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Lorraine Hansberry, The First Major Black Theatrical Voice to Emerge From America
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry born May 19, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois as the youngest of four children of a prominent real estate broker Carl Augustus Hansberry and Nannie Louise Perry grew up on the south side of Chicago in the Woodlawn neighborhood.in a middle-class family.. The roots of her artistic vision and activism are here in Chicago.
Born into a family of substantial means and parents who were intellectuals and activists, her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, Sr. from Gloucester, Mississippi, moved to Chicago after attending Alcorn College, and became known as the “kitchenette king” after subdividing large homes vacated by whites moving to the suburbs and selling these small apartments or kitchenettes to African American migrants from the South.
Carl was not only a successful real estate businessman,but an inventor and a politician as well being an active member of the Republican Party who ran for congress in 1940. Hansberry’s mother, Nannie Perry, the college educated daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister,who became a schoolteacher and, later, ward committeewoman, was from Tennessee. At the time of Lorraine’s birth, she had become an influential society matron who hosted major cultural and literary figures
Both parents were activists challenging discriminating Jim Crow Laws. Because of their stature in the black community such important black leaders as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Joe Louis and Langston Hughes frequented their home as Lorraine was growing up.
Lorraine’s uncle, Willliam Leo Hansberry, a Howard University professor of African history in D.C. who taught there until 1959 after rejecting employment offers from Atlanta University and the Honorable Marcus Garvey was another important influence on her. As a scholar of African history who taught at Howard University, his students included some of the most decisive figures in African nationalism such as Kwame Nkrumah first president of Ghana and Nnamdi Azikwe, the first Nigerian president. So important was he to Africa especially that a college at the University of Nigeria was named in his honor. While Lorraine was growing up she was frequently exposed to the perspectives of such young African students who were regularly invited home to family dinners.
Although they could afford good private schools, Lorraine was educated in the segregated public schools as her family worked within the system to change the laws governing segregation. At an early age she learned to fight white supremacy. She had grown disgusted of seeing Negroes being spat at, cursed and pummeled with insults and physical acts of violence.
In protest against the segregation laws her parents sent her to public schools rather than private ones. She attended Betsy Ross Elementary School and then in 1944 Englewood High School where she encountered the children of the working class whose independence courage and struggles which would soon become the subject of her first major play she came to admire. Both schools were predominately white. Lorraine even had to fight racism from the day she walked through the doors of Betsy Ross Elementary School. Although she and her siblings enjoyed privileges unknown to their working-class schoolmates, the parents infused their children with racial pride and civic responsibility. They founded the Hansberry Foundation, an organization designed to inform African Americans of their civil rights, and encouraged their children to challenge the exclusionary policies of local restaurants and stores.
When Lorraine was eight, her parents moved the whole family to occupy a house they had bought in a restricted all-white neighborhood in another effort to defy the segregation law then prevalent. Such white neighborhoods excluded African Americans through the then widely used restrictive covenants. . There they faced racial discrimination Their home was vandalized on several occasions.at night by racist mobs. Carl Hansberry, while resisting such attacks on his home and family from neighborhood hoodlums, took his case to court in order to remain there.
As Lorraine Hansberry’s parents fought against segregation, armed guards protected her and her siblings. But at one point a slab of concrete almost crushed Lorraine.
In 1940 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants unconstitutional in a case that came to be known as Hansberry v. Lee, although it did little to affect the actual practice of segregated housing in Chicago. Though victors in the Illinois Supreme Court, Hansberry’s family was subjected to a “hellishly hostile white neighborhood.”
This experience was what later inspired her writing of her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun. Carl A. Hansberry later contributed large sums of money to NAACP and the urban league. Unfortunately he died in 1946 before he could complete plans to move his family to Mexico City when Lorraine’s two brothers had difficulties accommodating to segregation in the U.S. Army.
Hansberry’s interest in Africa began at an early age. In an unfinished, partly autobiographical novel Hansberry wrote: “In her emotions she was sprung from the Southern Zulu and the Central Pygmy, the Eastern Watusi and the treacherous slave-trading Western Ashanti themselves. She was Kikuyu and Masai, ancient cousins of hers had made the exquisite forged sculpture at Benin, while surely even more ancient relatives sat upon the throne at Abu Simbel watching over the Nile…”
She broke the family tradition of enrolling in Southern Negro Colleges and enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she majored in painting. She was soon to discover that her talent lay in writing not art. After two years she decided to leave the University of Wisconsin for New York City, a predominantly white university, to study journalism, but was equally attracted to the visual arts which she also studied at the University of Wisconsin and in Guadalajara Mexico.
She integrated an all-white women’s dormitory and became active in the campus chapter of the Young Progressive Association, a national left-wing student organization, serving as its president during her sophomore year and later the Labor Youth League.
Seeing a moving school performance of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, inspired her imagination and precipitated both her participation in student theater and her study of the works of modern masters such as Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Juno which is about the problems of a poor urban family in Dublin in 1922 during the early conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British occupying forces is what is supposed to have inspired her to think of creating a comparable work about an African American family. She thus decided to become a writer and to capture the authentic voice of the African American working class.
Hansberry ended up staying for only two years, at the University of Wisconsin from 1948 to 1950. For she never felt involved in her overall academic life, but outside of class she fell in love with the theater and began forming her radical political beliefs. Living off campus because housing was unavailable in 1948 for black students, Hansberry commuted each day to attend classes in literature, history, philosophy, art, mathematics, and science. Excited by her humanities classes and bored by the sciences, Hansberry balanced A’s and F’s to maintain the bare minimum average to remain in school. Outside of class, she developed a variety of interests.
