Lorraine Hansberry Biography

Lorraine Hansberry’s most well-known play, A Raisin in the Sun, is based on her own experience as a young black woman living in a white neighborhood. It was not a pleasant time. In fact, Hansberry’s family was involved in a famous discrimination lawsuit, that was eventually seen before the Supreme Court: Hansberry v. Lee, in 1940. Her family fought against a covenant that tried to keep African American families from buying houses. They won the lawsuit, but their time in the neighborhood, and Hansberry’s experiences at her predominantly white high school were, in her words, “hellishly hostile.” A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. She was also the first African American and the youngest person to win the New York Drama Critics Award.

Facts and Trivia

  • Hansberry died at the young age of 34 of pancreatic cancer. Her play The Sign in Sid Brustein’s Window closed its Broadway run the night she died.
  • The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco stages original African American plays and revivals.
  • The famous singer Nina Simone wrote a civil rights song called “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” based on Hansberry’s unfinished play of the same title.
  • Hansberry was able to devote herself to writing full-time when her husband, Robert Nemiroff, wrote the hit song “Cindy, Oh Cindy.”
  • Hansberry's brother, William Leo Hansberry, founded the African Civilization section to Howard University's history department.
  • Hansberry was commissioned in 1959 to write something for the National Broadcasting Company. She submitted her play The Drinking Gourd, but it was considered too controversial to be aired on television.
  • On the night before her wedding, she and her husband protested the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2953

Article abstract: Contributions: A writer and an activist, Lorraine Hansberry was the first African American woman to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award.

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Early Life

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, into a middle-class family on the south side of Chicago, Illinois. The youngest of four siblings, she was seven years younger than Mamie, her older sister. The oldest were two boys, Carl, Jr., and Perry.

Lorraine’s father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, the son of two teachers, was a former U.S. deputy marshal who worked as a banking accountant and later founded his own bank. His real success, however, came in the real estate business, where he earned the name “Kitchenette Landlord” for buying properties and converting them into kitchenettes. Lorraine’s mother, Nannie Hansberry, the daughter of a bishop, who had attended Tennessee State University, became a teacher and later a ward committeeman of the Republican Party.

Hansberry was born in the Depression era, but lived in affluence as a result of her father’s wealth. Nevertheless, her middle-class background did not insulate her from the racism and segregation of the time. Living in a ghetto community, she attended Betsy Ross Grammar School, a crowded public school. Fortunately, her enlightened father had a library of classic books, encyclopedias, and the works of black writers. In addition, Carl Hansberry was an avowed nationalist and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. Prominent black figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, and Jesse Owens were regular visitors to the Hansberry home. Lorraine met them all.

By age ten, Lorraine had read most of the books in her father’s library and had developed a consciousness that was unusual for children of her age group. Her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, a professor of African history at Howard University and a renowned Africanist for whom a college was named at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, had a lasting influence on her. From him, she learned of the greatness of Africa and its ancient civilizations, such as old Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. She also heard about colonialism in Africa and its impact on the people. She drew a parallel between the exploited Africans and the subjugated African Americans. These early influences were clearly reflected later in Hansberry’s works.

Hansberry also witnessed history. At age eight, she watched her defiant father buy a house in a white neighborhood and challenge the restrictive covenants that promoted segregation by taking his case to court. When the lower court ordered him to vacate the residence, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and won, in the Hansberry v. Lee decision of 1940. His victory did not, however, grant him immunity from bigotry and hostility. As he was contesting his case in the court, a mob attacked his family, hurling stones and bricks at them. Carl Hansberry, who also campaigned for a Republican seat in Congress in 1940 but lost, became disillusioned by racism and with the American justice system. He bought a house in Polanco, Mexico, to settle there permanently with his family, but died shortly afterward, at the age of fifty-one.

The segregational experience left an indelible mark in young Hansberry’s mind which was manifested in her future works, particularly in her award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun (pr. 1959). When Hansberry was graduated from Englewood High School in 1948, she attended the University of Wisconsin. It is not known why she chose a white college, considering her orientation and her family’s choice of black schools. Her sister Mamie attended Howard University. It seems likely that Hansberry had a global vision and did not deem attending a white school a betrayal or an abdication of her black causes.

Hansberry spent three years at the University of Wisconsin. Her freshman courses included physical geography, drawing, and fine arts. Her concern about racism and the general plight of black people found expression in her drawings and sketches. A drawing of herself on the help wanted page of a newspaper followed by the drawing of a man being lynched served as an indication of a war that she would later wage in newspapers, public speeches, and literature.

When Hansberry saw a production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, she was captivated by the story and performance. She identified with the plight of Irish men as portrayed in the play. Going to the theater became one of her favorite activities.

While testing the artistic waters by drawing and going to the theater, she experimented with politics, becoming a supporter of Henry Wallace and campaigning for him. Although she attended a white school, Hansberry’s interest in black experience continued; while taking her regular courses, she continued to immerse herself in black history, literature, and culture. Unsustained by the school’s curriculum, she bid goodbye to her friends and left for New York in 1950.

