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Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965) was an American playwright and author. Hansberry grew up in an environment that set the stage, so to speak, for her best-known work —A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by an African-American woman to be staged on Broadway. At the age of 29, she became the youngest American and the first African-American playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.
Hansberry was also known for the plays The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and Les Blancs. The posthumous play and published collection To Be Young, Gifted and Black encapsulated a brief and brilliant career. She was only 34 years old when she died of pancreatic cancer.
She wrote political essays and worked for the African-American magazine Freedom. Hansberry was also part of and wrote for the Daughters of Bilitis magazine The Ladder, mainly articles on social issues of race and gender.
Distinguished Family Life
Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest of four siblings whose father was Carl Augustus Hansberry, a successful real estate broker and social activist, and mother Nannie Louise, a driving school teacher and ward committeewoman.
In 1938, after her father bought a house in the south side of Chicago, the family was subject to the wrath of their white neighbors, resulting in U.S. Supreme Court’s Hansberry v. Lee case. Hansberry’s father died in 1946 when she was only fifteen years old. She was later quoted as saying that “American racism helped kill him.”
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For a wonderful overview of Lorraine Hansberry’s brief, inspiring life,
watch the PBS documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart
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Hansberry grew up surrounded by a multitude of prominent black intellectuals. W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson were frequent guests at the Hansberry household. Hansberry’s uncle, William Leo Hansberry, founded the African Civilization section of the history department at Howard University.
Hansberry also had many widely known relatives in her family line. Most notable relatives include director and playwright Shauneille Perry, actress Taye Hansberry, and composer and flutist Aldridge Hansberry.
Hansberry also became the godmother to Nina Simone‘s daughter Lisa (now known as Simone) who later wrote a song about Hansberry in 1969 titled “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
A major force in the theater world
In 1950, at the age of twenty, Hansberry left college to pursue a career in writing in New York City. The following year, she joined the staff of Freedom, a progressive black journal headed by civil rights activist, singer, and stage performer Paul Robeson.
Her work included, but was not limited to, the U.S. civil rights movements and topics of global struggles against colonialism and imperialism. Hansberry found particular interest in examining global and political struggles through the lens of female participants.
On March 11th, 1959, A Raisin in the Sun became the first play to be written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry, at age 29, became the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
The play’s title comes from the first lines of “Harlem,” a poem by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Ossie Davis, who eventually replaced Sidney Poitier as Walter Younger observed, “Lorraine’s play was meant to dramatize Langston’s question, not answer it.” Over the course of the next two years, A Raisin in the Sun was translated into 35 different languages and was performed all over the world.
A Raisin in the Sun’s reception
Raisin made Lorraine Hansberry a force to reckon with in the theater world. James Baldwin, with whom Hansberry had draw close, wrote:
“I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater. And the reason was that never in the history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage … But, in Raisin, black people recognized the house and all the people in it.”
Anne Cheney (1984, author of the biography Lorraine Hansberry by Anne Cheney (1984), described Lorraine Hansberry’s most iconic play:
“A moving testament to the strength and endurance of the human spirit, A Raisin in the Sun is a quiet celebration of the black family, the importance of African roots, the equality of women, the vulnerability of marriage, the true value of money, the survival of the individual, and the nature of man’s dreams.
A well-made play, Raisin at first seems a plea for racial tolerance or a fable of man’s overcoming an insensitive society, but the simple eloquence of the characters elevate the play into a universal representation of all people’s hopes, fears, and dreams.”
The introduction to the Modern Library 1995 edition of A Raisin in the Sun‘s script offered these observations of the play’s reception when it was first staged:
“When A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, it made theatrical history as the first work by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. The reviewers were virtually unanimous in their praise.
‘A seething interplay of past and present, of wisdom and passion,’ said Walter Kerr, ‘The mood is 49 parts anger and 49 parts control, with a very narrow escape hatch for steam.’
