Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry (Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965) was an African-American writer and playwright.

Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest of four children. Her father was a real-estate broker and an active member of the Republican Party, and her mother was a driving school teacher. Both were politically active, the family had connections with prominent black people (such as W. E. B. DuBois and Langston Hughes), and Lorraine’s uncle, William Leo Hansberry, was a Howard University professor of African history and founded the African Civilization section of the History Department at that University.

Lorraine’s father won a famous anti-segregation case before the US Supreme Court: when Lorraine was seven, in 1937, her parents bought a house in a white neighbourhood in Chicago, and were immediately threatened by a racist mob, which led them to a three year long legal battle known as Hansberry v. Lee (1940). When Lorraine was 15, in 1946, her father died in Mexico of a cerebral hemorrhage, and she later said that “American racism helped kill him”.

Hansberry graduated from Englewood High School in 1948, and started studying art at the University of Wisconsin. She spent the summer of 1949 in Mexico, studying painting at the University of Guadalajara. In Wisconsin, Hansberry joined the Young Progressives of America and later the Labour Youth League.

In 1950, Lorraine dropped out of college and moved to New York, intent on becoming a writer. She took classes iat the New School for Social Research and worked at Paul Robeson’s Freedom, a progressist black magazine. She moved to Harlem in 1951, joined the Communist Party, and became involved in the anticolonialist struggle and in the civil rights movement – which brought her to the attention of the FBI as early as 1952.

Around that same time, she met Robert “Bobby” Nemiroff, a Jewish literature student, songwriter and political activist. They met at a protest against racially discriminatory hiring practices at New York University, and immediately bonded. On June 20, 1953, they married. Their artistic cooperation and professional relationship lasted until Hansberry’s death, but the couple separated in 1957 and divorced in 1962.

Hansberry was a lesbian and had a conflicted relationship with her sexuality. In 1956, she wrote the play Flowers for the General, where a college student named Marcia falls in love with her classmate, Maxine. Marcia tries kill herself when she’s outed to the entire school. In 1957, Hansberry joined the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis, at a time when doing so made you a target of federal law enforcement. Under her initials “LHN”, she wrote two letters to their magazine, The Ladder (a lesbian magazine whose title symbolizes a means to escape from the “well of loneliness”). In 1958, under the pseudonym Emily Jones, she published a story in the Ladder, called “Chanson du Konallis”. Also under the pseudonym Emily Jones, Lorraine published three short stories for the queer magazine ONE: “The Anticipation of Eve” (1957); “The Budget” (1958); and “Renascence” (1958).

In her first letter to “The Ladder”, writing in response to an article in the preceding issue about assimilation with heterosexual culture, Hansberry argues: “As one raised in a subculture experience (I am a Negro) where those within were and are forever lecturing to their fellows about how to appear acceptable to the dominant social groups, I know something about the shallowness of such a view in and of itself…what ought to be clear is that one is oppressed or discriminated against because one is ‘different’, not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ This is perhaps the bitterest of the entire pill.” Source

From Hansberry’s second letter to Ladder: “I think it is about time that equipped women began to take on some of the ethical questions which a male-dominated culture has produced and dissect and analyze them quite to pieces in a serious fashion. It is time that ‘half the human race’ had something to say about the nature of its existence. Otherwise — without revised basic thinking — the woman intellectual is likely to find herself trying to draw conclusions — moral conclusions — based on acceptance of a social moral superstructure which has never admitted to the equality of women and is therefore immoral itself. In this kind of work there may be women to emerge who will be able to formulate a new and possible concept that homosexual persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.” Source

Hansberry built a circle of gay and lesbian friends and took several lovers, went together to parties and dinners with Ann Bannon and Patricia Highsmith, among others. In Looking for Lorraine, the biographer Imani Perry claims that Lorraine had a love affair with Molly Malone Cook (who later had a 40-year love relationship with Mary Oliver), Renee Kaplan, Dorothy Secules and Ann Grifalconi. Helen Leeds

Robert, whom she divorced in 1962, became executor of her estate and restricted access to archival materials that expanded upon her sexual identity. Adrienne Rich considered Robert’s role “a problem”: Hansberry, who was closeted in life out of necessity and in death by her ex-husband’s executorship of her estate, did not “come out” until her archive permitted her to in 2014.

