Hansberry, Lorraine 1930–1965
Lorraine Hansberry 1930–1965
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry ushered in a new era of U.S. theater history. She brought to the stage the realistic portrayal of urban, working-class African American life. Writer James Baldwin offered insights into the impact of her work through his description of the staging of her landmark 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun: “I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater,” he related in a 1969 introduction to Hansberry’s adapted autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black. “And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.”
But Hansberry did more than just expand the content of realistic stage drama to include African Americans. When her additional writings became available in the 1980s, several literary critics argued for an even broader recognition of her stature. In his 1991 book Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment Amid Complexity, Steven R. Carter commented: “When Lorraine Hansberry died at thirty-four, she left a wide and rich dramatic heritage, although only a small part of it was visible then, and some parts have yet to become known. When all of her work is brought into view, she should be seen as one of the most important playwrights of this century, not simply on the basis of the one play already considered a classic, but on her collective work.”
Hansberry’s writings are a synthesis of a variety of artistic trends and genres. She created her own distinctly broad literary vision by incorporating into her works penetrating views of prevailing social conditions, along with aspects of her own life and experiences. The author is said to have endured a lifelong struggle between her upper-middle-class affluence and her unwavering commitment to black liberation and freedom from all forms of oppression. In the New York Times, critic Paula Giddings remarked that Hansberry’s body of work reflects elements of the black protest movement of the forties, elements of the universal, non-racial themes predominant during the fifties, and elements of the black nationalist movement of the sixties. And in his commentary on the original, uncut screenplay for the film A Raisin in the Sun, filmmaker Spike Lee wrote: “Today, everybody and their mother are talking about ‘Afrocentricity.’ But Hansberry was writing about it long before it became fashionable.”
When Hansberry’s first play, A Raisin in the Sun, surpassed plays by noted authors Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Archibald MacLeish to win the New York Drama Critics
Born Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, May 19, 1930, in Chicago, IL; died of cancer, January 12, 1965; daughter of Carl Augustus (a real estate entrepreneur) and Nannie (Perry) Hansberry; married Robert Nemiroff, June 20, 1953 (divorced March 10, 1964). Education: Attended University of Wisconsin, 1948-50; studied painting in Mexico, summer 1949; studied art at Roosevelt University, summer 1950; attended New School for Social Research, New York, fall 1950; studied African history and culture with W. E. B. Du Bois, Jefferson School for Social Science, New York, 1953. Politics: Young Progressives of America, 1948-50; various peace and freedom movements, 1950-65.
Freedom (periodical), staff writer, 1951-52, associate editor, 1952-53, occasional contributor, 1953-55; represented Paul Robeson at Intercontinental Peace Congress, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1952; taught at Frederick Douglass School, Harlem, 1952; full-time writer, beginning 1956; completed draft of A Raisin in the Sun, 1957, and wrote screenplay for Columbia Pictures, 1960; commissioned to write slavery drama, The Drinking Gourd, for NBC-TV, 1960; drama canceled by NBC before airing; began working on opera, Toussaint, and several other plays, 1960; mobilized support and fund-raised for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 1962; joined James Baldwin and others to meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy on racial crisis, 1963; wrote The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, for SNCC, 1964.
Member: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), 1962-65.
Awards: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year, 1959, for A Raisin in the Sun; Screen Writers Guild Award nomination for best screenplay and Cannes Film Festival Award, both 1961, for film version of A Raisin in the Sun.
Circle Award for best play of the year in 1959, she became the first black writer, the fifth woman, and the youngest American playwright ever to receive the honor. Since then, critics such as Frank Rich of the New York Times and David Richards of the Washington Post have recognized the play as an American classic, comparable in Richards’s eyes to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Williams’s Glass Menagerie.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry portrays a black, working-class family in Chicago struggling to achieve—with dignity—upward social mobility and the freedom to buy property in a wealthy, suburban, white neighborhood. Set in a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side, the play depicts an experience Hansberry knew. In an address quoted in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, she recounted her knowledge of the time and place of the play:“I was born on the Southside of Chicago. I was born black and a female. I was born in a depression after one world war, and came into my adolescence during another. While I was still in my teens the first atom bombs were dropped on human beings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and by the time I was twenty-three years old my government and that of the Soviet Union had entered actively into the worst conflict of nerves in human history—the Cold War.”
