A civil rights activist and one of the foremost and recognized playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance. Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, shortly after the climax of the Harlem Renaissance era, which had begun to dwindle after the 1929 stock market crash. Unlike many other Harlem Renaissance–era writers, who were born in humble circumstances, Hansberry was the youngest of four children in an upper-middle-class Chicago family. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, had made his wealth with his own real estate firm, and his family enjoyed an elevated status Chicago’s African American community. They were also respected members of the community, and belonged to social circles that included some of the leading African American writers, educators, and artists of the day.
However, despite the fact that they were financially well off, the Hansberrys were certainly not immune to racism and discrimination. Almost all African Americans in 1930s Chicago resided in a district known as Bronzeville. In 1938, Carl Augustus Hansberry decided to move his family to a more stable neighborhood, and he purchased a house in an all-white area. The move proved, unsurprisingly, to be a controversial one, and white mobs protested it, attempting to block the family from settling in the neighborhood. The family home was also vandalized several times, and the family was threatened on many occasions. Hansberry’s father eventually took the case to the Supreme Court and, in 1940, won the right to move into the neighborhood. The experience would affect Lorraine Hansberry, who was 10 years old, and influence her future writing, most notably her work A Raisin in the Sun.
A good student, Hansberry graduated from high school in 1947 and attended the University of Wisconsin. Though she never finished her bachelor’s degree, she was enrolled until 1950, and those years sparked her interest in writing. She became especially intrigued by the world of the theater, in which a dramatist could virtually create a world of her own on stage, depicting and shaping her own reality. While at the university, she also demonstrated an interest in social justice issues, becoming a member of the Young Progressives of America and the Labor Youth League.
After she left the University of Wisconsin, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in writing. By 1950, the prosperous and prolific era of the Harlem Renaissance had effectively ended, but New York remained an important literary and cultural scene for African American writers and artists. She found full-time employment writing for Freedom magazine. The job offer was not merely a stroke of good luck; Freedom had been founded by renowned singer and actor Paul Robeson, a good friend of Hansberry’s father. Robeson, renowned for his deep bass voice, began a singing career in 1925 and starred in musicals, plays, and films, most notably Emperor Jones and Othello. In Chicago, the Hansberry home had always been a congregation place for African American intellectuals and artists, including Duke Ellington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Robeson. (Later, Robeson’s political activities and communist sympathies, which would lead to his leaving the United States for Europe, would serve as an example to Hansberry of the dangers of voicing one’s political beliefs.)
For Freedom, Hansberry contributed articles and essays on subjects ranging from civil rights for African Americans to the status of women in the United States. She also took courses at the Jefferson School for Social Sciences in New York, where she studied African American culture with W. E. B. Du Bois. She also became more steadily immersed in the growing civil rights movement, speaking out at locally organized events. The early 1950s were a turbulent era for civil rights, especially after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down segregation in public schools.
In 1953, Hansberry married Robert Barron Nemiroff, a Jewish American songwriter and producer. The couple struggled financially, and Hansberry worked hard to maintain a writing schedule while working different jobs to earn an income. The juggling act of writing and working jobs such as teaching high school was stressful, but after Nemiroff had some success with his songwriting, Hansberry eventually could to devote herself to her craft full time.
She began writing A Raisin in the Sun, the play for which she is most well known, in 1956. She completed it in 1958, and it made its Broadway debut in March of 1959, starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and other prominent African American actors. The play focuses on the multigenerational Younger family, who live in Chicago’s rough and economically depressed South Side.
The title alludes to Langston Hughes’s famous poem, “Harlem.” Almost all the play’s main characters have had their dreams deferred. Mama, the family matriarch, has dreamed for years of moving her family out of the South Side and into a more stable neighborhood; her husband’s recent death will enable this dream, as the insurance company plans to send her a $10,000 insurance check.
Walter Lee Younger, her son, dreams of becoming his own man, by being able to support his wife, Ruth, and their son Travis. Racism, poverty, and his low-paying job as a chauffeur have obstructed this dream and thus negatively impacted his self-esteem and image as a man. His younger sister, Beneatha, dreams of being a doctor, the first person in her family to complete a college degree and work in the professional field. Both Walter Lee and Beneatha count on being able to use part of the expected life insurance money to achieve their goals: Walter Lee wants to invest it in an entrepreneurial get-rich-quick scheme, while Beneatha wants to finance her medical school education. The brilliance of the play is its depiction of the family’s struggle to rise above its socioeconomic class while maintaining its integrity and familial bond.
In 19 months on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun was performed 530 times—a smash hit by any standard. It also won its young playwright the New York Drama Critics Circle Award—Hansberry became the youngest person, and the first African American, to be honored with the prize. Hansberry soon wrote a screenplay for a film version of the play, which premiered in 1961, and also starred Poitier and Dee. It became a major financial and critical success. Hansberry’s husband adapted A Raisin in the Sun as a musical in 1973, which received a Tony Award.
Hansberry was now a household name, given A Raisin in the Sun’s enormous success. In 1960, she wrote The Drinking Gourd, a play about slavery intended for production by NBC. Though the company had actually commissioned it, NBC declined to produce it after its completion, because it was deemed too controversial in its approach to the history of slavery and the Civil War.
In 1964, Hansberry’s marriage to Nemiroff crumbled, and the couple divorced. Hansberry had, by that point in her life, realized and accepted her homosexuality. For years, she had supported the American feminist movement, seeing a clear parallel between anti-black and anti-woman prejudice. Her support also extended to the emerging lesbian awareness movement in the United States. In 1957, Hansberry had joined an organization known as the Daughters of Bilitis, which sought to educate Americans about the lesbian movement. She also supported and wrote for the organization’s newsletter, The Ladder.
She began working on another play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which opened in the fall of 1964. It relied on the historical Jewish experience of alienation in America and used it to comment on race-based prejudice. The play did not receive as much acclaim as A Raisin in the Sun, however, as critics accused her of deviating from African Americans themes and issues (indeed, the play has a mostly white cast of characters).
By early 1965, Hansberry was very ill and succumbed to cancer. She died on January 12, at the age of 34. Her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, was named her literary executor and kept her work alive, publishing some of her writings and unfinished plays.
Civil Rights Movement; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Literature and Activism; Robeson, Paul
Playwright whose play Raisin in the Sun (1959) was the first drama by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. Born into an...
A committed social activist, editor of Paul Robeson's radical monthly Freedom , and daughter of the noted social reformer...
African-American playwright born to a Chicago family whose home was a centre for black intellectuals, artists and leaders of...