Author Spotlight: Lorraine Hansberry

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
From a young age, playwright Lorraine Hansberry was making a name for herself on and off Broadway. Her works depicted the untold stories of African Americans fighting racial segregation. Hansberry largely drew on her own family’s experiences, making these stories universal, and therefore touching the hearts and minds of the thousands who saw or read her plays. Here is a glimpse into the legacy of one of America’s most profound playwrights.

Social Activism Early On

 Hansberry was just a small child when she began witnessing the impacts of racial segregation close to home. When she was eight years old, her father bought a home on the South Side of Chicago in the Washington Park Subdivision, a predominately white neighborhood. The white residents tried using the court to force the Hansberry family out. In Hansberry v. Lee, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the neighbor’s efforts to remove the Hansberry family were not wholly valid, therefore permitting the Hansberry's to stay. It was a small victory, but the first of many confrontations for Hansberry.
 
Both her parents were involved in the NAACP, and the Chicago Republican Party. Their home was regularly visited by influential figures in the movement against segregation. People like Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and Jesse Owens often visited with the family. When Hansberry was fifteen years old, her father died suddenly. Later in life, she would say, “American racism helped kill him.” It was these events that helped her pursue speaking out against racial segregation in America. She started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1948 and immediately became known as an outspoken, smart, and stubborn leader

Moving to New York City

 Like many budding writers of the time, Hansberry moved to New York City in 1950 to pursue a career in writing. She landed in Harlem, began attending the New School, and worked in activist groups in the fight against unlawful evictions. One year into her tenure in the city, she was hired on the staff of a black newspaper called Freedom Newspaper. It was here that she worked closely with W.E.B. DuBois and other members of the Black Panther group. In one of her first articles, she covered a protest held by African American women in Washington D.C. known as Sojourners for Truth and Justice.
 
Along with her reporting on domestic issues, Hansberry also worked internationally. She supported the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, the fight for equality for Egyptian women, and attended a peace conference in Montevideo, Uruguay.

A scene from Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
In 1953, Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff. Their union allowed Hansberry to begin writing full time. However, the two never stepped away from their activist roots. On the night of their wedding, they protested the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. 

Life as a Playwright

 Hansberry completed A Raisin in the Sun in 1957. Two years later, it became the first play to be featured on Broadway written by an African American woman. She was youngest writer, and fifth African American to earn the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. The play was a roaring success. Over the next few years, it was performed in theaters across the globe and translated into 35 languages.
 
In 1959, she was featured in Vogue magazine. She drafted two separate screenplays of A Raisin in the Sun, but neither were picked up. In 1963, Hansberry met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The meeting was set up by famed writer James Baldwin after Hansberry’s growing reputation as being a forefront voice fighting racial segregation.
 
Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963. She underwent two operations, but neither were successful in removing the tumor. She died of the disease two years later, when she was just 34 years old. Her funeral was held in Harlem, and messages from Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. were read.
 
Today, Hansberry is most remembered for her ferocity when it came to confronting racial inequality, and writing the timeless A Raisin in the Sun. Since her death, she has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the American Theater Hall of Fame, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, and many more. Years after their creation, Hansberry’s writing impacts and resonates with readers still today.