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Lorraine Hansberry gained historical importance as the first black woman to have a play on Broadway, the first black and youngest American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a trailblazer whose success enabled other blacks to get their plays produced. Her first play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), remains her most enduring work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up amongst Strong Leaders
Hansberry was born in 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, to Carl A. Hansberry and Nanny Perry Hansberry. She was the youngest of four children. Throughout her childhood, thanks to her family’s deep involvement in the black community, she was surrounded by black politics, culture, and economics. Her father, a real estate agent, was very active in the NAACP and Urban League and donated large amounts of money to various causes. In addition, he served as a U.S. Marshal and ran for Congress. Her mother, a former schoolteacher, was a ward committeewoman and was also dedicated to striving for social and political change. Her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, a professor at Howard University, was so noted a scholar of African history that a college was named in his honor at the University of Nigeria. Also into Hansberry’s Chicago home came such important and representative figures of the black community as Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Walter White, Joe Louis, and Jesse Owens. Partly because of her parents’ attitudes and partly because of these visitors, Hansberry never felt in awe of the famous and, while in high school, wrote letters to congressmen, senators, and even the president concerning civic issues of importance to her.
Hansberry vs. Lee
In 1938 Hansberry’s father, risking jail, challenged Chicago’s real estate covenants, which legally upheld housing discrimination, by moving his own family into a white neighborhood. While her father was in court, a mob gathered in front of the house and began shouting and throwing bricks. A bodyguard ended the conflict by showing a loaded gun, but not before a large concrete slab was thrown just past the eight-year-old Hansberry’s head. In spite of this reception, she and her family remained in the house until a lower court ordered them to leave. With the help of the NAACP, her father fought the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which struck down the restrictive covenants in the famous Hansberry vs. Lee decision in 1940. Unfortunately, the practice of restrictive covenants continued in Chicago, even though the law no longer supported them. The idea of a black family moving into a predominantly white neighborhood—and receiving a less-than-friendly welcome—would later be the central focus of Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.
In addition to his disillusionment over the outcome of this legal battle, Carl Hansberry was soon disturbed by the segregation of blacks in the U.S. Army during World War II. One of his sons, Carl, Jr., served in a segregated unit and the other, Perry, contested his draft because he refused to serve in an army that discriminated against blacks. Carl Hansberry’s embitterment over continuing American racial injustice eventually led him to purchase a house in Mexico City, where he planned to permanently relocate his family. However, he died on March 17,1946, before he could complete preparations for the move, and the family remained in Chicago.
Desire to Write
In 1948, violating a family tradition of attending Howard University, Hansberry chose to go to the University of Wisconsin. There she saw a production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1924), which eventually sparked in her the desire to write ”the melody as I knew it—in a different key,” a desire that she fulfilled in A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Unhappy with many of her courses, Hansberry left the university in 1950 ”to seek an education of a different kind” in New York. As part of this new education, she started to work writing articles for Paul Robeson’s radical black newspaper, Freedom. She also reviewed books and dramas by blacks, and, in 1952, she became an associate editor.
Social Justice Activism
Hansberry became involved in peace and freedom movements—marching on picket lines, speaking on Harlem street corners, and taking part in delegations to try to save persons whom she considered to be unjustly convicted of crimes. Moreover, when Paul Robeson was unable to travel to the Intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1952 because the State Department denied him a passport, she went as his representative. This trip gave her the invaluable opportunity to meet a large number of women from other countries and to compare notes on the circumstances of their lives. She later commented on what she learned from these women in her unpublished essay ”Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex: An American Commentary, 1957.”
Marriage & Family Life
In 1953, she married Robert Nemiroff, an aspiring writer and graduate student in English and history at New York University. Given her interests, it was appropriate that she became acquainted with him in a picket line protesting discrimination. Hans-berry resigned from full-time work at Freedom in 1953 to concentrate on her creative efforts. From 1953 to 1956, she had three plays in progress while holding down a series of jobs—as a ”tag-putter-inner-and-outer” in the garment fur industry, a typist, a production assistant in a theatrical firm, a staff member of Sing Out magazine, and recreation leader at the Federation for the Handicapped. In 1956, her husband and Burt D’Lugoff wrote the hit song ”Cindy, Oh Cindy,” and shortly afterwards he went to work running a music publishing firm for their friend, Philip Rose. As a result, the couple’s financial situation improved enough that Hansberry could concentrate full-time on her writing.
