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Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was an African-American female writer from the mid-1900s. She was a firm supporter of equal rights for women and wrote several poignant pieces during her brief writing career until her untimely death. Hansberry began her writing career working for a newspaper called Freedom. Her most celebrated piece of work, the drama A Raisin in the Sun (1959), was monumental for its authentic portrayal of an African-American family and their struggle against racism, segregation, and inequality in America. She was only 29 when she wrote the play.

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Lorraine Hansberry

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Lorraine Hansberry was an African-American female writer from the mid-1900s. She was a firm supporter of equal rights for women and wrote several poignant pieces during her brief writing career until her untimely death. Hansberry began her writing career working for a newspaper called Freedom. Her most celebrated piece of work, the drama A Raisin in the Sun (1959), was monumental for its authentic portrayal of an African-American family and their struggle against racism, segregation, and inequality in America. She was only 29 when she wrote the play.

Lorraine Hansberry's Biography

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, at Provident Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. She was the youngest daughter of Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl Augustus Hansberry. Her mother was a driving school teacher and her father was a prominent African-American businessperson and leader in the African-American community. He founded one of the first African-American banks in Chicago, Lake Street Bank, and ran a real estate business.

Because of their activism within the African-American community, many prominent African-American artists and social figures frequented the the Hansberry residence. Notable visitors include sociology professor W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963), poet Langston Hughes (1901-1967), famed musician and jazz artist Duke Ellington (1899-1974), and the track and field athlete and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens (1913-1980).

Lorraine Hansberry grew up in a middle-class African-American family but was aware of and exposed to the discrimination and poverty suffered by most African-Americans in the United States.

When Lorraine Hansberry was young, her father spent much of the family's savings to purchase a three-story brick townhome in Chicago and promptly moved the family in. The house, now a landmark, was in a predominantly white neighborhood and was central to a three-year-long battle Carl Hansberry fought in the Supreme Court with the support of the NAACP. Hansberry vs. Lee (1940) ruled in favor of Carl Hansberry. The ruling determined white Americans can't bar African-Americans from predominantly white neighborhoods.

The neighborhood was hostile, and Hansberry's family, including the children, were spat at, cursed at, and pummeled while going to and from work and school. Hansberry's mother would guard the house as the children slept at night, with a German Luger pistol in her hand. This experience would later inspire Hansberry's most well-known and highly regarded drama, A Raisin in the Sun (1959).

Lorraine Hansberry, Hansberry pictured during a lecture to writing students, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Lorraine Hansberry often spoke at writers' workshops and to the public about her writing, activism, and the writing process.

After graduating from Englewood High School in 1948, Lorraine Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although Hansberry left her mark on campus by successfully integrating a dormitory, she left college after two years to work at a newspaper in New York called Freedom. She moved to Harlem, a center for African-American culture, in 1951, and attended The New School.

In 1953, Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff (1929-1991), a publisher, songwriter, and political activist. The success of his co-written song "Cindy, Oh Cindy" (1956) created enough income for Hansberry to commit herself to writing. Hansberry separated from her husband in 1957. Although Lorraine Hansberry had married, she identified as a lesbian. She wrote and published A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Their divorce wasn't finalized until years later, but they remained business partners and maintained a close relationship until her death.

Lorraine Hansberry died on January 12, 1965. Her funeral was held in Harlem three days later.

Robert Nemiroff served as executor for some of her unfinished manuscripts and belongings. When he released her belongings to the New York Public Library after her death, he restricted any lesbian-themed pieces from researchers. In 2013, the new executor released the previously restricted information to a scholar for research.

Lorraine Hansberry Facts

  • In college, Lorraine Hansberry had an artistic eye. She took courses in set design and turned her dorm room into an art studio. In 1949 she spent the summer in Mexico studying painting at the University of Guadalajara.

  • W. E. B. DuBois served as one of Lorraine Hansberry's mentors. She worked with the prominent figure on the progressive African-American newspaper Freedom. It was published by Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and produced articles about the feminist movement, domestic activism challenging Jim Crow laws, and anti-colonialist struggles from around the globe.

  • Hansberry was close friends with American singer, songwriter, and activist Nina Simone (1933-2003). Lorraine Hansberry was Simone's daughter's godmother.

  • The song, "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" (1970) by Nina Simone is about Lorraine Hansberry. The title is inspired by Hansberry's autobiography and references a speech Hansberry gave in 1964, less than a year before her death.

  • Lorraine Hansberry joined a lesbian organization named the Daughters of Bilitis (founded in 1955). She submitted pieces, including letters and short stories, to two different queer publications. Hansberry's short story, "The Anticipation of Eve" (1958), features a lesbian protagonist, Ruth, who comes out to her cousin. Hansberry published it in ONE Magazine under the pen name Emily Jones.

Lorraine Hansberry's Plays

Hansberry began writing at an early age, and her interest in drama and theater began in high school. Her first play is recognized as the first play produced on Broadway written by an African-American woman. It was the first time a drama presented an authentic portrayal of African-American life, with characters that were true to life.

Lorraine Hansberry, the Regent Theater in Harlem, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Early 1900s Harlem was a mecca for the African-American community and served as the social center for the Harlem Renaissance.

