Hansberry, Lorraine: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Carter, Steven R. "Commitment amid Complexity: Lorraine Hansberry's Life in Action." MELUS 7, no. 3 (fall 1980): 39-53.

In the following essay, Carter provides a chronology of Hansberry's life and career and describes her dedication to the women's rights movement.

I. Thirty-four Years

It may seem odd to precede an article with a chronology, but it is odder still that to date no chronology has been published on Lorraine Hansberry. This failure in scholarship is symptomatic of the continuing critical and scholarly neglect of important black artists and especially of Hansberry. During the fifteen years since her death, the only attempt at a formally structured, "lengthy" biography was Catherine Scheader's They Found a Way: Lorraine Hansberry, a recently published seventy-eight page book which (though informative and accurate) was intended for children. Moreover, Robert Nemiroff's informal biography, To Be Young, Gifted and Black (a juxtaposition of Hansberry's autobiographical writings with portions of her essays, speeches, poetry and dramatic scenes), was ignored by critics, receiving no review in the New York Times or any of the major news magazines and scholarly journals. Similarly, few books on American or twentieth-century drama mention Hansberry, and these cite only her pioneering role in black drama with A Raisin in the Sun. The time is long past due to give her the treatment accorded to other major twentieth-century dramatists.

An accurate Hansberry chronology is needed, in part, to correct the enormous amount of misinformation about her. She did not, for example, meet her husband, Robert Nemiroff, while working as a waitress in a restaurant owned by his family, as implied in Current Biography 1959; neither did she own slum property, as Harold Cruse maliciously asserted in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. In addition, even a rudimentary chronology should help to clear away the general ignorance of her many radical activities which has permitted critics and students—on too many occasions—to succumb to the myth that Hansberry was an "establishment artist," less interested in changing the system than in getting a home in suburbia, a television, and two cars. An examination of her funeral, by itself, would preclude a facile acceptance of this myth since representatives from all sides of the black struggle paid tribute to her; the integrationist Martin Luther King sent a message praising "her commitment of spirit" and "her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today." The Marxist Paul Robeson and SNCC Executive Secretary James Foreman delivered eulogies, and the Black Nationalist Malcolm X sat among the mourners.

The main reason for including a chronology in an article on Hansberry, however, is to indicate the close relationship between her life and her ideas. Taken together, they demonstrate that the thread uniting the many sides of her personality and beliefs was her commitment to social change. Introduced to fear at any early age by a howling white mob which attacked her home, Hansberry dedicated her life to fighting such forces in our society. This will to struggle focused all her energies and enabled her to remain whole in the face of social pressures that have warped and destroyed countless other human beings. Her extraordinary example of completeness amid the crush of modern life, her model of commitment amid complexity, should make it impossible for future generations to forget her, or for future scholars to ignore her.

Scholarship may finally be ready to deal justly with Hansberry. A special issue of Freedomways (vol. 19, no. 4, 1979) is devoted exclusively to as the most comprehensive bibliography of works by and about her. The chronology presented here is, in effect, a joint effort by the editors of Freedomways, Robert Nemiroff, and myself, but the final responsibility is mine; like everything else on Hansberry, it should be regarded as a preliminary work.

1930 Born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 19, to Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl A. Hansberry

1930-40 Hansberry home is a center of black cultural, political, and economic life. Lorraine's uncle, William Leo Hansberry, a distinguished Africanist at Howard University, visits the home, as do African students and exiles and such celebrated figures as Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Walter White, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens. Carl Hansberry is a realtor and is active in the NAACP, Urban League, civic, and business affairs. He runs for Congress as a Republican. Nannie Hansberry, formerly a schoolteacher, is a leader in the black community and a ward committeewoman. Lorraine visits her mother's birthplace in Tennessee, where she also hears tales from her grandmother that will figure in her play, The Drinking Gourd.

