedom Rider Jerome Smith in a 1963 meeting with U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.
When Smith was relating his experiences, Kennedy turned away. Hansberry spoke up: “Look, if you can’t understand what this young man is saying, then we are without any hope at all because you and your brother are representatives of the best that a White America can offer; and if you are insensitive to this, then there’s no alternative except our going in the streets . . . and chaos.”
Adds Nelsen: “just to think of the courage” it took for Hansberry to speak up in this exalted group — and to school the brother of the President, Jack Kennedy. Less than a month later, with the encouragement of his brother Bobby, JFK gave his landmark civil rights address.
A passionate Ph.D. student
Nelsen first met Natala in the summer of 2020, during the Summer Institute designed particularly for BIPOC and international students entering graduate school. Summer Institute participants meet with their liaison librarian as part of the experience. She’s a real success story, Nelsen says. “I’m just really grateful that I get to work with students like Ayaan, who are so passionate, enthusiastic, and engaging.”
Natala is a part of the Critical Black Studies Cohort within her department, and also is seeking a minor in Public History and Heritage Studies. As a native of St. Paul, Natala has been a natural source for connecting her research skills with community events and projects.
She finds Saar’s work very inspiring. “Alison Saar was talking about how she wanted to spark conversation — she wanted [to offer] an alternative approach of doing monuments.” Natala mentions a Pillsbury House event planned around “To Sit Awhile,” during which elders from the community will sit in the chairs that are part of the piece and reflect on what “A Raisin in the Sun” means for them. Dialogue with the audience also will be featured.
That down-to-earth and equitable conversation arises largely from the artwork and the artist. “We’re able to do really interesting things with this monument,” Natala says, “because of Alison Saar’s intention.”
This is just one of the research projects with which Nelsen has been able to support Natala. This one may have been particularly interesting to her.
“It was really cool to dig into [Hansberry’s work] and learn more about her life and the things that she had done, aside from writing ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ which was a huge success,” Nelsen says. “But, then, she also wrote one of her last plays, ‘Les Blancs,’ in which she talks about the effects of colonialism in Africa.”
“To Sit Awhile” will be featured at Inside Out, a block party at Pillsbury House + Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 20, 1 to 6 p.m., that will also include roller skating, a book and backpack raffle sponsored by the Hosmer branch of Hennepin County Library, Black Joy Double-Dutch (jump rope skipping), and more.
Inside Out also marks 30 years of existence for Pillsbury House + Theatre and the 5-year anniversary of KRSM radio. The sculpture will remain in residence at Pillsbury House for one month, through Sept. 15. The tour of “To Sit Awhile,” a scholarship for Black graduate students in theater, and the sculpture itself are part of the Lorraine Hansberry Initative, funded by the Lillys, a nonprofit focused on women in the theatrical arts.
Says Nelsen: “I can’t even say enough good things about her [Natala]. It’s just really been a pleasure to work with her on this project.” And, at the same time, to be introduced to a more complete depiction of Lorraine Hansberry.