While Hansberry does not address these particular world events in Raisin, she captures the tensions of the era in which the drama is set. Raisin centers on the tribulations of the Youngers, a black family caught up in a charged “conflict of nerves” as they attempt to move into Clybourne Park, a white Chicago suburb, in the 1950s. In the play, Karl Lindner of the “Clybourne Park Improvement Association” tries to pay off the Youngers to keep them from moving into the neighborhood and suggests that members of the family may meet with violence if they follow through with their plans.
This scenario parallels one that Hansberry herself experienced during her youth. Hansberry’s parents, Carl Augustus and Nannie Perry Hansberry, earned a considerable amount of wealth in Chicago when Carl rose from bank teller to banking and real estate entrepreneur. His innovation of a small-scale “kitchenette” for one- or two-bedroom apartments brought him financial success in real estate during the Great Depression. In 1938, after living on the South Side for eight years, the Hansberrys began searching for a larger home. Carl Hansberry soon decided on a house in a predominantly white neighborhood.
While sitting on the porch one day, eight-year-old Lorraine Hansberry and her sister Mamie watched an angry white mob gather in front of their house. The sisters retreated into the living room and were chased by a brick that crashed through a front window and lodged itself in the opposite wall. The brick narrowly missed Lorraine. Anne Cheney, writing in the biography Lorraine Hansberry, quoted the effect of the episode on Hansberry, as later related by the writer’s husband, Robert Nemiroff: “Who knows which part had the greatest impact on the child—the brick? the mother sitting up nights with a gun? the incidents to and from school? the father away in Washington? the fact that the cops did not defend the home but that blacks had to come from outside to do so? the fact that the family was then evicted by the Supreme Court of Illinois?”
If Hansberry knew the struggles of the Youngers from her own experiences, she also learned of their dignity during her youth. Hansberry’s parents turned their home at South Park Way into a social center for distinguished African American intellectuals and artists. Visitors included noted American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois and singer Paul Robeson, both of whom would later play more significant formative roles in Hansberry’s life. And Hansberry’s mother ensured that her children were in touch with their roots: she brought the children to visit their grandmother in Tennessee, where they heard stories of how their enslaved grandfather had run away and hidden from his master in the same hills they looked on. Hansberry’s father, meanwhile, maintained an active and ambitious lifestyle, evident in his success in business and in his active political life. In 1940, for example, he campaigned door-to-door throughout his home community in what eventually turned out to be an unsuccessful run for U.S. Congress. By the time Hansberry was in elementary school, she knew that she would attend either Howard University, where her sister Mamie later enrolled, or the University of Wisconsin.
Hansberry decided to pursue a degree at the University of Wisconsin but ended up staying for only two years, from 1948 to 1950. She never felt involved in her overall academic life, but outside of class she fell in love with the theater and began forming her radical political beliefs. Living off campus because housing was unavailable in 1948 for black students, Hansberry commuted each day to attend classes in literature, history, philosophy, art, mathematics, and science. Excited by her humanities classes and bored by the sciences, Hansberry balanced As and Fs to maintain the bare minimum average to remain in school.
Outside of class, she developed a variety of interests. A production of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock inspired her imagination and precipitated both her participation in student theater and her study of the works of modern masters such as Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. In the fall term of her second year, Hansberry became campus chairman of the Young Progressives of America in support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 candidacy. Upon his defeat, she grew disaffected with party politics. But Hansberry continued to enjoy her friendships with African students and a number of young campus radicals. Her network of friends in Wisconsin would later become the material for a section of her unfinished autobiographical novel All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors. But social and racial obstacles stood in the path of her success at the University of Wisconsin. In a theater class on set design in her second year, for example, she received a D from a professor who considered her work above average but who said he did not want to encourage a young black woman to enter a white-dominated field. In 1950, Hansberry left the university and headed for New York.