In The New Yorker, Kenneth Tynan wrote, ‘It evokes a life that relates to ours and makes sympathy endemic.’ The work enjoyed a nineteen-month run and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as Best Play of the Year. At twenty-nine, Hansberry became the first African-American to be so honored.
In 1961 the movie version of A Raisin in the Sun, with a screenplay by Hansberry, earned a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival.”
Yet for all of its many accolades, Raisin was not without its detractors. Many on the Black Left, with whom Lorraine most identified, felt that Lorraine had somehow betrayed them with a play that was seen by as overly assimilationist. Amiri Baraka was one of her harshest critics, yet years later he softened his stance, writing:
“We missed the essence of the work — that Hansberry had created a family on the cutting edge of the same class and ideological struggles as existed in the movement itself and among the people … though it seems conservative in form and content to the radical petty bourgeoisie … is the accurate telling and stunning vision of the real struggle.” (from “A Wiser Play Than Some of Us Knew,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1987)
Lorraine spent years afterwards trying to correct misreadings of her intentions with the play, even re-writing parts of it. According to Imani Perry in Looking for Lorraine:
“She obsessively and insistently wrote down her complaints about how she was mischaracterized and misconstrued, and how often critics generally misunderstood art and politics.”
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Lorraine Hansberry page on Amazon
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Hansberry was an activist for gay rights and wrote about feminism and homophobia, contributing toThe Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication.
While working for The Ladder, which was the first subscription-based magazine for lesbians, Hansberry wrote anonymous letters about her private thoughts and lifestyle she kept hidden from others. They hint at her relationships with women.
Marriage to Robert Nemiroff
On June 20th, 1952, Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a publisher, songwriter, poet, and political activist. They hadn’t been courting long, having met just earlier that year at a protest aimed at the discriminatory hiring practices at New York University. They were both in their early twenties, he a native New Yorker and a Jew who had been briefly married already.
Lorraine had not long before been engaged to a man whose heroine addiction had ended the relationship. In Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018), Imani Perry described Lorraine’s relationship with “Bobby,” as she liked to call him:
“When Bobby came around, different as he was from her ideal, and from her, he and Lorraine did share a great deal: they were both members of the radical left, intellectuals, and artists. Bobby would become something much more than just her husband. He was a friend until her death, a caretaker, one who encouraged and facilitated her writing, and after her death the one who ensured her legacy.”
Possibly due to Lorraine’s sexual preferences, she wasn’t as sure about him as he was about her. Their union was unconventional, though they were devoted to one another. They eventually divorced (a year before she passed away), but Nemiroff remained in Hansberry’s working orbit and became her literary executor.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window
Hansberry’s last major play was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, the story of an idealistic newspaper publisher set in New York’s Greenwich Village. A heavy smoker her entire life, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963.
As the saying goes, the show must go on, and Hansberry worked on the play even as her illness progressed. It opened on Broadway on October 15, 1964. As described in Lorraine Hansberry by Anne Cheney (1984):
“The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a still-life study of a modern man and woman caught up in the conflict between not caring and caring too much. As critics have noted repeatedly, it is a play of ideas in which Lorraine Hansberry scrutinizes many contemporary issues: family relationships, prostitution, marriage, psychoanalysis, homosexuality, politics, absurdist plays, abstract art, anti-Semitism, and racism.
At the center of the play is Sidney Brustein — a man torn between the torture of not caring and the weight of commitment. The play is more than a philosophical treatise, however. Brustein approaches the form of a dialect as each character confronts another with alien ideas, in the attempt to make himself and his desires understood.
Conflict arises, of course — that is, intellectual conflict — but a synthesis occurs by the time the curtain falls.”
Reviews were mixed to negative. Critics felt the play was too philosophical, or that its style was muddled. Was it comedy or tragedy? Fantasy or reality? Lorraine’s message, that she believed people needed to take a stand and commit to a goal, seemed to have gotten lost in the verbal complexity of the play.