1938 Carl Hansberry moves his family into a "restricted" area near the University of Chicago to test real estate covenants barring blacks. Mobs demonstrate, throw bricks and concrete slabs through the family's windows. After losing suit and appeals in Illinois courts challenging legality of covenants, family is evicted from home. This incident will form part of the background for Lorraine's most famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, the first draft of which concludes with the black family sitting in the dark, armed, awaiting an attack by hostile whites.

1940 Hansberry and NAACP legal team win U.S. Supreme Court decision (Hansberry vs. Lee) against restrictive covenants on November 12, but in practice covenants continue.

1944 Lorraine graduates from Betsy Ross Elementary School.

1946 Carl Hansberry dies in Mexico, March 17. He had taken refuge there from U.S. racism and was in the midst of planning family's relocation at time of death.

1947 Lorraine elected president of debating society at Englewood High School. Racial tension erupts in riot at school. She is moved by the way that poorer blacks from nearby Wendell Phillips High fight back against their oppressors.

1948-50 Attends University of Wisconsin, studying art, literature, drama, and stage design.

1949 Summer: Studies painting at University of Guadalajara extension in Ajijic, Mexico, and Mexican Art Workshop.

1950 Summer: Studies art at Roosevelt University. August: Arrives in New York City—"to seek an education of a different kind." Lives on Lower East Side. Takes courses: jewelry-making, photography, short story writing for "about two erratic months" at New School for Social Research. Starts work for Freedom, radical black monthly published by Paul Robeson. Gets involved in peace and freedom movements.

1951 Moves to Harlem. Member of delegation of women who present Governor of Mississippi with petition of almost one million signatures gathered around the world in support of Willie McGee, under death sentence for alleged rape. McGee is executed.

1952 Represents Paul Robeson, who has been denied passport by State Department, at Intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay. (Congress deals with disarmament, social and economic liberation of the Americas.) Also visits Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Trinidad. Becomes associate editor of Freedom.

1953 Marries Robert Nemiroff on June 20. He is an aspiring writer and graduate student in English and history at New York University; she had become acquainted with him in a picket line protesting discrimination. They settle in Greenwich Village, which will become setting for her play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Studies African history and culture under W. E. B. DuBois at Jefferson School for Social Science. Resigns from full-time work at Freedom to concentrate on writing.

1953-56 Three plays in progress. Has series of jobs—in fur shop, as typist, as production assistant in theatrical firm, on staff of Sing Out magazine, as recreation leader at Federation for the Handicapped. (Husband works part-time as typist, copywriter; after graduation, becomes promotions director, Avon Books.)

1956 Success of hit song by husband and Burt D'Lugoff, "Cindy, Oh, Cindy," enables Hansberry to write full time. Nemiroff goes to work running music publishing firm for their friend, Philip Rose.

1957 Reads completed play, A Raisin in the Sun, to friends D'Lugoff and Rose. Rose decides to produce it, signs Sidney Poitier and Broadway's first black director, Lloyd Richards.

1959 Denied Broadway theatre, Rose gambles on out-of-town try-outs in New Haven and Philadelphia. Raisin in the Sun does well out-of-town, moves to Chicago while awaiting Broadway theatre. March 11:A Raisin in the Sun, first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, opens at Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Wins New York Drama Critics Circle Award as "Best Play of the Year" over Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, Archibald MacLeish's JB, Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet. She is youngest American, first woman, first black to win this award. Raisin sold to the movies.

1960 Writes two screenplays of A Raisin in the Sun that expand on play's themes. Columbia Pictures rejects both as too racially controversial in favor of third draft closer to stageplay. Commissioned to write slavery drama for NBC as first of a series of five TV specials by major theatre dramatists to commemorate Civil War centennial. Writes The Drinking Gourd, which is considered "superb" but "too controversial," and the entire series is dropped. Begins research for opera called Toussaint and play about Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous 18th century feminist. Works on The Sign in Jenny Reed's Window (title later changed), Les Blancs, and other projects.

1961 Moves to Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Film version of A Raisin in the Sun nominated "Best Screenplay of the Year" by Screen Writers Guild; wins special award at Cannes Film Festival.