There, the fledgling writer began classes at the New School for Social Research, wrote articles for the Young Progressives of America magazine, and by 1951, joined the staff of Paul Robeson’s magazine Freedom. As a staff writer for the periodical over the next three years, Hansberry wrote on Africa, women, New York social issues, and the arts. She traveled widely on assignment for the magazine, covering the U.S., Africa, and South America. While writing on social inequities in New York City, Hansberry developed into what Cheney called an “intellectual revolutionary.” Meanwhile, her writing skills improved. “Shuttling about the city—from the Waldorf-Astoria to Broadway back to Harlem schools—Lorraine Hansberry did sharpen her journalistic tools,” Cheney wrote in Lorraine Hansberry. “She learned to interview easily; she started to sift important figures from mazes of paper; she began to penetrate the facades of people and events.”
While a journalist for Freedom, Hansberry also developed public speaking skills by teaching classes at Frederick Douglass School in Harlem and by attending and speaking at political rallies. At a protest of the exclusion of black players from the basketball team at New York University in 1951, Hansberry met her future husband, Robert Nemiroff, a white, Jewish graduate student in literature at the university. Hansberry worked for a while in the Greenwich Village restaurant owned by Nemiroff’s family. The two developed a close emotional and intellectual relationship, and on June 20, 1953, they were married.
During the following few years Hansberry worked at a variety of jobs, including that of typist, secretary, recreation leader for the Federation for the Handicapped, and occasional contributor for Freedom before it went bankrupt in 1955. Nemiroff, meanwhile, had graduated with his master’s degree from NYU; he became first a reader and copywriter for Sears Readers’ Club and later promotions director of Avon Books. Together they absorbed the rich cultural milieu of Greenwich Village, remained active on picket lines and at all-night vigils for desegregation, and enjoyed the company of friends. Hansberry would later write about these times in her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
In 1956, Robert Nemiroff and a friend, Burt D’Lugoff, wrote a song together. Hansberry suggested the title, “Cindy, Oh, Cindy” and the song became a hit, earning $100,000 in 1956. This income freed both Hansberry and Nemiroff to write full time. Nemiroff wrote a play, Postmark Zero, performed on Broadway in 1965, while Hansberry penned a number of works, including A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which was produced in 1964, and several more in between.
As early as 1959, Hansberry began researching for The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. In 1960, she imagined the basic plot of her play Les Blancs, adapted for production in 1970 by Robert Nemiroff. Also in 1960, Hansberry wrote the final script of the television series The Drinking Gourd. The program was commissioned by NBC-TV as part of a special series on the Civil War, but network executives eventually decided it was too violent and divisive for television. It was canceled before it ever aired. In 1961, Hansberry envisioned the premise of What Use Are Flowers?, a fantasy for television, but recast it as a play in 1962. Also in 1961, she began carrying out a debate about race with writer Norman Mailer through the pages of the Village Voice. Around the same time, Hansberry and Nemiroff moved to a comfortable house modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture in Croton-on-Hudson, a 60-minute train ride from downtown Manhattan. Hansberry would live there until her death in 1965.
By 1963, Hansberry’s strength began to deteriorate, and she discovered that she had been stricken with cancer. The exact cause was never determined, but medical researchers could not rule out emotional strain as a contributory factor. Meanwhile, Hansberry published a documentary history of the civil rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), entitled The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. She also worked on a number of projects that remained unfinished at the time of her death, including an epic opera titled Toussaint, about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the late eighteenth-century liberator of Haiti. All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors, an unpublished autobiographical novel, also remained incomplete upon her death. In addition, Hansberry noted ideas for a number of other plays, including one about the Pharaoh Akhnaton, another on eighteenth-century writer Mary Wollstonecraft, still another on Native Americans called Laughing Boy, and one on black American fiction writer Charles Chestnutf’s novel The Marrow of Tradition.
