Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Creator of 'Raisin in the Sun'

Lorraine Hansberry in 1960
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Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) was a playwright, essayist, and civil rights activist. She is best known for writing "A Raisin in the Sun," the first play by a black woman produced on Broadway. Her civil rights work and writing career were cut short by her death from pancreatic cancer at age 34.

Fast Facts: Lorraine Hansberry

  • Known For: Lorraine Hansberry was a black playwright, essayist, and activist best known for writing "A Raisin in the Sun."
  • Also Known As: Lorraine Vivian Hansberry
  • Born: May 19, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Parents: Carl Augustus Hansberry and Nannie Perry Hansberry
  • Died: January 12, 1965 in New York City
  • Education: University of Wisconsin, Roosevelt College, School of Art Institute, New School for Social Research
  • Published WorksA Raisin in the Sun, The Drinking Gourd, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Les Blancs
  • Awards and Honors: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for "A Raisin in the Sun," Cannes Film Festival special award for "A Raisin in the Sun" (screenplay), Tony Award for Best Musical
  • Spouse(s): Robert Nemiroff (m. 1953–1964)
  • Notable Quote: "[T]hough it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic, to be young, gifted and black!"

Early Life

The granddaughter of a freed slave, Lorraine Hansberry was born into a family that was active in the black community of Chicago. She was raised in an atmosphere suffused with activism and intellectual rigor. Her uncle William Leo Hansberry was a professor of African history. Visitors to her childhood home included such black luminaries as Duke Ellington, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, and Jesse Owens.

When she was 8 years old, Hansberry's family moved house and desegregated a white neighborhood that had a restrictive covenant. Though there were violent protests, they did not move out until a court ordered them to do so. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court as Hansberry v. Lee, when their case was overturned, but on a technicality. The decision is nevertheless considered to have been an early weakening in the restrictive covenants that enforced segregation nationally.

One of Lorraine Hanberry's brothers served in a segregated unit in World War II. Another brother refused his draft call, objecting to segregation and discrimination in the military.

Education

Lorraine Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin for two years and she briefly attended the Art Institute in Chicago, where she studied painting. Desiring to pursue her longtime interest in writing and theater, she then moved to New York to attend the New School for Social Research. She also began work for Paul Robeson's progressive black newspaper Freedom, first as a writer and then an associate editor. She attended the Intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1952, when Paul Robeson was denied a passport to attend.

Marriage

Hansberry met Jewish publisher and activist Robert Nemiroff on a picket line and they were married in 1953, spending the night before their wedding protesting the execution of the Rosenbergs. With support from her husband, Lorraine Hansberry left her position at Freedom, focusing mostly on her writing and taking a few temporary jobs. She soon joined the first lesbian civil rights organization in the U.S., Daughters of Bilitis, contributing letters about women's and gay rights to their magazine, The Ladder. She wrote under an alias, using her initials L.H., for fear of discrimination. At this time, she and her husband separated, but they continued to work together. After her death, he became the executor for her unfinished manuscripts.

'A Raisin in the Sun'

Lorraine Hansberry completed her first play in 1957, taking her title from Langston Hughes' poem, "Harlem."

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—and then run?

"A Raisin in the Sun" is about a struggling black family in Chicago and draws heavily from the lives of the working-class tenants who rented from her father. There are strong influences from her own family on the characters as well. “Beneatha is me, eight years ago,” she explained.

Hansberry began to circulate the play, trying to interest producers, investors, and actors. Sidney Poitier expressed interest in taking the part of the son, and soon a director and other actors (including Louis Gossett, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis) were committed to the performance. "A Raisin in the Sun" opened on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959.

The play, with themes both universally human and specifically about racial discrimination and sexist attitudes, was successful and won a Tony Award for Best Musical. Within two years, it was translated into 35 different languages and was performed all over the world. A screenplay soon followed, to which Lorraine Hansberry added more scenes to the story—none of which Columbia Pictures allowed into the film.

Later Work 

Lorraine Hansberry was commissioned to write a television drama on slavery, which she completed as "The Drinking Gourd," but it was not produced.

Moving with her husband to Croton-on-Hudson, Lorraine Hansberry continued not only her writing but also her involvement with civil rights and other political protests. In 1964, "The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality" was published for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) with text by Hansberry.

In October, Lorraine Hansberry moved back into New York City as her new play, "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" began rehearsals. Although critical reception was cool, supporters kept it running until Lorraine Hansberry's death in January.

Death

Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963 and she died two years later on January 12, 1965, at age 34. Hansberry's funeral was held in Harlem and Paul Robeson and SNCC organizer James Forman gave eulogies.

Legacy

As a young, black woman, Hansberry was a groundbreaking artist, recognized for her strong, passionate voice on gender, class, and racial issues. She was the first black playwright and youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. She and her words were the inspiration for Nina Simone's song "To Be Young Gifted and Black."

In 2017, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 2018, a new American Masters documentary, "Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart," was released, by filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain.

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