Lorraine Hansberry

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At a Glance

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.

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Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 3,322 words.)