1962 Continues work on plays, while mobilizing support for Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in its struggle against Southern segregation. Speaks out against House Un-American Activities Committee and Cuban "missile crisis." Writes What Use Are Flowers?

1963 Hospitalized for tests; results suggest cancer. Scene from Les Blancs staged at Actors Studio Writers Workshop with Arthur Hill, Roscoe Lee Browne, Rosemary Murphy, Pearl Primus; directed by Arthur Penn. May 24: Joins James Baldwin, other prominent blacks, and a few whites at widely publicized meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy on racial crisis. June 19: Chairs meeting in Croton-on-Hudson to raise money for SNCC (proceeds bought station wagon from which Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman were kidnapped). June 24: Operated on unsuccessfully in New York. August 2: Second operation in Boston. For a time, recovers strength.

1964 The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality is published, a photo-book prepared by SNCC with text by Hansberry. All proceeds go to SNCC. March 10: Marriage to Robert Nemiroff ends in divorce, but creative collaboration continues. Because of her illness, they tell only closest friends about divorce and see each other daily until her death. From April to October, is in and out of hospital for radiation treatments, chemo-therapy, while continuing work on Brustein, Les Blancs, research for Wollstonecraft, and other projects. May 1: Released from hospital for afternoon to deliver "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" speech to winners of United Negro College Fund writing contest. June 15: Leaves sickbed to participate in Town Hall debate between militant black artists Amiri Baraka, John Killens, Paule Marshall, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and white liberals Charles Silberman, James Wechsler, David Suss-kind on "The Black Revolution and the White Backlash." October: Moves to Hotel Victoria to be near rehearsals of The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, produced by Nemiroff and D'Lugoff, with Gabriel Dell, Rita Moreno, Alice Ghostley in cast. October 15: Attends opening of Brustein at Longacre Theatre. Play receives mixed reviews. Stage and screen actors collaborate to keep it running in tribute to gravely ill playwright and her work.

1965 Dies of cancer on January 12, at age 34.

II. Political and Social Concerns

At the time Lorraine Hansberry began creating her dramas, many writers pictured the modern world as overly complex, baffling, and overwhelming. They showed human beings groping endlessly for meaning in a world that contained no god, no absolute values, no certainties of any kind, a multitude of frivolous and pointless activities, and little reason to hope for any improvement. This attitude was epitomized in the Theatre of the Absurd, a form of drama which mingled clowning and despair, large issues and trivia, a drop of clarity and a bucketful of nonsense. In a typical absurdist drama, one might find a pair of bums who resembled Laurel and Hardy crying alternately about nuclear fallout and their untied shoelaces or a woman in a laundry hamper making a speech that combined the Gettysburg address with a Euclidean equation and an underarm deodorant commercial. In short, one was usually presented with a dramatic jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces—by intention—never fit together, a crazy quilt pattern which theoretically demonstrated the lack of coherence in everyone's life.

Hansberry's response to the Theatre of the Absurd was considerable. Large portions of The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, for example, contain a continuing argument between the protagonist, Sidney Brustein, and the absurdist playwright, David Ragin, over the significance of political activity, the meaning of life, and the proper form of artistic expression. David in each instance presents the absurdist view which Sidney counters with Hansberry's brand of humanism. The climactic scene occurs when, disillusioned by the breakdown of his marriage and the defeat of his hopes for political reform, Sidney abandons his humanism and social commitment and turns his life into a drama of absurdist despair. At this point, the form of Hansberry's play shifts from realism to that of the Theatre of the Absurd. After that, Sidney returns to a strengthened belief in the virtues of humanism and the struggle for social change, and the form of the play returns to realism. Another Hansberry play that serves as a response to the Theatre of the Absurd is What Use Are Flowers?. According to Robert Nemiroff, "Its inspiration was not The Lord of the Flies … but Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. "1 Hansberry was so moved by Beckett's important absurdist drama that she also wrote a parody of it entitled "The Arrival of Mr. Todog." This unpublished parody is only eleven pages long, but it clearly reflects her feeling that absurdist drama was itself absurd. In addition to these plays, Hansberry also wrote many articles and letters expressing her views on the Theatre of the Absurd.

