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Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry
May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965
Notable: Playwright & Writer
Nationality: American

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Show Notes

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on Chicago’s South Side, the youngest of Nannie Perry and Carl Augustus Hansberry’s four children. Her parents had migrated from the South, her father from Mississippi where he’d studied at Alcorn State, and her mother from Tennessee. Hansberry’s family was firmly middle class as a result of her mother being a teacher and her father working as a real estate broker and having founded one of the first banks in Chicago that served Black customers. This was quite an accomplishment as at least one of Hansberry’s grandparents had been enslaved.

As active figures in the local Black community and members of and generous donors to the NAACP and Urban League, many prominent Black icons of the time visited the Hansberry family home when passing through Chicago. During her childhood, Hansberry rubbed elbows with greats such as Duke Ellington, Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B DuBois.

Yet, amidst this life of relative privilege, Hansberry was also exposed to Chicago’s grinding poverty and strict segregation. She showed an interest in writing as a young child and spent a lot of time alone watching and thinking about her surroundings. Some of her writings described the poverty that she witnessed in the form of Black families struggling to survive and maintain their dignity while living in bleak neighborhoods.

At the time, Chicago, like some other cities around the country, utilized restrictive covenants. These were contracts between White homeowners agreeing to not sell or rent their properties to Black would-be homebuyers. This practice helped to ensure that traditionally White neighborhoods would remain as such while Black people would be confined to specific areas of the city. Thus, even financially comfortable Black families such as the Hansberrys would be limited to purchasing homes in select areas even if they could afford homes in nicer neighborhoods.

When Hansberry was eight years old, her parents purchased a home in Woodlawn, a White neighborhood that had a racially restrictive covenant in place. Deliberately challenging the covenant, the family moved in and was met with violent protests. On one occasion, Hansberry and her sister retreated into the home with their bodyguard as a mob began to form. Members of the mob threw a brick through the window which narrowly missed Lorraine’s head.

The family persisted and remained in the home through a drawn-out court battle. Hansberry later recalled her father being away from home as the case made its way through the courts. Meanwhile, her mother often patrolled the house with a gun at night to keep herself and the children safe. An early ruling upheld the covenant but the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court as “Hansberry v. Lee” where the justices reversed the lower court’s decision on a technicality.

A pyrrhic victory, the win weakened the control of restrictive covenants and expanded options for Black residents but took several years and large amounts of money. Hansberry’s parents continued to wage various fights against discrimination but eventually came to see their efforts as being futile. They moved to Mexico City and enjoyed a respite from America’s segregation and racism. Hansberry remained in Chicago where she continued writing and developed a passion for theater while attending Englewood High School.

After graduation, she enrolled as a painting major at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She switched her major to writing before dropping out after two years and moving to New York City. Once settled in the city she resumed her writing studies at the New School for Social Research and worked odd jobs. Her most notable position was as a writer at Paul Robeson’s publication, “Freedom”. The role allowed her to write articles about a broad range of topics while also building relationships in the literary and political worlds.

Living in Harlem and now completely leftist, she narrowly avoided being swept up in the anti-Communist purge due to her still being relatively unknown. It was around this time that she met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish publisher and activist, who she would marry in 1953. A few years later her husband was part of a duo that wrote a hit song which allowed her to leave her jobs to focus on writing full-time.

In 1956, Hansberry began writing a play under the working title of The Crystal Stair which was inspired by Langton Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.” When she finished working on the play in 1957 it had a new title that was also inspired by a Hughes poem, A Raisin in the Sun. The play told the story of a working-class family with dreams of thriving that was struggling to survive in Chicago. Her development of the play was influenced by the families she had observed growing up in Chicago. The characters were based at least in part on her and her family members.

She shopped the completed play around in hopes of generating interest and attracting financing as well as a cast. By 1958, sufficient funds had been raised to stage the play. On March 11, 1959, A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It was an immediate success and went on to have a run of 530 performances. But it was significant within the Black community as it made Hansberry the first Black woman to author a play that was produced on Broadway. The play would go on to be nominated for and win several awards and its 1961 film adaptation was also well received.

The early 1960s were a busy period for Hansberry. Her success allowed her to purchase a home in Croton, New York. She’d previously been a member of and written under her initials for a lesbian civil rights organization and along the way came out as being a lesbian. A fair distance from the action in Greenwich Village, she worked on new projects and completed a second play. In 1963, she became active in the Civil Rights Movement.

But, it was around this time that she began experiencing stomach pains that would eventually be diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. The illness would claim her life two years later at the age of 34 as her second play received a cool reception on Broadway. Romantically separated though not divorced, her husband would edit and publish her remaining projects as well as the collection To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

Bibliography

  1. Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Lorraine Hansberry.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. February 9, 2021. https://www.biography.com/writer/lorraine-hansberry.
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2021. “Lorraine Hansberry.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. January 8, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lorraine-Hansberry.
  3. Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2019. “Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Creator of ‘Raisin in the Sun’.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash. July 9, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/lorraine-hansberry-biography-3528287.
  4. “Lorraine Hansberry Biography.” 2003. Chicago Public Library. April 30, 2003. https://www.chipublib.org/lorraine-hansberry-biography/.
  5. “Lorraine Hansberry.” n.d. American RadioWorks. Accessed February 23, 2021. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/lhansberry.html.
  6. Whitney, Joel. 2020. “Lorraine Hansberry Was an Unapologetic Radical.” Jacobin. December 16, 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/12/lorraine-hansberry-raisin-in-the-sun-playwright.

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