Life’s Work

Lorraine Hansberry continued her education at the New School for Social Research and settled on a career in journalism. After writing briefly for the Young Progressives of America, she went to work for Freedom, a monthly magazine published by Paul Robeson. With contributors such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles White, and Alice Childress writing on black and Pan-African issues, Freedom was a natural choice for Hansberry. Her interests in arts, African history, and politics found outlets in the magazine, and concern for women’s rights was also articulated. Distinguishing herself as a versatile writer of “consciousness,” she soon rose from the position of staff writer to become associate director of Freedom. In five years, she contributed more than twenty-two articles, and several reviews of books and plays.

Among her articles were “Child Labor Is Society’s Crime Against Youth,” “Negroes Cast in Same Old Roles in T.V. Shows,” and “Gold Coast’s Rulers Go: Ghana Moves to Freedom.” While writing, she participated in different protest movements, picketed, spoke on street corners, and demonstrated against segregation by helping evicted African Americans move their furniture back to their apartments. When the U.S. government denied Paul Robeson a passport to attend the intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, Hansberry risked reprisal from the government and took a treacherous flight to Uruguay to represent Robeson. The experience broadened her interest in people of color and in world issues.

While still working for Freedom, Hansberry developed an interest in creative writing. She wrote stories, poetry, and plays. One of her sketches was performed during a commemoration of Freedom’s first anniversary.

While on an assignment in 1951, Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish graduate student and a communist, at a picket line protesting the exclusion of African American students from the New York University basketball team. After less than two years of courtship, they married in 1953, to the chagrin of black nationalists, who felt betrayed by Hansberry’s interracial marriage. Although he was a Jewish American, Nemiroff shared the same social consciousness as Hansberry, and both loved arts and creativity. Marriage to Nemiroff was in no way a contradiction to Hansberry, who had a broad concept of life and a vision for humanity.

After the marriage, the young couple struggled for a couple of years. Hansberry, who had resigned her position with Freedom in 1953 to concentrate on her writing, wrote drafts of three plays while working temporarily as a typist, hostess, store clerk, camp program director, and teacher. Their fortune changed when Nemiroff wrote a successful hit song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” in 1956. Hansberry became a full-time writer. It was at that time that she completed A Raisin in the Sun, a play that was to bring her fame. It received its title from Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” which posed the question, “What happens to a dream deferred? . . . Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? . . . Or does it explode?”

Hansberry provided the answer. Set in a ghetto in Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun centers on a black widower, Lena, who at age sixty harbors her grown son, Walter Lee, Jr., his wife, Ruth Younger, their son, Travis, and her youngest daughter Beneatha in a cramped kitchenette. They live in abject poverty but have dreams and aspirations for a better life. When a long-awaited life insurance check of $10,000 for the death of Lena’s husband, Walter, Sr., arrives, the family sees it as a means of escape. Walter wants to buy a liquor store; Beneatha wants to use her share for medical tuition; Lena wants a house and surprises everyone when she reveals that she has made a down payment on one in all-white Clybourne Park. Walter, Jr., does not approve, but when a representative of the white neighborhood tries to dissuade the family from moving into their new house by suggesting monetary compensation, Walter joins his mother and family in rejecting the offer. They move to the bigger home triumphantly, their dream fulfilled.

A Raisin in the Sun is not only about dreams; it is about culture, black identity, and black pride. It is also about feminine strength, as exemplified by Lena, a strong matriarch who keeps her family together, offering love and care without compromising discipline. Since the play affirms the human spirit, it has a universal appeal and offers hope to all struggling people.

One of the first people to read Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Phil Rose, Nemiroff’s friend and music associate, optioned it for Broadway production. Unfortunately, Broadway producers were not eager for a realistic and positive black play, but Ross was not discouraged. With the help of a coproducer, David S. Cogan, money was raised from different sources, and a production directed by Lloyd Richards toured New Haven and Philadelphia, receiving astounding reviews. The play moved to Chicago, and an agreement was reached to produce it on Broadway.

On March 11, 1959, A Raisin in the Sun opened at Broadway’s Barrymore Theater and received rave reviews from such influential critics as Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times and Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune. Superb casting and fine acting by the original cast, Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil, helped to make the play a success. In April, the play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year, making Hansberry the first black playwright and the fifth woman to win the prestigious award. At age twenty-nine, she was also the youngest person to achieve that honor.

An instant celebrity, Hansberry was courted by producers from Hollywood. In 1960, she was commissioned to write the opening segment for a television series on the Civil War. When she finished her segment on slavery, The Drinking Gourd, it was considered controversial and was not produced. In 1959, Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to produce A Raisin in the Sun for the screen. After the film script underwent several rewrites, the film opened in 1961.