Hansberry agreed with the absurdists that there were no gods and no values extrinsic to human beings, but she argued that humans could "do what the apes never will—impose the reason for life on life."2 She refused to see life as absurd and futile, even in the face of the Cuban Missile Crisis or her personal crisis with cancer, and thought that no matter how complex things seemed to be, one could still find clear issues about which one should take a stand. In an unpublished letter discussing After the Fall, Arthur Miller's play about his former wife Marilyn Monroe and about the universal guilt of humanity, Hansberry asserted:

Things are very, very complicated.… But—they aren't that complicated either. The English [colonialists] are wrong, the [rebelling subject] Kikuyu are right; we are wrong, Castro is right; the Viet Namese people (there doesn't appear to be any difference between the Viet Namese people and the "Viet Cong" any more by our own account) are right and we are wrong!; the Negro people are right and the shameful dawdling of Federal authority [in securing their civil rights] is wrong; the concept of "woman" which fashioned, warped and destroyed a human being such as Marilyn Monroe (or "Audrey Smith"… or "Lucy Jones"—daily) IS HIDEOUSLY WRONG—and she, in her repudiation of it, in trying tragically to RISE ABOVE it by killing herself is (in the Shakespearean sense)—right.3

Like her protagonist Sidney Brustein, Hansberry considered the metaphysical debate about why we are here on earth to be only "an intrigue for adolescents" and preferred to concentrate on the social question of how we should live. She felt that the metaphysical debate could not be resolved on the basis of our present knowledge and thus became a game played in a fog, an amusement for absurdists; however, the social question could receive many distinct answers and "should command the living."4

One of her least noted but most profound commitments was to women's rights. In a radio interview with Studs Terkel in 1959, Hansberry observed "that obviously the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women" and when they are "twice oppressed" they often become "twice militant."5 She expressed her respect for such militancy unequivocally in her ironically titled essay "In Defense of the Equality of Men": "In deed and oratory, in their recognition of direct political action as the true key to social transformation, American Feminist leaders, in particular, set a path that a grateful society will undoubtedly, in time, celebrate." Noting the efforts that women's groups have made toward enlarging "the Constitutional promises of the American Republic to include the largest numbers of its people of both sexes," she further contended that "we might well long for the day when the knowledge of the debt all society owes to organized womanhood in bringing the human race closer together, not pushing it farther apart, will still the laughter in the throat of the unin-formed."6 Although she once established her devotion to the cause of women's equality by resigning from a job as a production secretary for a theatrical producer because her primary duty was to serve coffee, the best demonstration of her militancy lies in her many yet unpublished feminist essays and the feminist implications of her published works.

Actually, of course, Hansberry's whole way of life was a repudiation of the limitations that society has tried to place on women. Instead of seeking fulfillment in the traditional limiting roles of homemaker, mother, pillar of the church, and sexual toy, she sought it in the same areas men did—in artistic creation, in intellectual speculation, in political struggle, in public speaking, and in the pursuit of knowledge about all aspects of life. She peopled her dramas with many powerful female characters whose strength was like that of their creator, but others of her characters were lamed by their efforts to accept the socially-dictated roles.

Hansberry's bitterness over the subject status of women was tempered, however, by her belief that some remarkable men would always spring to defend the rights of others. In an unpublished essay entitled "Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex: An American Commentary," she observed that "in times past, woman, ignorant, inarticulate, has often found her most effective and telling champion among great men" and argued "that if by some miracle women should not ever utter a single protest against their condition there would still exist among men those who could not endure in peace until her liberation had been achieved." Moreover, she believed that "to the extent that the Feminist leaders pronounced man rather than ideology as enemy they deserved correction."7

