Hansberry, Lorraine Vivian

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HANSBERRY, Lorraine Vivian

(b. 19 May 1930 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 12 January 1965 in New York City), award-winning playwright, essayist, and activist whose writings, most notably the play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), were characterized by astute observations on racial and social inequalities in the United States.

Hansberry was born into a middle-class African-American family. Her grandfather, Elden H. Hansberry, taught history at Alcorn College, Mississippi's first black college. Her uncle, William Leo Hansberry (1894–1965), was a pioneer in the study of African antiquity and developed Howard University's African studies curriculum. Hansberry's parents, Carl Augustus and Nannie Perry, migrated north to Chicago, where Carl established one of the city's first black banks and proved himself a successful real estate broker; Nannie was a school teacher. Hansberry, the youngest of four children, was only six when her politically active parents decided to defy the covenants that restricted Chicago's African-American population to residence in a small, overcrowded area. On 6 October 1936 the Hansberrys moved to 549 East Sixtieth Street, in an all-white neighborhood. This move began what would be a four-year struggle to undermine legalized segregation in Chicago housing, culminating in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Hansberry v. Lee on 12 November 1940, which effectively outlawed racially restrictive covenants in housing. That same year Hansberry's father ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress.

Hansberry's parents also combated racism in other ways. They opted to enroll their children in segregated south side public schools and fight for integration rather than accept the ease of sending them to private schools, which they would have well been able to afford. Her high-profile family also developed friendships with a variety of prominent African Americans, including the scholar W. E. B. DuBois, the entertainer and composer Duke Ellington, the writer Langston Hughes, the athlete Jesse Owens, and the singer and activist Paul Robeson. These connections would later prove useful to Hansberry. The concrete and gritty model of dedication to civil rights and political activism that her parents provided Hansberry would prove seminal in her later work.

In 1946, embittered by the lack of visible social change despite the Supreme Court's decision, Hansberry's father died in the midst of planning to relocate the family to Mexico. Two years later Hansberry graduated from the segregated Englewood High School in Chicago and enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, studying theater and stage design. During her two years in Wisconsin she was politically active, joining the Labor Youth League and chairing the Young Progressives of America. Ultimately dissatisfied, she left the university in 1950 to study painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, Roosevelt University in Chicago, and in Guadalajara, Mexico. In August of the same year she moved to Harlem in New York City. Within a short time she was enrolled in classes at the New School for Social Research and was working as a reporter for Freedom, Robeson's monthly magazine. By 1952 she was working full-time at Freedom, teaching at the Frederick Douglass School and attending the Intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, as Robeson's representative. On 20 June 1953 Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, who was Jewish and white; the couple had no children.

From 1953 to 1957 Hansberry focused on drama. In 1957 she presented the first draft of A Raisin in the Sun to publisher Philip Rose. In 1959, after successful runs in New Haven, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Chicago, the play opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. An instant success, the play ran for 538 performances, signaling its acceptance by a predominantly white Broadway audience. Hansberry became the first African-American woman ever to have a play on Broadway and, in 1959, the first African-American woman and the youngest person ever to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In 1961 a film version, featuring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, was nominated for best screenplay by the Screenwriters Guild and received a special prize from the Cannes Film Festival. These successes raised the profiles of African Americans in the theater world, enabling the increased production of black theatrical endeavors throughout the 1960s. The success of A Raisin in the Sun is attributable to its compelling depiction of an African-American family attempting to succeed in an often hostile world. Hansberry drew on her parents' own attempts to integrate a white neighborhood in her depiction of the Younger family. Evident in the play is Hansberry's commitment to political activism, which resonated with a nation in the midst of the civil rights movement. The frustration and anger expressed by Walter Lee Younger foreshadowed the black militancy that emerged in the 1960s. Also prescient was Hansberry's inclusion of a Nigerian character (no doubt a result of her uncle's early influence) who urges the family's daughter to discover her African roots and stop extolling white values that continue to "mutilate" African Americans. As a result of Raisin's success, in 1960 Hansberry received a landmark commission from the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to write a television drama about slavery to commemorate the anniversary of the Civil War. The Drinking Gourd was deemed too controversial to be aired and was not published until 1972. Despite this disappointment, Hansberry continued to integrate her activism and writing: in 1963 along with the writer James Baldwin and others, she used her public profile to meet with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the hope of convincing him to become more active in protecting those working toward civil rights in the South. In 1964 she assisted the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and provided the text for The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Racial Equality in America. She also argued in favor of militancy in advancing black rights but denounced racial hatred.

Hansberry's next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre to mixed reviews. The play again incorporated both her political beliefs and her sympathetic observations on humanity. It was to be the last play she would complete; in 1963 Hansberry had been diagnosed with cancer. Private donations kept The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window afloat until 12 January 1965, the day of Hansberry's death. Her significance was evident at her funeral at the Church of the Master in Harlem. Among the hundreds of mourners were such important personages as the actor Ossie Davis, Robeson, and the activist Malcolm X. She is buried in Beth-El Cemetery in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

After Hansberry's death it was revealed that she had divorced her husband the previous year but retained him as her literary executor. Nemiroff arranged for the post-humous completion, publication, and production of her unfinished works, including To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (an assortment of her personal writings), Les Blancs (a play of African liberation), What Use Are Flowers?, and The Drinking Gourd. Popular productions and adaptations, both stage and screen, followed.

In the 1980s it emerged that Hansberry had been a member of the Daughters of Bilitis (a lesbian organization) and had written to the lesbian periodical The Ladder, identifying herself as a "heterosexually married lesbian." Her tombstone features an excerpt from The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window: "I care. I care about it all. It takes too much energy not to care.… The why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents; the how is what must command the living. Which is why I have lately become an insurgent again." The way in which Hansberry utilized her passion for writing to forward her belief in "insurgency," her civil rights activism, and her success as a playwright established her as an important artistic and political figure of the 1960s.

Hansberry's autobiography is To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: A Portrait of Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1970), adapted by Robert Nemiroff. For brief biographical information, see Anne Cheney, "Lorraine Hansberry," Twayne's United States Authors Series, 430 (1984). An obituary is in the New York Herald Tribune (13 Jan. 1965). Additional information can be found on the audio recording Lorraine Hansberry Collection, James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, eds., which includes two interviews with, and five speeches by, Hansberry (2001).

Jennifer Harris

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