Lorraine Hansberry was just twenty-eight
years old when her first play, A Raisin In The Sun
, opened on Broadway to rave reviews and instant success. Capturing the spirit of the civil rights movement, Raisin
won the 1959 New York Drama Critics Circle Award and made Hansberry the first black to win that prize, the youngest person to win that prize, and fifth woman to win that prize. A Raisin In The Sun
was also the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway; it has gone on to become a classic of the American theater and enjoy numerous revivals.
The roots of Lorraine Hansberry’s artistic vision and activism were born, as she was, in Chicago, into a family of substantial means. Hansberry was the youngest of four children, and her father, Carl, was known as the “kitchenette king” in Chicago. Carl Hansberry would subdivide large homes vacated by whites moving to the suburbs and then sell these small apartments or kitchenettes to African American migrants from the South. Her mother, Nannie Perry, was a schoolteacher and, later, ward committeewoman. When Lorraine was born, Nannie Perry Hansberry was already an influential society matron, hosting cultural and literary figures such as Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Joe Louis.
Although Lorraine and her siblings enjoyed privileges unknown to their working-class friends and schoolmates, Nannie and Carl Hansberry instilled in their children a sense of racial pride, a sense of Black history, and civic responsibility. They created the Hansberry Foundation–designed to inform African Americans of their civil rights–encouraged their children to challenge the exclusionary policies of local restaurants and stores.
Carl and Nannie Hansberry themselves challenged restrictive real estate covenants of the day by moving into an all-white neighborhood. But shortly after settling in, a mob of whites gathered in front of the house and threw a brick through the front window, narrowly missing eight-year-old Lorraine and forcing the family to move out. Carl Hansberry won a narrow victory over restrictive covenants from the Supreme Court, but the decision failed to set precedent on this issue.
Lorraine Hansberry attended public schools, where she encountered the children of the working class whose independence and courage she came to admire; that struggle would become the subject of her first major play.
Departing from the family tradition of attending black colleges, Hansberry enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, a predominantly white university, to study journalism, but was equally attracted to the visual arts. She integrated an all-white women’s dormitory and became active in the campus chapter of the Young Progressive Association, a national left-wing student organization, serving as its president during her sophomore year.
After seeing a moving performance of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, Hansberry decided to become a writer and to capture the authentic voice of the African American working class. She left Wisconsin after two years and moved to New York City in 1950, taking a job with Freedom, a newspaper founded by Paul Robeson. She was soon promoted to associate editor, and, in 1952, she replaced Robeson at a controversial, international peace conference in Montevideo, Uruguay. Lorraine Hansberry subsequently spoke at public rallies and meetings, often critiquing U.S. policy.
Her association with Freedom placed Hansberry in the midst of Harlem’s rich cultural, artistic, and political life. She was an avid reader of African American history and culture, politics, philosophy, and the arts, heavily influenced by the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, William Shakespeare, and Langston Hughes.
While participating in a demonstration at New York University, she met Robert Nemiroff, son of progressive Russian Jewish immigrants, and after a short courtship, married him on 20 June 1953. The young couple moved to Greenwich Village and Hansberry began to write extensively about the people and lifestyles that she observed around her.
When her husband co-wrote “Cindy Oh Cindy” in 1956, a ballad that became an instant hit, the revenue freed Hansberry to devote her full energies to a play about a struggling, working-class black family, like the families who rented her father’s properties on Chicago’s South Side; A Raisin in the Sun depicts the frustrations of a black family whose dreams of economic progress have been thwarted.
After a pre-Broadway tour, it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York in March 1959 to instant critical and popular success. In 1961, it was produced as a film with most of the original cast and won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival. During this period, Hansberry was much in demand as a public speaker.
She articulated her belief that art is social and that black writers must address all issues of humankind. As the civil rights movement intensified, she helped to organize fund-raising activities in support of organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, called for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and declared that President Kennedy had endangered world peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
During the last four years of her life, Hansberry worked hard on several plays. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was produced on Broadway in 1964, but critics were less receptive to this play that challenged the ennui of Greenwich Village intellectuals. During its short run, Hansberry battled pancreatic cancer, diagnosed in 1963.
Lorraine Hansberry died on 12 January 1965, the same night that her play closed.
But she left a number of finished and unfinished writings that indicate the breadth of her social and artistic vision. Robert Nemiroff, whom she had divorced in 1964 but designated as her literary executor, adapted some of her writings for the stage under the title To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a show that became the longest-running drama of the 1968–1969 Off-Broadway season.
Nemiroff also edited and published an anthology of her work that included Les Blancs, a play about liberation movements; The Drinking Gourd, a television play commissioned by NBC but shelved as too controversial to produce; and What Use Are Flowers?, a fantasy on the consequences of nuclear holocaust.
In recent years, a feminist revisioning of her plays and some of her unpublished writings affirm her politically progressive views, her sophistication about gender issues, and her sensitivity to homosexuality and opposition to homophobia. As more of her work is made accessible, the full extent of Hansberry’s vision and contribution to American letters will be revealed.