Lorraine Vivian Hansberry

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Lorraine Vivian Hansberry

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930-1965) was an important American writer and a major figure on Broadway. Although her reputation grew with the posthumous publication of a range of works, she remained best known for the play and movie A Raisin in the Sun.

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born May 19, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Carl A. Hansberry, was prominent in Chicago's African American business and political community. He owned real estate, generously supported African American causes, and ran for Congress as a Republican; her mother, Nanny Perry Hansberry, taught school and also was active in politics. The Hansberry home, where Lorraine was the youngest of four children, was often visited by famous African Americans.

In 1938 the Hansberrys moved into a white neighborhood that excluded African Americans through the then widely used restrictive covenants. Carl Hansberry, while resisting attacks on his home and family from neighborhood hoodlums, took his case to court. Although armed guards protected the children, at one point a slab of concrete almost crushed Lorraine. In 1940 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants unconstitutional in a case that came to be known as Hansberry v. Lee, although it did little to affect the actual practice of segregated housing in Chicago. Carl Hansberry died in 1946 before he could complete plans to move his family to Mexico City when Lorraine's two brothers had difficulties accommodating to segregation in the U.S. Army.

After graduating from high school in 1948 Lorraine is reported to have studied variously at the University of Chicago; at the Art Institute of Chicago; at the New School of Social Research in New York; in Guadalajara, Mexico; and at the University of Wisconsin, where she saw a production of Sean O'Casey's play Juno and the Paycock about the problems of a poor urban family in Dublin in 1922 during the early conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British occupying forces. It is supposed to have inspired her to think of creating a comparable work about an African American family.

It was during her years in New York, living in Greenwich Village, that Hansberry became intimately involved with a number of the liberal causes of the period. In 1952 she attended the Intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, as a substitute for Paul Robeson, who could not get a passport from the U.S. State Department. At the congress she met politically astute feminists from all over the world.

In 1953 she married Robert Nemiroff, who was a graduate student in history and English at New York University and participated, like his fellows, in the leftist political events of the time. The two met while picketing. The night before their wedding they joined a protest against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. After a series of part-time jobs, including those of typist and assistant to a furrier, Hansberry settled down to the writing of a play, which eventually took its title from a poem by Langston Hughes, "Harlem, " which declared that "a dream deferred" might "dry up/like a raisin in the sun." Nemiroff and his friends were to be instrumental in getting the play produced.

A Raisin in the Sun was finished in 1957 and opened on March 11, 1959, at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. It is unique in several respects. It was the first play to be produced on Broadway written and directed by an African American and to have an all-black cast. The original production starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil and was directed by Lloyd Richards. Ossie Davis eventually replaced Poitier. In May 1959 the New York Drama Critics Circle voted it Best Play of the Year for a season that included works by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Archibald Macleish. Hansberry was the youngest American to win that award. The play had a long run and was made into a movie with a script by Hansberry and with Poitier repeating his stage role. Later it was turned into a Broadway musical, Raisin.

One of the more enthusiastic and perceptive assessments of A Raisin in the Sun came from the English critic Kenneth Tynan. "The supreme virtue of A Raisin in the Sun," he wrote, "is its proud, joyous proximity to its source, which is life as the dramatist has lived it. The relaxed, freewheeling interplay of a magnificent team of African American actors drew me unresisting into a world of their making, their suffering, their thinking, and their rejoicing." Although Hansberry herself insisted that her play was essentially about an African American family in a particular time and place, some critics—of both races—suggested that it simply "happened" to be about African Americans.

Hansberry's next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, opened and closed in 1965. Some critics felt that this play was an advance in subtlety and complexity over A Raisin in the Sun. It recorded some of the conflicts and paradoxes suffered by intellectuals in confronting the real world. One character, for example, an African American, while sensitive to white discrimination, is himself vicious about gay and white persons.

Hansberry's work continued to develop in ambition, breadth, sophistication, and depth. Although already ill, she wrote a parody of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot; planned a musical adaptation of Oliver La Farge's novel about the Navajos, Laughing Boy; and worked on her major play, Les Blancs, the title of which ("The Whites") carried an obvious reference to Jean Genet's The Blacks. She also wrote a television drama on slavery, which, while it did not appear on television, was published in 1972 as The Drinking Gourd. Other works included The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, which showed pictures of brutal attacks on African Americans in the South, and What Use Are Flowers?

In 1963 she left her hospital bed to give a talk to the winners of the United Negro College Fund writing contest, in which she used the phrase "To be young, gifted, and Black, " which later became the title of her own autobiography, a collection of her assorted writings edited by Nemiroff. She died of cancer on January 16, 1965.

Further Reading

The best short summary of her career and writing appears in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB), vol. 38. It was written by Steven R. Carter of the University of Puerto Rico, and much of the information in this article was taken from it. Carter also has an essay on her, "Commitment Amid Complexity: Lorraine Hansberry's Life-in-Action, " MELUS, 7 (Fall 1980). A full biography is Catherine Scheader's They Found a Way: Lorraine Hansberry (1978). Doris E. Abramson's Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre: 1925-1959 (1969) puts Hansberry's work in a larger context. A moving memoir by James Baldwin appears in To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969). The standard bibliography is by Ernest Kaiser and Robert Nemiroff, "A Lorraine Hansberry Bibliography, " Free-domways, 19 (Fourth Quarter 1979), although critical studies continued to appear more than 20 years after her death. □