The tensions of publicity—combined, say some Sources, with Hansberry’s confused sexual identity—put a strain on her marriage to Nemiroff, and in March of 1964 they privately obtained a divorce in Mexico. Still, Nemiroff worked as producer of Brustein and stayed with Hansberry in the hospital whenever he was not working on the play. Hansberry’s cancer had advanced and she was hospitalized from October of 1964 to January of 1965, when she died. Hansberry chose her ex-husband to be the executor of her literary estate. For the rest of his life, Nemiroff devoted himself to publicizing her works. To that end, he wrote introductions for A Raisin in the Sun, saw to the play’s publication, and—editing Hansberry’s own writings—created the drama To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words.
Over six hundred people attended Lorraine Hansberry’s funeral in Harlem on January 15, 1965. The presiding reverend, Eugene Callender, recited messages from James Baldwin and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Cheney reprinted the end of King’s letter, which read: “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, Simon & Schuster, 1964.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, introduction by James Baldwin, Prentice-Hall, 1969.
A Raisin in the Sun, opened in New Haven and Philadelphia, moved to Chicago, then produced on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, March 11, 1959; published by New American Library, 1961.
Les Blancs, single scene staged at Actors Studio Workshop, New York, 1963; two-act play produced at Longacre Theater, New York City, 1970.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, produced on Broadway, 1964; published by Random House, 1965.
Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” New American Library, 1966.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black, adapted for the stage by Robert Nemiroff, first produced at the Cherry Lane Theater, January 2, 1969; acting edition published by Samuel French, 1971.
Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry, edited by Robert Nemiroff, introduction by Julius Lester, Random House, 1972, reprinted, New American Library, 1983.
Lorraine Hansberry: The Collected Last Plays (Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, What Use Are Flowers?), edited by Robert Nemiroff, New American Library, 1983.
A Raisin in the Sun: The Unfilmed Original Screenplay, edited by Robert Nemiroff, Plume, 1992.
All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors, an unfinished novel.
Author of about two dozen articles for Freedom, 1951-55, and over 25 essays for other publications, including the Village Voice, New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Freedomways, Mademoiselle, Ebony, Playbill, Show, Theatre Arts, Black Scholar, Monthly Review, and Annals of Psychotherapy.
Abramson, Doris E., Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre: 1925-1959, Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 165-266.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Carter, Steven R., Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment Amid Complexity, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Cheney, Anne, Lorraine Hansberry, Twayne, 1984.
Davis, Arthur P., From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960, Howard University Press, pp. 203-07.
Hansberry, Lorraine, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, introduction by James Baldwin, Penguin Books, 1969.
Hansberry, Lorraine, A Raisin in the Sun: The Unfilmed Original Screenplay, edited by Robert Nemiroff, foreword by Jewell Handy Gresham-Nemiroff, commentary by Spike Lee, Penguin Books USA, 1992.
Black American Literature Forum, Spring 1983, pp. 8-13.
Commentary, June 1959, pp. 527-30.
Freedomways (special issue), 19:4, 1979.
New Yorker, May 9, 1959.
New York Times, January 13, 1965; October 5, 1983, p. C24.
New York Times Review of Books, March 31, 1991, p. 25.
Theatre Journal, December 1986, pp. 441-52.
Time, January 22, 1965.
Village Voice, August 12, 1959, pp. 7-8.
Washington Post, November 17, 1986, p. D1.
Additional information available on sound recording Lorraine Hansberry Speaks Out: Art and the Black Revolution, Caedmon, 1972.
—Nicholas S. Patti
"Hansberry, Lorraine 1930–1965." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hansberry-lorraine-1930-1965
"Hansberry, Lorraine 1930–1965." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hansberry-lorraine-1930-1965
Lorraine Hansberry, 1930–65, American playwright, b. Chicago. She grew up on Chicago's South Side. In 1959 she became the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway when A Raisin in the Sun opened to wide critical acclaim. The play dealt in human terms with the serious and comic problems of a black family in modern America. Her next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964) was less successful. Hansberry died of cancer at 35. A collection of her writings, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, was published in 1969.
"Hansberry, Lorraine." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hansberry-lorraine
"Hansberry, Lorraine." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hansberry-lorraine