Her foremost commitment, of course, was to the liberation of her fellow blacks in America, and here too she noted the human capacity of self-transcendence. During a 1964 Town Hall debate between several militant black artists and three white liberals on "The Black Revolution and the White Backlash," she noted that "we have a very great tradition of white radicalism in the United States" and that she had "never heard Negroes boo the name of John Brown."8 Later in the debate she observed that "white kids on the firing line in Mississippi" displayed a commitment worth respect.9 Given the charged atmosphere of the debate in which the blacks, including Imamu Baraka, John O. Killens, and Hansberry herself, strongly attacked the ways in which white liberals had dominated and inhibited the black liberation movement, these were courageous and significant statements. She further contended that "some of the first people who have died so far in this struggle have been white men" and that she "would be prepared to accept the leadership of the person who gives that much devotion as against someone who would exhibit the traitorous character of, say, a Moise Tshombe [black puppet ruler of the African province of Katenga]."10 The problem with whites, as she saw it, was how "to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical."11

She considered radicalism necessary because she felt that "the basic fabric of our society … after all, is the thing which must be changed to really solve the problem," that "the basic organization of American society is the thing that has Negroes in the situation that they are in."12 Her complex vision of mankind enabled her to perceive the humanity of even the most rabid white racist, but she asserted that this humanity could never reach its full development in contemporary American society. In her view, the social framework of America encouraged whites to betray their humanity daily by treating blacks (and other "inferior" races) with arrogance, contemptuousness, economic and sexual exploitativeness, callousness toward manifest suffering, and frequently atrocious, bestial, totally unjustifiable cruelty. For this reason, she was convinced that the social framework had to be altered for the sake of both the victimized minorities and the victimizing white supremacists. Her television play, The Drinking Gourd, although set in the period immediately preceding the Civil War, may be interpreted as speaking in some ways for Hansberry's America with its rich whites "forced" by decreasing profits to compel already overworked blacks to perform additional tasks, its poor whites "forced" by their need for economic security to aid the rich in their degradation of blacks, and its victims and honorable men "forced" by circumstance and conscience to fight against the destructive system which had "already cost us, as a nation, too much of our soul."13

Hansberry's commitment to gaining justice for blacks was first displayed when she joined the staff of the radical black newspaper Freedom, of which Paul Robeson became the "symbolic leader" in 1951.

His fame as a radical cultural personality drew such Harlem writers as John Oliver Killens, twenty-year-old Lorraine Hansberry, and Julian R. Mayfield to the Freedom orbit, with an editorial board that included noted leftists, writer Shirley Graham DuBois (the wife of W. E. B. DuBois), the intellectual Louis E. Burnham, editor ["He taught me that everything is political," Hansberry said], and George B. Murphy, Jr., general manager. Freedom contained occasional reportorial pieces about Harlem schools and housing, but in the main, its writers hammered away at national and international issues—poll taxes, the Fair Employment Practices Commission, the antilynch bill, China, British Guiana, the war in Korea, Africa.14

Hansberry wrote such articles as "Child Labor Is Society's Crime against Youth," "Church Always Led Freedom's Struggles," "Negroes Cast in Same Old Roles in TV Shows," "No More Hiroshimas," "Gold Coast's Rulers Go: Ghana Moves to Freedom," and "Kenya's Kikuyus: a Peaceful People Wage Struggle against British." In addition, she reviewed books and the small amount of drama by blacks that was produced in that time.

While working at Freedom, Hansberry also demonstrated her dedication to the cause by marching on picketlines, by speaking on street corners in Harlem, and by helping to move the furniture of evicted black tenants back into their apartments. Later, in the wake of the huge success of her play, A Raisin in the Sun, she utilized her new fame to gain attention for her ideas about black social, political, and economic equality. She spoke about the needs of her people on television, in lecture halls, at fund-raising programs for Civil Rights groups, in debates with other celebrities, and, on one memorable occasion, in an emotion-charged small group meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Even while she lay deathly sick, she considered going to the em-battled and perilous South to test the continuing strength of her black revolutionary convictions.