A Raisin in the Sun

The play, A Raisin in the Sun, is about an African-American family, the Youngers, recovering from the death of the family's patriarch, Walter Younger. Waiting for his life insurance money, each family member has a plan for how to use the funds. While his widow hopes to use it to buy a house with a yard, Big Walter's surviving daughter wants to use it for college, while Walter Lee Younger, Jr., his son, hopes to become part owner in a liquor store. The drama surfaces issues of racism, family dynamics, and aspirations in life. Hansberry drew inspiration from her own life as a child, real people in her neighborhood, and her own family to create strong and dynamic characters for her drama.

Lorraine Hansberry, a quote from A Raisin in the Sun, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A quote from Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun painted on a wall.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1965) is Hansberry's second play and the last to be staged on Broadway. It ran for 101 performances and symbolically closed on the night of her death. The play is about a man named Sidney, a cultured Jewish academic, and how he copes with life's trials. Like A Raisin in the Sun, it deals with issues of race but also explores women's fight for equality, social stigmas, and homosexuality.

Themes in Lorraine Hansberry's Work

Lorraine Hansberry had an uncanny ability to identify the overarching social, political, and emotional issues plaguing the African-American community and express them in relatable ways for all readers of all races. Although she often wrote about the African-American experience, her themes and stories cross cultural boundaries and speak to a broad audience. Moral choices, deferred dreams, and racial injustice are common themes in her writing.

Deferred Dreams

A common topic in Hansberry's writing and other literary works from the Harlem Renaissance is the idea of unrealized dreams. The African-American community realized their promise of the American Dream, an idea of freedom, equality and opportunity for all, was not as readily available to them because of racism, segregation, and institutionalized discrimination. The Jim Crow laws were enforced until 1965, and neighborhoods and schools were still segregated. African-American writers expressed the African-American community's anger at the inequality and mistreatment.

Langston Hughes's famous poem, "Harlem" (1951), which explores dreams that have yet to be realized, inspired the title of Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?"

"Harlem" (1951) by Langston Hughes

Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in all public facilities throughout the former Confederate States in America. These laws were state and local statutes that denied African-American people voting rights, outlawed mixed-race marriages between African-American people and white people, and required public facilities and restaurants to be racially separated.

Racial Injustice

Hansberry's writing surfaces racial injustice issues and the treatment of African-American people post-World War II. Although the work and contributions the African-American community made were fundamental in establishing America, their rights were revoked, and the community was treated as less-than. Hansberry explores this in the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun with their struggle to realize their dreams and their desire to move to a more affluent, safe, and predominantly white neighborhood.

As a testament to the play's popularity, there are three film adaptions of the drama A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry wrote the screenplay for the first version herself in 1961. The other versions were produced in 1989 and 2008.

Lorraine Hansberry Quotes

Lorraine Hansberry was an influential figure during her lifetime and brief writing career, but it was cut short because of cancer. Her words continue to be a source of inspiration today.

Money is life."

(Act I, A Raisin in the Sun)

This is a sentiment echoed by Walter Younger Jr. in A Raisin in the Sun. In an argument with his mother, he expresses how he feels he is in a cycle of poverty, always working but never able to get ahead.

Though it is 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."

Spoken during her speech “The Nation Needs Your Gifts” at the Readers Digest and United Negro College Fund creative writing conference in 1964, this phrase would inspire a song by Nina Simone about Lorraine Hansberry and the title of Lorraine Hansberry's autobiography. It expressed her continued pride in her ethnicity and a call for the African-Americans to be agents of change and improvement for their community.

Lorraine Hansberry - Key takeaways

  • Lorraine Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago.
  • Lorraine Hansberry died at the young age of 34 from pancreatic cancer. Her funeral was held in Harlem.
  • Lorraine Hansberry's most influential work is the drama A Raisin in the Sun. She wrote the drama when she was just 29 years old.
  • Lorraine Hansberry is the first female African-American to have a play staged on broadway.
  • A Raisin in the Sun is the first broadway play to depict authentic African-American characters that are true to life and not simple, two-dimensional racial stereotypes.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - "Lorraine Hansberry speaking to an audience" (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lorraine_Hansberry_speaking_to_an_audience.jpg) by No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000 is licensed with CC0 1.0.
  2. Fig. 2 - "Regent Theatre, 116th St. & Seventh Ave, Harlem, New York City - 1916" (https://www.flickr.com/photos/53499099@N00/5327097281) by CharmaineZoe's Marvelous Melange is licensed under CC BY 2.0
  3. Fig. 3 - "The Sudden Dramatic Events Which Make History" (https://www.flickr.com/photos/10485077@N06/49996393883) by edenpictures is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Frequently Asked Questions about Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at 34 years old. 

Hansberry is the first African-American woman to have a play on Broadway, she inspired a song by Nina Simone, and she married a man but identified as a lesbian.

Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American woman to write a Broadway play. 

Lorraine Hansberry was a playwright and social activist. She is best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry moved to Harlem in 1950 to pursue her writing career. She died of pancreatic cancer in 1965. When her ex-husband released her belongings to the New York Public Library, he restricted any lesbian-themed pieces from researchers. In 2013, the new executor released the previously restricted information to a scholar for research. 

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