Lorraine Hansberry Biography

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

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 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...

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