Women’s History Month Spotlight:
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, African-American playwright and writer

Lorraine Hansberry  photo

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry

She was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway. Her best known work, the play A Raisin in the Sun, highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago. The title of the play was taken from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Lorraine Vivian Hansberry’s family had struggled against segregation, challenging a restrictive covenant and eventually provoking the Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee.

“I was born black and female,” Lorraine Hansberry once said. These twin identities would dominate her life and her work. Rejecting the limits placed on her race and her gender, she employed her writing and her life as a social activist to expand the meaning of what it meant to be a black woman. At the age of 29, she won the New York’s Drama Critic’s Circle Award — making her the first black dramatist, the fifth woman, and the youngest playwright to do so.

Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, the youngest of four children of Carl and Nannie Hansberry, a respected and successful black family in Chicago, Illinois. Nannie was the college educated daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Carl was a successful real estate businessman, an inventor and a politician who ran for congress in 1940. Both parents were activists challenging discriminating Jim Crow Laws. Because of their stature in the black community such important black leaders as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes frequented the Hansberry home as Lorraine was growing up.

Although they could afford good private schools, Lorraine was educated in the segregated public schools as her family worked within the system to change the laws governing segregation. After high school Hansberry briefly attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison before moving to New York for “an education of another kind.” After she moved to New York City, Hansberry worked at Paul Robeson’s radical black newspaper, the Pan-Africanist newspaper, Freedom, where she dealt regularly with intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois. Much of her work during this time concerned the African struggle for liberation and their impact on the world.

She married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish intellectual who she met on a picket line protesting the exclusion of black athletes from university sports. She worked as editor for Freedom until her husband’s songwriting success allowed her to devote herself to her playwriting. Hansberry used the success of A Raisin In the Sun as a platform to speak out for the American Civil Rights Movement and for the African struggle to free itself from white rule. She helped raise money, gave impassioned speeches and took part in panels and interviews to further these causes.

A Raisin In the Sun, her first play, was based on her childhood experiences of desegregating a white neighborhood. It won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award as Best Play of the Year. She was the youngest American, the fifth woman and the first black to win the award. Her success opened the floodgates for a generation of modern black actors and writers who were influenced and encouraged by her writing. Hansberry inspired Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”. In 1960, during Delta Sigma Theta’s 26th national convention in Chicago, Hansberry was made an honorary member of the sorority.

Hansberry had begun to claim her identity as a lesbian in a 1957 letter to a lesbian periodical, The Ladder, This information and her 1964 divorce from Nemiroff was not widely known at the time of her death. In 1965 the Gay Liberation Movement did not exist and a woman could not claim such an identity without major reprisals. It was not until the 1980s that feminist scholars began connecting her feminist vision with a lesbian identity.

Hansberry’s work was a preview of the African-American spirit that engulfed the nation in the historic changes of the Civil Rights Movement. Her writing foresaw feminism, the Gay Liberation Movement and the demise of colonialism. She was a spearhead of the future, a woman who refused to be confined by the categories of race and gender, and sexual freedom is an important topic in several of her works.

After her initial success she was able to complete only one more play, a movie, and a television script which was too racially controversial to be aired. Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, was received with mixed reviews and kept open for 101 performances only by the contributions and support of the theatre community. It closed the night she died January 12, 1965, at age 34, from cancer. After her death Nemiroff finished and produced her final work, Les Blancs, a play about African liberation.