Eventually it comes to you: the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.” (Journal entry, 1962, To be Young, Gifted and Black, 1969)

In 1963, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She underwent two operations, on June 24 and August 2, but neither was successful. Hansberry was in and out of the hospital throughout 1964, and in the summer of 1964, she wrote in her journal, “I think when I get my health back I shall go into the South to find out what kind of revolutionary I am.” Nonetheless, Hansberry somehow kept working, and would live to produce only one more play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which was rushed into an October production on Broadway and closed the night she died.

Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer on January 12, 1965. She was 34 years old.

“I wish to live because life has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful, and that which is love. Therefore, sine I have known all these things I have found them reason enough — and I wish to live. Moreover, because this is so, I wish others to live for generations and generations and generations and generations.” Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young Gifted and Black, 1969.

Nina Simone, one of her closest friends, released a song about Hansberry in 1969, called “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” The title of the song refers to the title of Hansberry’s collected writings, edited and published in 1969 by her ex-husband: it was an expression which Hansberry first coined when speaking to the winners of a creative writing conference on May 1, 1964, “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.” 

The supreme test of technical skill and creative imagination is the depth of art it requires to render the infinite varieties of the human spirit—which invariably hangs between despair and joy.” To Be Young Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Adapted by Robert Nemiroff with an introduction by James Baldwin, p.xvii. NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

James Baldwin, another of Lorraine’s closest friends, once wrote about her: “I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade (…) We had that respect of each other which perhaps is only felt by people on the same side of the barricades”. He also wrote “Sweet Lorraine” as a tribute to her. It opens To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969): “What is relevant here is that I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater. And the reason was that before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them. But, in Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it — the mother, the son, the daughter and the daughter-in-law, and supplied the play with an interpretive element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. (…) One is not merely an artist and one is not judged merely as an artist: the black people crowding around Lorraine, whether or not they consider her an artist, assuredly consider her a witness. Much of the strain under which Lorraine worked was produced by her knowledge of this reality, and her determined refusal to be destroyed by it. (…) Sometimes, very briefly, one hears the exact inflection of the voice, the exact timbre of the laugh — as I have, when watching this dramatic presentation, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and in reading through these pages. But I do not have the heart to presume to assess her work, for all of it, for me, was suffused with the light which was Lorraine.”


Books

  • A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
  • The Drinking Gourd (1960)
  • What Use Are Flowers? (1962)
  • The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964)
  • The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1965)
  • To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969)
  • Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays (1972)

About her

  • They Found a Way: Lorraine Hansberry, by Catherine Scheader (1978)
  • Freedomways, Volume 19, issue 4, edition 04 (1979)
  • Lorraine Hansberry, by Anne Cheney (1984)
  • Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrightsin America, by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory (1988)
  • Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment Amid Complexity, by Steven Carter (1990)
  • Lorraine Hansberry: Award-Winning Playwright and Civil Rights Activist, by Susan Sinnott (1998)
  • Young, Black and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, by Patricia and Frederick McKissack (1998)
  • African American Dramatists: An A-to-Z Guide, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (2004)
  • “To Be (come) Young, Gay, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry’s Existentialist Routes to Anticolonialism”, by Cheryl Higashida, American Quarterly, 60, December 2008, pp. 899–924.
  • Black Internationalist Feminism: Women Writers of the Black Left, 1955–1995, by Cheryl Higashida (2011)
  • The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington (2014)
  • Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, by Imani Perry (2018)
  • Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (2018), documentary on Hansberry, directed by Tracy Heather Strain
  • “James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry: Two Revolutionaries, One Heart, One Mind”, by Çiǧdem Üsekes, Obsidian, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2008, pp. 12-25.

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