International Women's Week: Lorraine Hansberry

Posted on 9 March 2016

Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and black
Is where it’s at

- To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone, written in memory of Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was a pioneer, a black female writer at a point when segregation still existed in the USA, and where women were routinely discriminated against and paid less than men. The first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway, her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun is a masterpiece on a par with the works of Tenessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Hansberry was also the first African American and the youngest person to win the New York Drama Critics Award – an astounding feat, especially considering that A Raisin in the Sun was her first major work.

Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1930 to a very socially conscious and quite affluent family, Hansberry’s household had visitors including Duke Wellington, W.E. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Jesse Owens.

Her family moved, desegregating a white neighborhood with a restrictive covenant in 1938. This led to violent protests, however, in spite of this threatening behaviour (including a brick through the window that almost killed Lorraine), the family did not move until a court ordered them to. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court as Hansberry vs. Lee, when restrictive covenants were ruled illegal however, this did not stop enforcement of them in Chicago and other cities. This would later provide Lorraine Hansberry with one of the main plot points of A Raisin in the Sun.

A voracious reader from a young age, Hansberry was a gifted child with a keen interest in learning and went on to study at the University of Wisconsin, where she was immediately very politically engaged. In 1950 she decided to leave Wisconsin, to pursue writing in New York, studying at The New School. She moved to Harlem in 1951 and became very involved in activist movements against racism, including forced evictions. It was also around this time that she joined the staff of Freedom, a black newspaper, writing against racism both on a national and international stage.

In 1959, Hansberry commented that women who are “twice oppressed” may become “twice militant”. An activist and supporter of civil rights, Hansberry said 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.

On June 20, 1953 she married Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish publisher, songwriter and political activist. Although they later divorced, they remained on good terms until Hansberry’s untimely death. It is likely that Hansberry was a lesbian, a theory supported by her writings for Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian and civil rights organisations in the US.

Lorrain Hansberry died at the age of 34 of pancreatic cancer. Although her other works did not have the same impact as A Raisin in the Sun, she left behind a rich legacy of work in her all too short life.

Since its debut, A Raisin in the Sun has been translated into over 30 languages and produced all over the world. It has a universal appeal that directly contradicts early critics’ views of Raisin as being simply “a play about Negroes.” Despite facing racism and sexism, Hansberry overcame great adversity to produce one of the best plays of the 20th century, telling a story that needed to be told.