Lorraine Hansberry

By Dionn McDonald

Lorraine Hansberry was an American playwright. She was also a civil rights activist and journalist, speaking out against social injustice regardless of race or sexual orientation. She is most remembered for her groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first Broadway play with a Black playwright and Black cast.

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born May 19, 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression. She was the fourth child born to Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl Augustus Hansberry in Chicago, IL. The Hansberrys were a proud middle class family, who valued social and political involvement. This is evidenced by her father’s campaign for Congress, which he lost. The family also took political action in the Supreme Court case, Hansberry vs. Lee, fighting against restrictive housing covenants that served to prevent integration of neighborhoods. This came after they had moved into a white neighborhood and a brick came in through Lorraine’s window. The family’s social consciousness was echoed by the important African Americans, such as author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who were often guests in their home. Finding inspiration in her family’s home library, Lorraine developed a love for literature and began writing poetry while in high school. After high school, she attended the University of Wisconsin for two years, where she became increasingly aware of social injustice. 

 After college, Hansberry moved to New York. She attended the New School for Social Research and taught at Frederick Douglass School. She began her writing career with the Young Progressives of America magazine.  In 1951, Hansberry joined Freedom magazine, which was published by actor and activist Paul Robeson. She quickly became associate editor. Hansberry’s writing attended to such issues as anti-Jim Crow campaigns, African colonization, child labor, non-inclusive history as told in Eurocentric education, and antiwar protests.  By this time Hansberry had become a notable contributor to the public discussions of social injustice. 

Hansberry met her husband Robert Nemiroff on a picket line. With his support, she began writing plays full-time. Hansberry’s first and seminal work, A Raisin in the Sun, carried a title inspired by Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred.” Hansberry’s play hit the Broadway stage in 1959, and received national acclaim. A Raisin in the Sun marked a historic moment in American theater. Lorraine Hansberry was the first Black playwright to win the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award. A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway play written by a Black woman, and the first to have a Black director and predominantly Black cast. This was also the first time that the complexities of African-American family life were portrayed on the stage. 

A Raisin in the Sun tells a story of integration, African cultural influence, religion, social class, old ways versus new, hope and deferred dreams. After the death of Walter Younger Sr., conflicts emerge over the life insurance money, and the members of the Younger family have different ideas about what constitutes the American dream. For the matriarch, Lena, it is integration and a new home. For daughter Beneatha, education is her means to a better life. The presence of Beneatha’s African suitor represents social and cultural awareness during a period of African decolonization. The son, Walter Jr, tries to elevate himself and his family by pursuing a business deal that goes awry. Hansberry’s intellect places many contrasting ideas side by side, and shows the audience that nothing is as simple as it seems. This is eloquently expressed by Lena when defending her son, “make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.” While A Raisin in the Sun specifically told the story of a poor Black family in Chicago during the civil rights era, the themes of family and hope have resonated with many across the globe. A Raisin in the Sun was also made into a film and a stage musical. The film starred the original stage cast, featuring Sidney Poitier as Walter Jr. and Ruby Dee as Lena.

Hansberry completed two additional plays during her life. In stark contrast to A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was set in Greenwich Village with white characters. The play revolved around themes of racism, marriage, political action, and prostitution. It also dealt with homosexuality and creativity. In part due to its complicated themes, the play received mixed reviews. Les Blancs, staged after her death, was not well received and had a short stage run. Theatre goers likely couldn’t identify with Africans who would kill in order to achieve liberation. 

Hansberry’s writing was very much informed by her life experiences and politics. Her father’s political involvement greatly influenced her, as evidenced by political themes in her plays.  Recalling her family’s court case, her experience with integration could be seen in A Raisin in the Sun. Many of her characters face the quandary of whether or not to become politically involved within their communities. They also are laden with moral ambiguities, as Hansberry understood quite well the multiple plights of the human condition. As such she also understood the multiple layers of social inequality that exist. She often linked homophobia with sexism and racism. Hansberry maintained contact with the Daughters of Bilitis, an early lesbian civil rights organization. In her appreciation of the woman-only forum, she wrote letters to the organization’s publication, The Ladder, showing her support. Recent scholarship has confirmed that she felt strong emotional and sexual attraction to women.

At the age of 32, Hansberry was diagnosed with cancer, yet she continued to write and add to what would be her uncompleted and unpublished works. She had appointed her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, as executor of her literary work. As such he went on to complete, edit and produce much of her work. The most notable of these works was the play To Be Young Gifted and Black, staged in 1969. Somewhat autobiographical, it includes excerpts from much of Hansberry’s work. The play, featuring Cicely Tyson, was a critical and commercial success.  It gave the audience more insight into Hansberry’s social consciousness and the pride that had been instilled in her from her youth. As well, it was as if it were Lorraine herself, speaking in her own words. The play was also produced for television and published as a book.  Continuing her legacy, A Raisin in the Sun was restaged in 2004.

Lorraine Hansberry lost her battle with cancer on January 12, 1965. She is buried at Bethel Cemetery in New York. In her memory, there are school buildings and a theatre in San Francisco that bear her name.

Main Source

Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Twayne. 1984.