However, immensely powerful though it was, Hansberry's sympathy for blacks was never limited to those in America; she was certain that the fate of all people of African descent was bound up together. Her Pan-Africanism was based not only on her profound respect for her racial background and for African culture, but also on her recognition that changes in the situation of African blacks could promote changes in the situation of American blacks and vice versa. As African blacks began to throw off the tyrannical, thieving grip of white colonizers and to establish independent countries courted by the communists, they found that they could pressure the American government into making more efforts on behalf of American blacks. Similarly, as American blacks gained some small voice in their country's affairs, they could, as Andrew Young did recently, exert this influence in favor of African blacks both in the independent countries and in those still subject to colonial rule.

The emergence of black-ruled countries in Africa filled Hansberry with optimism about the future. She frequently scoffed at white intellectuals who despaired over the future and talked about the "decline of the West" because she suspected that what really upset them was the loss of empire, the defeat of colonialism. She contended that the sense of desolation affecting many Western intellectuals, such as Albert Camus, should therefore have no appeal for American or African blacks who were starting to gain independence and power. In an essay entitled "Images and Essences: 1961 Dialogue with an Uncolored Egghead," she stated that:

the gloom and doom of so much of Western art and thought … leaves me cold. Africa and Asia and American Negroes, in their own comparatively decrepit way, are in anything but states of collapse or decay. On the contrary they are in their most insurgent mood in modern history.15

Although her major commitments were to those of her own gender and race, she had an abiding concern for all victims of oppression and injustice. Like the great men and women she admired, such as Paul Robeson, Albert Einstein, and Mary Wollstonecraft (about whom she planned to write a play), she transcended narrow group interests and struggled for the right of others who had little in common with her. For example, on the night before her wedding, she and her future husband took part in a demonstration protesting the execution of the Rosenbergs, the white Jewish American couple who were convicted of treason amid the hysteria of the anticommunist witch-hunt in the early nineteen fifties. Similarly, although she grew up in a "rich" family (rich by black standards, upper middleclass by white ones), she strongly championed the poor, including the poor whites in the South. Hansberry asserted that "there's a fine and important distinction between that kind of material base of life which simply provides what people need to live a decent life and the middle-class preoccupation with acquisition, with affluence, with those things that they can demonstrate to their neighbors to show that they are keeping up with the fashions."16 She advocated only the former type of materialism and was infuriated that many people could still starve and be subjected to rickets in this country while others grew fat on the most expensive gourmet meals.

Having been alarmed and outraged during her youth by the second World War and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, she also became committed to the cause of world peace. Once, when an interviewer inquired about her dreams for the future, Hansberry responded:

I would like very much to live in a world where some of the more monumental problems could at least be solved. I'm thinking, of course, of peace. That's part of my dream, that we don't fight. Nobody fights. We get rid of all the little bombs—and the big bombs.17

However, unlike many of her contemporaries, including Arthur Miller in After the Fall, Hansberry did not feel a special sense of "destructiveness hanging over this age." In her letter about Miller's play, she asked, "What in the name of God was hanging over the age of the War of Roses? Or the Crusades? Or the Byzantine conquests; the Civil War?" She then chided Miller—and the absurdists—by proclaiming:

The ages of man have been hell. But the difference [between our age and the Renaissance] was that [Elizabethan] artists assumed the hell of it and went on to create figures in battle with it rather than overwhelmed with it and apologizing and "explaining" their frailty.18

In spite of her considerable efforts on behalf of world peace through articles, lectures, interviews, and the post-atomic war play What Use Are Flowers?, Hansberry was not totally opposed to violence. She believed firmly in the justice of some wars—in the right and necessity of revolution at moments in history, of wars of national liberation, and of self-defense of the people against their oppressors, as in the armed struggle against fascism. Correspondingly, she asserted that "it is no longer acceptable to allow racists to define Negro manhood—and it will have to come to pass that they can no longer define his weaponry." She argued that blacks "must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent.… They must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps—and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities."19 In a television interview made in 1959 when the Kikuyu were still fighting against British rule, Hansberry commented that she believed "most of all in humanism" and was "not interested in having white babies murdered any more than [she could] countenance the murder of Kikuyu babies in Kenya"; she hated "all of that kind of thing." However, she contended that one should not "equalize the oppressed with the oppressor." She was convinced that the oppressed were reacting to "intolerable conditions" which were imposed by the oppressor and that therefore the primary guilt for injustice lay with the oppressors.20 On many occasions, she warned white racists not to rely on the supposed passivity, endurance, and infinite forbearing of black people; she knew that her fellow blacks could act inhumanely too, that they could respond to viciousness with viciousness, and that the whites would then have themselves to blame for their own suffering and that of their children.

