Hansberry, Lorraine (1930–1965)
Hansberry, Lorraine (1930–1965)
African-American dramatist, essayist and social activist whose play Raisin in the Sun brought her great acclaim . Born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois; died on January 12, 1965, in New York, of cancer; youngest of four children of Charles and Nannie Hansberry; attended University of Wisconsin through sophomore year; married Robert Nemiroff (a musician), in 1953 (divorced 1964); children: none.
Began writing plays and short stories while working as a journalist in New York City for a progressive African-American newspaper; her first play, Raisin In The Sun, opened on Broadway to great acclaim and earned her a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the first given to a black playwright (1959); saw her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, produced (1964); also wrote television drama, poetry and literary and social criticism while taking an active and vocal part in the civil rights and "Black Power" movements (1960s).
One summer's day in 1954, Robert Nemiroff found a letter from his wife in his Greenwich Village mailbox. It was one of many Lorraine Hansberry wrote to him during a summer spent as a counselor at an interracial camp for children—certainly an unusual concept in the 1950s, although the same could be said of her own marriage, as an African-American writer to a Jewish musician. "The poets have been right in all these centuries, darling," she wrote to him from her verdant summer vantage point. "Even in its astounding imperfection, this earth of ours is magnificent. But, oh, this human race!" Her exasperation pinpointed the very source of her creative impulse, for it was the glories and weaknesses of her fellow humans that inspired Hansberry's remarkable artistic output during a tragically short career.
The lessons began during her childhood in Chicago, where she had been born on May 19, 1930, into the relatively affluent household of Charles and Nannie Perry Hansberry . Charles Hansberry had made a comfortable living in real estate, and was especially known for renovating homes abandoned by whites on Chicago's South Side as the influx of Southern blacks increased during the 1920s. Each of the small apartments he carved from these larger homes had a small cooking area for its residents, a trademark that built Charles Hansberry's reputation as "the kitchenette king." Like many of their tenants, the Hansberrys had come to Chicago from else-where—Charles from Mississippi and Nannie from Tennessee, where she had been a schoolteacher. By the time of Lorraine's birth, as the last of Charles and Nannie's four children, Hansberry Enterprises was a well-established and prosperous real-estate and construction firm.
The Hansberry household was a center of black Chicago's social and intellectual life. W.E.B Du Bois, the father of vigorous African-American progressivism, was a frequent visitor. A copy of his 1903 The Souls of Black Folks held a prominent place in the family library. Actor Paul Robeson and poet Langston Hughes, whose work would be such a powerful influence on Lorraine, were other familiar houseguests. All three men were, in different ways, articulate and outspoken defenders of black culture and pride. In addition to these luminaries, Hansberry could listen to the stories of a number of visitors from Africa brought to dinner by her uncle, Leo Hansberry, a prominent professor of African history at Howard University. Along with her family's vibrant social conscience, Lorraine would inherit the Hansberry's penchant for political activism. Charles, a frequent and generous donor to the NAACP and the Urban League, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1940 on the Republican ticket, while Nannie was a longtime ward committee member for the local GOP.
The difference between Hansberry's own upbringing and that of the majority of urban African-Americans was pointed out to her one day at the age of five, when she arrived at the Betsy Ross Elementary School wearing a luxurious white ermine coat given to her as a Christmas present by her doting parents. The beating spurred by the jealous anger of her schoolmates, many of whom had no coat at all, remained in her memory for years. "Ever since then," Hansberry wrote in a third person memoir, "she had been antagonistic to the symbols of affluence. In fact, after that day, she had chosen her friends with intense fascination from among her assailants." Three years later, when the Hansberrys moved to a racially mixed neighborhood in a more prosperous section of Chicago, Lorraine narrowly missed injury from a brick thrown at her by a fleeing crowd of angry whites who appeared outside their home. Because of her father's prominence and his refusal to accept social boundaries dictated by whites, racial tensions were never far from the Hansberrys' door. "American racism helped kill him," Lorraine said of her father's sudden death in 1946, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
On her graduation from Englewood High School in 1947, Hansberry became the first in her family to attend a predominantly white college and the first African-American student in campus housing at the University of Wisconsin, where she was a liberal arts major. Within a year, she was coordinating campus campaign activities for 1948's Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace; by 1949, she was president of the Young Progressive League. Student theatricals were another area of special interest for her, especially a production of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. "O'Casey never fools you about… the genuine heroism which must naturally emerge when you tell the truth about people," she later wrote. "This, to me, is the height of artistic perception." She was particularly impressed by O'Casey's talent for using his Irish themes and settings to illuminate the human condition as a whole, a lesson she would remember well when she began writing about her own race. Her infatuation with the theater, which she said embraced "everything I like all at one time," did not extend to academics. She later admitted that "the point of things… like classes and note-taking and lecture and lab" eluded her. In 1950, after completing her sophomore year, Hansberry quit school and moved to New York.