Hansberry worked on several scripts following the success of A Raisin in the Sun. She started research on The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window in 1959 and completed the play in 1961. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’s protagonist is a Jewish intellectual, and the play is based on the people Hansberry knew while living in Greenwich Village. Hansberry used the play as an appeal for intellectuals to pay attention to social and international issues. In 1962, Hansberry completed What Use Are Flowers?, a play on the Holocaust and its devastating effects, and embarked on another project, Les Blancs. She continued to write articles for newspapers and to make public appearances and talk about causes in which she believed. She talked about black oppression in America and about peace and justice. She wrote essays and articles on black history, art, and culture, and on racism, women, and homophobia. One of her major articles serves as her manifesto today. The article “The Negro Writer and His Roots,” was delivered to a black writers’ conference on March 1, 1959. Hansberry used it to call on black intellectuals to become involved in world affairs.

Another unpublished article, “Simone de Beauvoir and the Second Sex,” expressed concern regarding the status of women and homophobia. As Hansberry worked feverishly in 1963 to complete multiple projects, she became ill. She was to die a slow and painful death from cancer of the pancreas. In the same year, she and Nemiroff obtained a divorce. The divorce was unknown to most of their friends, since the two maintained an intimate and professional relationship. The last two years of Hansberry’s life were to be spent in and out of the hospital. She continued to write, to make public appearances, and to revise Les Blancs and What Use Are Flowers? She also attended meetings and rehearsals for the production of her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.

When The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window opened at the Longacre Theater on October 15, 1964, it was not as well received as A Raisin in the Sun had been. Critics who were baffled by Hansberry’s choice of a Jewish subject and the intellectual complexity of the play responded unfavorably. In spite of mixed reviews and relatively low attendance, Hansberry’s friends and contemporaries rallied around the producers, ensuring that the play was moved to Henry Miller’s theater when Longacre was about to close its doors. Both the play and its playwright were struggling to survive.

On January 12, 1965, Hansberry drew her last breath. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was closed for the night in Hansberry’s honor as thousands mourned her death.

Summary

Lorraine Hansberry lived for not quite thirty-five years, but she accomplished a full lifetime’s work. As Martin Luther King, Jr., predicted in his letter of eulogy to her, her life and work have remained “an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”

Her former husband and literary executor edited, produced, and published most of her uncompleted scripts. Among them are To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, an autobiographical text, and Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry. The latter volume includes Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers? To Be Young, Gifted, and Black was adapted for the stage, and it became the longest-running drama of the time when it was produced Off-Broadway in 1968 and 1969. A film based on the play was released in 1972.

Other uncompleted scripts were “Mary Wollstonecraft”; an adaptation and a film version of Masters of the Dew, by the Haitian author Jacques Roulmain; a musical adaptation of the novel Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge; an adaptation of The Marrow of Tradition, by Charles Waddell Chesnutt; Achanron, a play about an Egyptian pharaoh; and Toussaint, which was published in 1968 in an anthology of plays by black women edited by Margaret B. Wilkerson.

Nemiroff also polished and promoted Hansberry’s existing works. A Raisin in the Sun was adapted as a musical and was produced on Broadway in 1972. In 1987, a television production of which Hansberry would have been proud was released by the Public Broadcasting System. The script included original segments that had been omitted in earlier productions. Committed to a better world, Hansberry represented different causes and advocated social and political changes in the United States and throughout the world. She also pressed for the rights of women, whom she described in an interview with Studs Terkel as “the most oppressed group of any oppressed group.” She saw a link between racism, homophobia, and the oppression of women, and she envisioned a world in which men and women could unite in a fight for human rights. Hansberry should be remembered as a writer of remarkable talent and as a dedicated humanitarian.

Bibliography

Carter, Steven R. Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment Amid Complexity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Carter begins his analysis of Hansberry’s works with an overview of her commitment in life as expressed in her actions and her nonliterary as well as literary writings.

Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne, 1984. This book is an intimate biography of Hansberry and an analysis of her plays. One chapter is devoted to black nationalists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who had a significant influence on the playwright.

Hansberry, Lorraine. Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry. Edited by Robert Nemiroff. New York: Random House, 1972. Published posthumously, this collection of Hansberry’s plays Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers? contains a critical introduction by Robert Nemiroff and an introduction by Margaret B. Wilkerson.

Hansberry, Lorraine. The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965. This photo-essay examines the history of the Civil Rights movement.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random House, 1959. This work, Hansberry’s first play, describes an African American family whose dream of escaping poverty and living a better life is fulfilled when the female protagonist makes a down payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood.

Hansberry, Lorraine. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. New York: Random House, 1965. Hansberry’s second play, which deals with a Jewish intellectual and his circle of friends, examines the role of intellectuals in politics.

Hansberry, Lorraine. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Adapted by Robert Nemiroff. New York: New American Library, 1970. This book contains materials from Hansberry’s speeches, essays, journals, memoirs, interviews, letters, and various unpublished works. Includes a foreword by Robert Nemiroff and an introduction by James Baldwin.

Whitlow, Roger. Black American Literature. Rev. ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. In the section devoted to Lorraine Hansberry, Whitlow gives a brief biographical account of Hansberry and analyzes A Raisin in the Sun.

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