All of these commitments were involved in Hansberry's dedication to the growth of socialism. In her tribute to the black intellectual giant, W. E. B. DuBois, she observed "that certainly DuBois' legacy teaches us to look forward and work for a socialist organization of society as the next great and dearly won universal condition of mankind."21 She thought that socialism was the best way to organize society, the means which held the greatest possibility of providing the basic necessities for a decent life for all, and a potentially more democratic form of government with no individual or group having too much power. She argued that such a sharing of power might at least keep contending social groups (including contending races) from slitting each other's throats; she never expected everyone to love each other. Socialism could hopefully be a form of government which would encourage creativity and which would teach people to appreciate and even applaud individual and cultural differences; she did not want a socialism which would impose a homogeneous culture and a party line.

Hansberry's advocacy of power-sharing and diversity may be illustrated by her character Lena Younger's decisions in A Raisin in the Sun. As sole parent and a woman of considerable strength. Lena Younger wields enormous power over her children. In the beginning, she assumes the role of a benevolent dictator. When she feels that her family is falling apart, she decides without consulting any other member of the family to use the insurance money from her husband's death to buy a house (unfortunately located in the all white neighborhood of Clyborne Park) in order to keep her family together. Also, she refuses to tolerate dissent concerning her most fundamental beliefs. She views her daughter Beneatha's atheism as a threat and forces her to say that in her "mother's house, there is still God."22 However, when she realizes that her decisions have damaged and alienated her children, she begins to relinquish control. Believing that her dismissal of her son Walter Lee's plans for the insurance money may have been demeaning and destructive, she puts the remaining money in his hands and, in effect, grants him his independence coupled with a large responsibility. She is then forced to take the further step of deciding to stand by him after he loses the money, thus injuring his sister and the rest of the family, because she now understands that the only genuine freedom includes the freedom to make mistakes. At the end, she confirms that she has learned her lesson about granting independence by listening respectfully to Beneatha's dismissal of George Murchison (a suitor whom Lena had considered a desirable match for her daughter) and by delighting in the final argument between Walter and Beneatha over what is important in life. It is, therefore, appropriate that she, who has been taught the necessity of independence to growth, should join with her children in struggling against an outside threat to independence. Her family with its hard earned respect for differences contrasts strongly with the Clyborne Park people who want to keep their neighborhood homogeneous and conformist. The pattern set by Lena Younger and her family implies that unity in a struggle against oppression need not involve uniformity in either viewpoint or behavior and that any attempt to impose such uniformity would involve another form of oppression. The paradox is that Lena can only hold her family together by granting them the freedom to disagree with her and with each other.

Above all her commitments, Hansberry was devoted to the struggle for the progress of the human race. However, she recognized that this struggle had to be made according to the specific terms dictated by the time and country in which one lived. Her actions and writings left little doubt about what kinds of stands she wanted her fellow humans to take in America in her day.

Although some of the positions that Hansberry took so vigorously have since become fashionable, they were not so during her lifetime. Powerful forces, such as the McCarthy anticommunists, the Congressional House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, the official Cold War policies of the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations, the FBI, and entrenched white racism—always—in both the South and the North, destroyed the careers and lives of many people, among them close friends and associates, who held views similar to hers. However, she was willing to face such a high risk of destruction from these forces by continuing to express her views because she regarded knowledge of the truth as a necessity for group survival. She knew that, when the truth about a situation can't be spoken, the situation will probably become unmanageable—and explosive.