She arrived in a city which was giving new and energetic expression to a long tradition of political and social liberalism, especially to the growing civil-rights movement. Hansberry's first job in New York was with Freedom, a progressive black newspaper founded by Robeson and edited by Louis E. Burnham, who became Lorraine's mentor. "The things he taught me," she later wrote, "were the great things: that all racism is rotten, white or black; that everything is political; that people tend to be indescribably beautiful and uproariously funny." As the paper's youngest staff reporter, she covered civil-rights and women's issues, New York politics, and her beloved theater, all of which would find a place in her own writing for the stage. Her assignments began to impress upon her the inferior status of schools and housing in predominantly African-American sections of the city, which Hansberry traced to a pervasive lack of self-esteem. She urged in print that schools with a high percentage of black students include such topics as African history and the study of prominent African-Americans as part of their curricula. In 1951, she was promoted to associate editor, traveling as far afield as Paraguay to attend an international peace conference in 1952, at which she spoke out against the Korean War. All the while, Lorraine worked steadily at a growing body of unpublished short stories, poems, and plays.
By 1953, she had left Freedom to devote more of her time to writing and to social causes, especially discrimination against blacks in jobs, housing, and education. That winter, Lorraine joined a protest rally at New York University, which had been accused of deliberately excluding blacks from its basketball team. Among her fellow protestors was a musician named Robert Nemiroff, the son of Jewish immigrants, who was as passionate as Hansberry about social justice. The two were married on June 20, 1953, in the Hansberrys' Chicago home, by which time the inevitable tensions of an interracial marriage (then still illegal in 13 states) had eased somewhat. "We hadn't done anything interracial really with someone in our immediate family," said Lorraine's sister Mamie, while recalling how she and her mother chose to walk ahead of Lorraine and her white boyfriend on their way to a neighborhood restaurant the night of their first meeting.
The why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents; the how is what must command the living.
The young couple moved into an apartment over a laundry on Greenwich Village's Bleecker Street, working at a number of different jobs to support their respective artistic habits while plunging enthusiastically into the Village's social and cultural life. Nemiroff worked as a waiter, copywriter, and typist, while Hansberry found a position with the folk-music magazine, Sing Out!, which was the first to publish those stalwarts of the '60s protest movement, "This Land Is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome."
In 1956, the Nemiroffs' finances were decidedly improved when one of Robert's folk ballads became a number one hit. Now able to devote all her time to writing, Lorraine began to concentrate on a play she had begun some time earlier. It tells the story of an African-American family living in a Chicago apartment (not unlike the ones Charles Hansberry had provided for his tenants) who receives a $10,000 insurance check upon the death of a grandfather. Hansberry uses the conflicts that erupt among three generations of a family over the way to spend the money to explore the hopes, fears, and dreams of her race, weaving traditional African myth and dance into her story to underscore her belief that pride in one's heritage brings the strength to fight for equality. "It is a play that tells the truth about people," Lorraine wrote to her mother back in Chicago, "and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are." She called the play Raisin in the Sun, taking her title from Langston Hughes' poem Harlem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
Or does it explode?
One night, Lorraine read a first draft of the play to a dinner guest, Phillip Rose, a music publisher for whom her husband worked. Even though he had never been involved with a theatrical production in his life, Rose was so taken with her writing that he offered to option the rights. He and a partner managed to raise enough money from investors to introduce the drama outside of New York, successfully mounting it in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Haven, by which time Variety was predicting that the play "would ripen into substantial Broadway tenancy." Within 18 months, Raisin in the Sun opened at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater on March 11, 1959, directed by Lloyd Richards, starring Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil , and Ruby Dee .
"Never before in the entire history of the American theater has so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage," James Baldwin noted. Walter Kerr told his New York Herald Tribune readers that Hansberry had found "the precise temperature of a race at that time in its history when it cannot retreat and cannot quite find the way to move forward. Three generations stand poised, and crowded, on a detonation cap." Lorraine found herself a celebrity overnight. Raisin was awarded the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award as Best Play of 1959, making Hansberry not only the youngest playwright to receive the award, but also the first black and only the fifth woman.Variety named her the most promising playwright of that year. Raisin in the Sun ran for 530 performances, was successfully adapted for the screen, and was named the best film in competition at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.
Just a week before Raisin in the Sun opened, Hansberry was asked to deliver the keynote address at a writer's conference sponsored by the American Society of African Culture. Her subject, "The Roots of the Negro Writer," pointed to the sources of her own inspiration in the emerging black social consciousness of her time. It was in this speech that she coined the phrase "young, gifted, and black." But recalling her college-age admiration for Sean O'Casey, Lorraine urged her audience to use their art to emphasize the common struggles of humanity in general. "All art is social," she said; it was writer's duty to get involved in "the intellectual affairs" of everyone, "everywhere." She attempted just that in her opening segment of a planned NBC series on the Civil War, written for producer Dore Schary in 1960. The episode examined the effects of slavery, and Hansberry took care to include in her script, called "The Drinking Gourd," slavery's
impact on poor whites as well as blacks. But the network considered her treatment of the subject too controversial and eventually canceled the entire project over Schary's objections.