Success as a Playwright
For a while, Hansberry worked simultaneously on a novel, several plays, and an opera, but she turned increasingly to one play that she eventually chose to title A Raisin in the Sun from a line in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” which wondered if a dream deferred might ”dry up / like a raisin in the sun”—or if it might eventually explode. This title points up the bitterness of the social conditions that forcibly and continuously defer the aspirations of the black family in the play. Hansberry completed the play in 1957 and, after an enthusiastic response from her husband, read it to their friends Burt D’Lugoff and Philip Rose. To her astonishment, Rose announced the next morning that he would like to produce it on Broadway. When A Raisin in the Sun finally opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, Hansberry’s drama drew favorable reviews from all seven of the crucially influential New York newspaper critics and began a highly successful run of 538 performances.
Her play’s success made Hansberry an overnight sensation. She sold the movie rights to A Raisin in the Sun to Columbia Pictures in 1959, and the resulting film earned a nomination for Best Screenplay of the Year from the Screenwriters Guild and a special award at the Cannes Film Festival, both in 1961.
In 1960 producer-director Dore Schary commissioned Hansberry to write a drama on slavery for NBC to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. However, the program was eventually canceled amid a battery of questions about Hansberry’s ”attitude” toward the material. Hansberry completed the play, which she called The Drinking Gourd (1972), and it was published after her death.
In 1961 she and her husband moved from their Greenwich Village apartment, where they had been living since their marriage, to a house in a tranquil, wooded area in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. From this peaceful and secluded place, she maintained the necessary balance between her public and private commitments. In 1962, Hansberry mobilized support for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in its struggle against Southern segregation.
Battle against Cancer
In 1963, Hansberry was hospitalized for tests, with the results suggesting cancer. Nevertheless, she persisted in her various commitments. On May 24, at the request of James Baldwin, she joined a meeting of several prominent blacks and a few whites with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to discuss the racial crisis. On June 19, she chaired a meeting in Croton-on-Hudson to raise money for SNCC. Only five days later, she underwent an unsuccessful operation in New York. She would continue to spend time in and out of the hospital until her death from cancer a year and a half later.
In 1964 Hansberry’s marriage ended in divorce, but her creative collaboration with Nemiroff continued, and the two of them continued to see each other daily until her death. In early October, Hansberry moved to the Hotel Victoria in New York to be near rehearsals of her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964), which was being produced by Nemiroff and Burton D’Lugoff. The play received mixed reviews. Hansberry died on January 12, 1965.
During the last year and a half of her life, Hansberry spent considerable time working on her African play, Les Blancs (1970). The basic plotting, characterization, thematic development, and the majority of the speeches were Hansberry’s, with Nemiroff completing the rest of the play. Les Blancs opened at the Longacre Theatre on November 15, 1970, and, having received mixed reviews, closed after forty-seven performances.
Works in Literary Context
Although her life was brutally curtailed by cancer at only thirty-four, Hansberry’s contribution to Afro-American culture was of considerable significance. As dramatist, film and television scriptwriter, novelist, poet, and essayist, she was among the greatest celebrators of the black spirit, as well as one of the sharpest intellects and keenest observers of her time. Her writing was strongly influenced by the presence of strong role models both in her family and in the community in which she grew up.
The Black Experience
Clearly, Hansberry’s emphasis on black social conditions, black strength, black struggle, and Pan-Africanism make A Raisin in the Sun a drama first and foremost about the black experience. This does not rule out universal dimensions to the play, however. Hansberry’s masterful orchestration of a variety of complex themes, her skillful portrayal of black American—and African—lifestyles and patterns of speech, her wit, wisdom, and powerful dramatic flair all help to place A Raisin in the Sun among the finest dramas of the twentieth century and make it the cornerstone of the black theater movement.