Other late works
During the period when Sidney Brustein was being created and staged, that is, the last two years of her life, Hansberry was also working on revising Les Blancs and What Use are Flowers? The latter was a one-act play, something of a fable, touching on human survival, after a nuclear disaster. It was never produced during her lifetime, but was staged in 1994, at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, long after her death.
Another of Hansberry’s later works included The Drinking Gourd, meant as a television drama of approximately ninety minutes. But the networks considered the work, which was about the horrors of slavery, too controversial.
As described in the next section, Nemiroff, as Hansberry’s literary executor, gathered her autobiographical writings to create a staged version of To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It was staged in 1969.
Her last work, Les Blancs, a dramatic work about liberation in the late colonial period in Africa, was staged on Broadway in 1970.
Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy
Hansberry’s ability to address social and racial issues in her writings made her stand out and impacted the world of arts and entertainment and beyond. Having died at the age of 34, what she accomplished is impressive.
She’s still recognized for her strong and passionate work, and A Raisin in the Sun is still staged regularly. The Washington Post placed Ra in the realm of the most enduring of American plays, writing that it “belongs in the inner circle along with Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and The Glass Menagerie.”
After two unsuccessful operations, Hansberry passed away in 1965, the same evening that her play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, ran its 101st and final performance. Writing of her death, Anne Cheney observed:
“From April 1963 until January 1965, Lorraine Hansberry endured the physical and emotional pains of her encroaching cancer … while Lorraine herself was affluent, well-educated, and loved, she was too expansive a human being to ignore the very real torments of those around her.
She had reported racial discrimination in the South and in New York; she felt the birth pangs of emerging African nations … she witnessed artists, actors, and writers persecuted by McCarthyism …
Even as she lay dying, Lorraine sought to rectify one of the most tragic ills of her time — lack of respect for the individual, lack of caring.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. issued this statement following Hansberry’s death: “Her commitment of spirit … her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
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To Be Young, Gifted and Black
As previously noted, Hansberry’s ex-husband Robert Nemiroff became the executor of her literary estate; after her death in 1965. He gathered her unpublished writings and adapted them into a stage play To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which ran Off Broadway from 1968 to 1969.
The acclaimed play was one of the most successful of that season and continues to be performed around the world. In the foreword to the book, Nemiroff wrote that it was “shaped with a particular purpose in mind: to relate the artist to the person, and place the parts within the context of the whole in such fashion as to enable the words she left to tell her story.”
In 1969, the collection of autobiographical writings by Hansberry that formed the basis of the play — letters, journals, and interviews — were gathered and published as a book of the same title. It takes the reader from Hansberry’s early life in a Chicago ghetto, though her college days, and beyond into the creation of A Raisin in the Sun, which she wrote while still in her twenties.
The book also touches on her marriage, her commitment to race and gender issues, and ends with her battle with terminal cancer.
Though Nemiroff added minor changes to complete her play Les Blancs, it’s considered one of her most important works, though it initially received harsh criticism. Set in Africa, it addresses the tragedy of late 19th and early 20th century colonialism with the use of dance and music of African cultures.
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More about Lorraine Hansberry
On this site
- Quotes by Lorraine Hansberry, Author of A Raisin in the Sun
- Quotes from A Raisin in the Sun
- Sweet Lorraine — James Baldwin’s Tribute to Lorraine Hansberry
- To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry
- A Raisin in the Sun
- Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays:
The Drinking Gourd/What Use Are Flowers?
- The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window
- To Be Young, Gifted and Black
- Lorraine Hansberry: Award-Winning Playwright
and Civil Rights Activist by Susan Sinnott
- Young, Black and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry
by Patricia and Frederick McKissack
- Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life
of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry (2018)
More Information and sources
Film and television adaptations
- A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
- To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1972)
- A Raisin in the Sun (2008)
Visit and research
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