As the "Black Power" movement of the 1960s gained strength, Hansberry proved that her call to action was entirely serious by becoming a leading figure in fundraising and organizational efforts. She helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to unify the bewildering array of protest groups forming throughout the country, and, like her father before her, gave generously of her time to the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She called publicly for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was then turning its Mc-Carthy-inspired eye on the civil-rights movement, and criticized the Kennedy Administration's handling of the Cuban missile crisis as a threat to world peace. During her hectic schedule, Hansberry found time to buy and renovate a country house in Croton-on-Hudson, less than an hour from the city, along with Nemiroff. But their marriage had been suffering for some time from the constant publicity surrounding Lorraine. The couple began spending less and less time together and had separated by 1960. A discreet Mexican divorce would end their marriage in 1964.
All the while, Lorraine kept up an active writing schedule. By 1963, she was working on a musical adaptation of Oliver LaFarge's Laughing Boy, a dramatic adaptation of Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, and an original drama, Les Blancs, set during a revolution in a fictional African country. These works-in-progress were in addition to a constant stream of published literary criticism. Notable among them was an essay on Simone de Beauvoir 's The Second Sex, a book Hansberry said changed her life, although strong women characters had always been present in her work. The main action in Raisin in the Sun, for example, is driven forward by Walter Lee's mother and grandmother, while it is his sister, Beneatha, who provides the cultural traditions that save him from despair. In "The Drinking Gourd," it is the house slave Rissa who defies her white masters and arms her son for escape to the North, setting the main conflict of the play in motion; while in Les Blancs, a beautiful African dancer propels the male lead to join the struggle for his people's freedom.
In April of 1963, as the first draft of her next complete play was nearly ready, 33-year-old Hansberry began to suffer from fainting spells and attacks of nausea. Tests indicated what was at first suspected to be a duodenal ulcer, but which was later discovered to be colon cancer that had spread to her pancreas. As her health rapidly deteriorated, Lorraine worked feverishly to prepare The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window for rehearsal.
Her inspiration was an incident from her Greenwich Village days in which a politically reticent friend had been prevailed upon to place a campaign sign for a local candidate in his window, only to have a brick thrown through it for his trouble. Hansberry's new play used the incident to call on intellectuals to abandon their ivory towers and take part in the social struggle around them; but the quasi-absurdist form she chose to relay her message left critics puzzled. In addition to the contrast from its sublimely dramatic predecessor, this new play of ideas attempted to take on issues as disparate as abstract art, prostitution, and marriage, and dealt only peripherally with black cultural issues. Indeed, there was only one African-American role in the play.
The new work was in trouble almost as soon as it opened in October of 1964. "A limbo play, full of insights, in which the playwright has not broken through with that touch of finality," wrote critic Max Lerner; while The New York Times critic Howard Taubman gently suggested that "the truth must be faced that Miss Hansberry's play lacks concision and cohesion."
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window nearly closed in the face of such negative reviews but was kept open through the dedicated efforts of some of Hansberry's theatrical peers who embraced its universalist message. While Lorraine's illness worsened, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Baldwin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were just a few of the names appearing at the bottom of a full-page ad in The New York Times urging theatergoers to judge her play for themselves. Other actors contributed to a fund to prevent a closing. Their efforts were successful, even as Lorraine entered the final stages of her suffering. Five days after the play opened, she lapsed into a coma at New York's University Hospital. She seemed to rally two days later but remained hospitalized for the next three months as cancer slowly robbed her of life. She passed away on January 12, 1965, at 35 years of age. That night, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window closed.
At her death, Hansberry left behind an impressive body of unpublished work—unproduced plays, sections of an autobiography, a film script, and a collection of essays. Much of this output reached its audience through the efforts of Robert Nemiroff, whom Lorraine had named her literary executor. He published her unfinished autobiography under the title To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and shortly afterward adapted it for the off-Broadway stage; he produced Les Blancs on Broadway in 1970, starring James Earl Jones, Lili Darvas , and Cameron Mitchell; and he brought a Tony-winning musical version of Raisin in the Sun to the stage in 1974, which has since been revived several times and was adapted for television in 1989.
"I want to reach a little closer to the world, which is to say, to people," Lorraine Hansberry once said; "and see if we can share some illuminations together about each other." Because of Hansberry's ability to successfully blend her art and her social conscience, those illuminations remain sharp and clear.
Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1984.
Hansberry, Lorraine (adapted by Robert Nemiroff). To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969.
Hine, Darlene, ed. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York