The best summary of Hansberry's position on the need for commitment in a complex world is contained in a fable which she invented for Les Blancs, her play about colonialism in Africa. In the fable, a hyena named Modingo ("One Who Thinks Carefully Before He Acts") refuses to take sides in a dispute over the land between elephants and hyenas because he considered himself a friend to both groups. He sympathizes with the elephants' claim that "they needed more space because of their size" and with the hyenas' claim that "they had been first in that part of the jungle and were accustomed to running free."23 However, while he explains his inability to take a stand to his fellow hyenas, the elephants take advantage of this opportunity to seize the land. The moral is clear and is not spelled out in the final version of the play. But it is stated explicitly in an unpublished early draft: "It is a good thing to discover that the elephant has a point of view, but it is a crime to forget that the hyena most has justice on his side."24 The most remarkable qualities of Lorraine Hansberry were that she made great efforts to understand all sides of a conflict and that she felt compassion for everyone involved while firmly deciding where justice lay—and acting on that decision.



My colleagues and I were reduced to mirth and tears by that gentleman writing his review of [A Raisin in the Sun] in a Connecticut paper who remarked of his pleasure at seeing how "our dusky brethren" could "come up with a song and hum their troubles away." It did not disturb the writer in the least that there is no such implication in the entire three acts. He did not need it in the play; he had it in his head.

Hansberry, Lorraine. Excerpt from "Willy Loman, Walter Younger, and He Who Must Live," in Village Voice 4, no. 42 (12 August 1959): 7-8.


See also, Steven R. Carter, "The John Brown Theatre: Lorraine Hansberry's Cultural Views and Dramatic Goals," Freedomways, Vol. 19, No. 4, 186-91.

All unpublished material cited in the text comes from the collection of Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry's literary executor, and is copyrighted by Robert Nemiroff and may not be reproduced without permission.

  1. Robert Nemiroff, ed., Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 318.
  2. Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted and Black (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1969), p. 100.
  3. Unpublished letter about Arthur Miller's After the Fall, dated "Tuesday" (year unstated but probably 1963), recipient unspecified.
  4. Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun/The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (New York: New American Library, 1966), pp. 261-62.
  5. From "An Interview with Lorraine Hansberry by Studs Terkel," May 12, 1959, recorded at 1145 Hyde Park Boulevard, Chicago. Unpublished.
  6. Unpublished manuscript titled "In Defense of the Equality of Men."
  7. Unpublished manuscript titled "Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex: An American Commentary, 1957."
  8. "Black Revolution and White Backlash," National Guardian (July 4, 1964), p. 8. This is a nearly complete transcript of the Town Hall debate.
  9. National Guardian, p. 9.
  10. National Guardian, p. 8.
  11. National Guardian, p. 7.
  12. John O. Killens, James Wechsler, and Lorraine Hansberry, "The Black Revolution and the White Backlash," in Black Protest: History, Documents and Analyses, 1619 to the Present, ed. Joanne Grant (New York: Fawcett World Library, 1968), p. 447.
  13. Les Blancs, p. 310.
  14. Dorothy Butler Graham, Paul Robeson: All-American (Washington: The New Republic Book Co., 1978), p. 160.
  15. The Urbanite, I, 3 (May 1961), 11.
  16. Unpublished transcript of an interview with Eleanor Fisher for CBC on June 7, 1961.
  17. Young, Gifted and Black, pp. 253-54.
  18. Unpublished letter about After the Fall.
  19. Young, Gifted and Black, pp. 213-14.
  20. Lorraine Hansberry, "The Beauty of Things Black—Towards Total Liberation: An Interview with Mike Wallace, May 8, 1959," Lorraine Hansberry Speaks Out: Art and the Black Revolution, Caedmon, TC 1352, 1972.
  21. Lorraine Hansberry, "Tribute," in Black Titan: W. E. B. DuBois, an Anthology by the Editors of Freedomways, ed. John Henrik Clarke, Esther Jackson, Ernest Kaiser, and J. H. O'Dell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), p. 17.
  22. Raisin/Brustein, p. 39.
  23. Les Blancs, p. 126.
  24. Speech by Peter in an unpublished early draft of Les Blancs.

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