Lorraine Vivian Hansberry

Beliefs

Hansberry was an atheist.

According to historian Fanon Che Wilkins, “Hansberry believed that gaining civil rights in the United States and obtaining independence in colonial Africa were two sides of the same coin that presented similar challenges for Africans on both sides of the Atlantic.” In response to the independence of Ghana, led by Kwame Nkrumah, Hansberry wrote: “The promise of the future of Ghana is that of all the colored peoples of the world; it is the promise of freedom.”

Regarding tactics, Hansberry said Blacks “must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent…. They must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps—and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities.”

In a Town Hall debate on June 15, 1964, Hansberry criticized white liberals who couldn’t accept civil disobedience, expressing a need “to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” At the same time, she said, “some of the first people who have died so far in this struggle have been white men.”

Hansberry was a critic of existentialism, which she considered too distant from the world’s economic and geopolitical realities. Along these lines, she wrote a critical review of Richard Wright’s The Outsider and went on to style her final play Les Blancs as a foil to Jean Genet’s absurdist Les Nègres. However, Hansberry admired Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

In 1959, Hansberry commented that women who are “twice oppressed” may become “twice militant”. She held out some hope for male allies of women, writing in an unpublished essay: “If by some miracle women should not ever utter a single protest against their condition there would still exist among men those who could not endure in peace until her liberation had been achieved.”

Hansberry was appalled by the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which took place while she was in high school, and expressed desire for a future in which: “Nobody fights. We get rid of all the little bombs—and the big bombs.” She did believe in the right of people to defend themselves with force against their oppressors.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation began surveillance of Hansberry when she prepared to go to the Montevideo peace conference. The Washington, D.C. office searched her passport files “in an effort to obtain all available background material on the subject, any derogatory information contained therein, and a photograph and complete description,” while officers in Milwaukee and Chicago examined her life history. Later, an FBI reviewer of Raisin in the Sun highlighted its Pan-Africanist themes as dangerous.

For Hansberry, art contained the “energy which could change things.” Her overnight success transformed the face of American theater and catapulted her into the spotlight. 

Her impassioned and courageous voice drew from the worlds she knew—the struggling, yet fiercely determined community in Chicago’s South Side, the vibrant and radical street corners of Harlem, and the boundary-defying milieu of bohemian Greenwich Village. While publicly outspoken, Hansberry also was racked with many fears, loneliness, self-doubt, and conflicts about her sexual identity. She struggled to write amid the commotion of sudden celebrity and, like many African-American artists of the period, to juggle the needs of her craft and personal choices, while serving as a civil rights spokesperson.

After witnessing the intense violence against civil rights activists, Hansberry concluded near the end of her life that words and talking may not be enough to change society.

Lorraine Hansberry (1930 - 1965)

Lorraine Hansberry (1930 – 1965)

LORRAINE HANSBERRY

(Playwright)

“When Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun appeared on Broadway in 1959, the artist became at twenty-nine the youngest American playwright, the fifth woman, and the only African-American to date to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. The play represented a landmark. In its authentic depiction of Black American life, and the vivid demonstration of so gifted a creator, cast, and director, it made it impossible for the American stage to ignore African American creativity and subject matter thereafter. In 1961, the film version won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Screen Writer’s Guild Award for Hansberry’s screenplay. In 1965, Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer at age 34. As if prescient, in the six years she had between the triumph of her first play and her death, she was extraordinarily prolific. Her second play to be produced on Broadway, The Sign in SidneyBrustein’s Window, was in its early run to mixed reviews, when Hansberry died; the curtain came down on that date. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, an autobiographical portrait in her own words adapted by her former husband and literary executor Robert Nemiroff, was posthumously produced in 1969 and toured across the country. In 1970, Les Blancs, her play about the inevitability of struggle between colonizers and colonized in Africa, and the impending crisis that would surely grow out of it, ran on Broadway to critical acclaim. During her career as a playwright, Hansberry wrote many articles and essays on literary criticism, racism, sexism, homophobia, world peace and other social and political issues. At her death, she left behind file cabinets holding her public and private correspondence, speeches and journals, and various manuscripts in several genres: plays for stage and screen, essays, poetry, and an almost complete novel. In addition to the above works, her published writings (Vintage Books) include TheDrinking Gourd, What Use Are Flowers? and The Movement, a long essay written as text for a photojournalistic treatment of the Civil Rights Movement. 

 

Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry
by Imani Perry (Author)

A New York Times Notable Book of 2018

A revealing portrait of one of the most gifted and charismatic, yet least understood, Black artists and intellectuals of the twentieth century.

Lorraine Hansberry, who died at thirty-four, was by all accounts a force of nature. Although best-known for her work A Raisin in the Sun, her short life was full of extraordinary experiences and achievements, and she had an unflinching commitment to social justice, which brought her under FBI surveillance when she was barely in her twenties. While her close friends and contemporaries, like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, have been rightly celebrated, her story has been diminished and relegated to one work—until now. In 2018, Hansberry will get the recognition she deserves with the PBS American Masters documentary “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” and Imani Perry’s multi-dimensional, illuminating biography, Looking for Lorraine.

After the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry used her prominence in myriad ways: challenging President Kennedy and his brother to take bolder stances on Civil Rights, supporting African anti-colonial leaders, and confronting the romantic racism of the Beat poets and Village hipsters. Though she married a man, she identified as lesbian and, risking censure and the prospect of being outed, joined one of the nation’s first lesbian organizations. Hansberry associated with many activists, writers, and musicians, including Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Looking for Lorraine is a powerful insight into Hansberry’s extraordinary life—a life that was tragically cut far too short.

 

To Be Young, Gifted and Black (Signet Classics) Mass Market Paperback – January 4, 2011
by Lorraine Hansberry (Author), James Baldwin (Introduction)

This is the story of a young woman born in Chicago who came to New York, won fame with her play, A Raisin in the Sun–and went on to new heights of artistry before her tragic death. In turns angry, loving, bitter, laughing, and defiantly proud, the story, voice, and message are all Lorraine Hansberry’s own, coming together in one of the major works of the black experience in mid-century America.

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