“Never be afraid to sit and think,” profound words spoken by the famous playwright, author & civil rights activist, Lorraine Hansberry. She is best known for her groundbreaking masterpiece of a play, A Raisin In The Sun, which is the first play written by a black American to be produced on Broadway. The play debuted in 1959 and was meet with much acclaim. It tells the story of a poor African American family that struggles to raise above socioeconomic conditions only to face housing discrimination on the basis of race. She was the first black playwright, the youngest American, and only the fifth woman to win the New York’s Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The title of the play comes from a line in the poem “Harlem” written by Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930 in Chicago Illinois. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, founded Lake Street Bank, one of the first banks for blacks in Chicago. He was also a successful real estate broker. Her mother, Nannie Louise Hansberry, was a driving school teacher and ward committeewoman. Lorraine was the youngest of four children.
In 1938, her father bought a house in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago which resulted in an upheaval felt by their white neighbors. The white community’s legal efforts to force the Hansberry family out landed in U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decision in Hansberry v. Lee ruled that since the racially restrictive real property covenant was incontestable because it had already been deemed valid by the courts in the prior lawsuit. Carl Hansberry died in 1946, when Lorraine was fifteen year old. “American racism helped kill him,” she later said.
In 1950, she moved to New York City to pursue her writing career where she attended The New School. A year later, she moved to Harlem and began writing for the Pan-Africanist newspaper Freedom, where she worked with prominent intellectuals such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois. Much of her work dealt with the struggle for liberation for people of African decent.
Lorraine was heavily involved in the civil rights, a public figure, and popular speaker at a number of conferences and meetings. Among her most notable speeches was one delivered to a black writers’ conference sponsored by the American Society of African Culture in New York. In her speech, Hansberry declared that “all art is ultimately social” and called upon black writers to be involved in “the intellectual affairs of all men, everywhere.” As the civil rights movement strengthened, Lorraine helped to plan fund-raising events to support organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
On May 24, 1963, Lorraine participated in a meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, set up by James Baldwin. Other influential people attended such as Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Edwin C. Berry, Kenneth Clark, as well as, the attorney of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the meeting they discussed the state of race relations, but reached no consensus. Ultimately, the meeting demonstrated the urgency of the racial situation and was a positive turning point in the Administration’s attitude towards the Civil Rights Movement.
On January 12, 1965 Lorraine died at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer. She left behind a number of finished and unfinished projects. A collection of her works were published under the title “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”, which was also made into an off-Broadway play. Lorraine’s close friend Nina Simone wrote the song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” to honor her memory.
Chicago Public Library/ Lorraine Hansberry: https://www.chipublib.org/lorraine-hansberry-biography/
Oxford University Press/ Women and Literature: https://blog.oup.com/2006/09/women_and_liter-3/
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