Lorraine Hansberry‘s parents fought hard and won a drawn out legal battle against Chicago’s housing segregation. Her father, a successful contractor and builder, bought a house in Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago to the ire of the white neighbors. The neighbors’ legal efforts to force the Hansberry family out culminated in the SCOTUS’s decision in Hansberry v. Lee. Hansberry’s father died in 1946, when she was 15 years old. Hansberry stated:
“American racism helped kill him. ”
That struggle provided the inspiration for her greatest work, the classic play A Raisin In The Sun.
In 1950, still in her teens, Hansberry left the University Of Wisconsin and moved to New York City to work for actor/singer Paul Robeson‘s political journal Freedom. She met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish folksinger, who become her husband. Their connection was only briefly sexual, but they remained close friends and didn’t divorce until the end of her life. Hansberry was taken by cancer when she was just 34-years-old, but during her short time in this world she was on a journey, personally and politically, towards sexual freedom and gender equality.
Hansberry never used the term “lesbian” because she, like many others, was still in the process of developing the concept of such a clearly defined sexual identity. Yet, she certainly had romances with women and more tellingly, she was a member of the first ever lesbian political organization, The Daughters of Bilitis, during an era when doing so made you a target for investigation by the FBI.
In the 1956 and 1957, Hansberry wrote a series of challenging commentaries for early gay publications, including The Ladder, while she was busy writing a play she titled A Raisin In The Sun. She was a prolific political writer and public speaker. She challenged the African-American community to consider the fight against homophobia.
Hansberry signed her writings with her initials. All writers who contributed to gay journals in the pre-Stonewall era used some sort of alias.
In a letter to the gay periodical ONE magazine, Hansberry wrote:
“I have suspected for a good time that the homosexual in America would ultimately pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment of women. Men continue to misinterpret the second-rate status of women as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots.“
During this time, Hansberry finished writing and shopped around her glorious play. The title A Raisin In The Sun is taken from a line in a Langston Hughes poem:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Her play was a remarkable success and ran for 530 performances on Broadway in 1959. It was the first play produced on Broadway by an African-American woman, and Hansberry was the first black playwright and the youngest to win a New York Critics Circle Award.
It starred Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett, and was directed by Lloyd Richards, the first black director of a Broadway play. It was made into a film with most of the original stage cast in 1961, and was revived on Broadway in 2004 with Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad, winning two Tony Awards, and again a decade later with Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo, with three more Tony wins.
Hansberry was very active in the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. Along with Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and James Baldwin, Hansberry met with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to make the case for Civil Rights. She criticized white liberals who couldn’t accept civil disobedience.
Hansberry was the inspiration for Nina Simone‘s song To Be Young, Gifted and Black. She would have, should have, celebrating her 93rd birthday today.