Perhaps the best indication of the contemporary significance of Hanberry’s meaning for blacks came in 1975 when Woodie King, Jr., began to prepare a documentary on the black theater. He decided to call his film ”The Black Theater Movement: A Raisin in the Sun to the Present” because he found that of the more than sixty people he interviewed ”over forty. . . said that, at one time or another, they had been influenced or aided, or both, by Lorraine Hansberry and her work.”
In addition to being an accomplished playwright, Hansberry was also a master prose stylist and finished a wealth of published and unpublished essays on black history, black art, black feminism, the Cuban missile crisis, the House Un-American Activities Committee, existentialism, the civil rights movement, world literature, her own work, and the many other topics that interested her. While her drama frequently dealt with the black experience, a wide range of universal concerns were her focus. Her last published play, What Use Are Flowers? (1972), revealed the range of her awareness, dealing with the meaning of civilization in the context of its capacity for self-destruction through nuclear warfare. This range was further demonstrated by the two versions of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the play (produced in 1969), and the much more extensive informal biography (published in 1969) her former husband and literary executor, Robert Nemiroff, put together after her death from segments of her plays, essays, speeches, and poems.
Works in Critical Context
Hansberry was highly regarded in her day for the artistic merit of her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, and its enormous success on Broadway. Many critics appreciated Hansberry’s ability to appeal to issues that included, but also extended beyond, race. However, her short career—as well as some skepticism over the true significance of her work—has left her literary legacy perhaps less secure than other African American writers of the same period.
A Raisin in the Sun The critical success of A Raisin in the Sun was confirmed when the New York Drama Critics Circle voted it Best Play of the Year over Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), Archibald MacLeish’s JB (1958), and Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet (1958). However, not all critics, then or now, agreed with the generally positive assessment. Tom F. Driver of the New Republic argues in his review that A Raisin in the Sun ”is old-fashioned,” adhering to the ”over-worked formulas . . . of the ‘domestic play.”’ He also contends that ”much of its success is due to our sentimentality over the ‘Negro question”’ and that ”it may have been Miss Hansberry’s objective to show that the stage stereotypes will fit Negroes as well as white people.” The novelist, Nelson Algren, claims that ”Raisin does not assert the hard bought values the Negro has won,” and dismisses the significance of the play: ”Dramatically, Raisin does for the Negro people what hair straightened and skin-lightener have done for the Negro cosmetics trade.” Social critic Harold Cruse termed it ”the most cleverly written piece of glorified soap opera I, personally, have ever seen on a stage.”
- Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre: 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
- Bigsby, C. W. E. Confrontation and Commitment: A Study of Contemporary American Drama, 1959-1966. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1968.
- Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: William Morrow, 1967.
- Isaacs, Harold R. The New World of Negro Americans. New York: John Day, 1963.
- Scheader, Catherine. They Found a Way: Lorraine Hansberry. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1978.
- Brown, Lloyd W. ”Lorraine Hansberry as Ironist.” Journal of Black Studies 4 (March 1974): 237-247.
- Carter, Steven R. ”Commitment Amid Complexity: Lorraine Hansberry’s Life-in-Action.” MELUS 7 (Fall 1980): 39-53.
- Hairston, Loyle. ”Lorraine Hansberry: Portrait of an Angry Young Writer.” Crisis 86 (April 1979): 123-124,126,128.
- Kaiser, Ernest and Robert Nemiroff. ”A Lorraine Hansberry References:.” Freedomways 19 (Fourth Quarter 1979): 285-304.
- Ness, David E. ”The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window: A Black Playwright Looks at White America.” Freedomways 11 (Fourth Quarter 1971): 359-366.
- Terkel, Studs. ”An Interview with Lorraine Hansberry.” WFMT Chicago Five Arts Guide 10 (April 1961): 8-14.
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