In the fall term of her second year, Hansberry became campus chairman of the Young Progressives of America in support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 candidacy. Upon his defeat, she grew disaffected with party politics but continued to enjoy her friendships with African students and a number of young campus radicals. Her network of friends in Wisconsin would later become the material for a section of her unfinished autobiographical novel All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors.
But social and racial obstacles stood in the path of her success at the University of Wisconsin. In a theater class on set design in her second year, for example, she received a D from a professor who considered her work above average but who said he did not want to encourage a young black woman to enter a white-dominated field. In 1950, Hansberry left the university headed for New York. After two years she found it to be non-inspiring and moved to New York to pursue her career.
She took classes in writing at the New School for Social Research and at Freedom, a progressive black newspaper founded by Paul Robeson which she described as “the journal to Negro liberation, from 1950 to 1953. As a staff writer for the periodical Freedom over the next three years, Hansberry wrote on Africa, women, New York social issues, and the arts. She traveled widely on assignment for the magazine, covering the U.S., Africa, and South America. While writing on social inequities in New York City, Hansberry developed into an “intellectual revolutionary.”
She studied art at Roosevelt University, summer 1950. She wrote articles for the Young Progressives of America magazine. Meanwhile, her writing skills improved. “Shuttling about the city–from the Waldorf-Astoria to Broadway back to Harlem schools–Lorraine Hansberry sharpened her journalistic tools. She learned to interview easily. She started to sift important figures from mazes of paper and began to penetrate the facades of people and events. She soon became associate editor, working closely with Louis Burnham, who in time became her mentor.
In 1952, she replaced Robeson who could not get his passport from the U.S. State Department at a controversial, international peace conference in Montevideo, Uruguay. At the congress she met politically astute feminists from all over the world. Subsequently she spoke at public rallies and meetings, often criticising U.S. policy.
Hansberry’s association with Freedom placed her in the midst of Harlem’s rich cultural, artistic, and political life. She studied African Culture and History with W.E.B. DuBois at the Jefferson School for Social Sciences in New York. She read avidly and widely in African American history and culture, politics, philosophy, and the arts. She was especially influenced by the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, William Shakespeare, and Langston Hughes.
During that time she took part in liberal causes. She met among others the famous writer Langston Hughes. When she was completing a seminar on African history under W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), she wrote a research paper on ‘The Belgian Congo: A Preliminary Report on Its Land, Its History and Its People.’
While a journalist for Freedom, Hansberry also developed public speaking skills by teaching classes at Frederick Douglass School in Harlem and by attending and speaking at political rallies.
While participating in a demonstration protesting the exclusion of black players from the basketball team at New York University in 1951, she met Robert Barron Nemiroff, a Jewish literature student, songwriter, writer and activist, son of progressive Russian Jewish immigrants. Having earned his master’s degree four months earlier at New York University, he had begun writing a book on Theodore Dreiser, which had been the topic for his thesis.
The young couple moved to Greenwich Village where Hansberry became intimately involved with a number of the liberal causes of the period. She began to write extensively about the people and lifestyles that she observed around her. She was already an experienced writer and editor, having published articles, essays, and poetry in Freedom, New Challenge, and other leftist magazines.
Hansberry worked for a while in the Greenwich Village restaurant owned by Nemiroff’s family. The two developed a close emotional and intellectual relationship, and on June 20, 1953, they were married.. The night before their wedding they joined a protest against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage.
After leaving Freedom in 1953 to concentrate on her writing, Hansberry worked at various odd jobs including tagger in the garment industry, typist, waitress, cashier, program director at Camp Unity (an interracial summer camp), , secretary, recreation leader for the physically disabled, and teacher at the Marxist-oriented Jefferson School for Social Science and occasional contributor for Freedom before it went bankrupt in 1955 during the following few years. After a series of part-time jobs, Hansberry settled down to the writing of a play. When her husband co-wrote “Cindy Oh Cindy” (1956), a ballad that became an instant hit, Nemiroff gained success. He and a friend, Burt D’Lugoff, wrote it together and Hansberry suggested the title, The song earned them $100,000 in 1956. This income freed both Hansberry and Nemiroff to write full time.
Nemiroff wrote a play, Postmark Zero, performed on Broadway in 1965, while Hansberry wrote a number of works, including A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which was produced in 1964, and several more in between Hansberry now devoted herself entirely to writing. So in that same 1956 she quit working at her part time jobs and devoted all her time to her writing. Her full energies were now turned to a play about a struggling, working-class black family, like the families who rented her father’s properties on Chicago’s South Side-A Raisin in the Sun.
Nemiroff, meanwhile, having graduated with his master’s degree from NYU became first a reader and copywriter for Sears Readers’ Club and later promotions director of Avon Books. Together they absorbed the rich cultural milieu of Greenwich Village, remained active on picket lines and at all-night vigils for desegregation, and enjoyed the company of friends. Hansberry would later write about these times in her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
A t that time she wrote A Raisin in the Sun which was finished in 1957 and on March 11, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City with a run of 530 performances. The play was a huge success.
It was the first play written by an African-American woman and produced on Broadway. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award making Hansberry the youngest and first African American to receive the Award. .
Hansberry was named “most promising playwright” of the season by Variety’s poll of New York drama critics. She finished the film version of A Raisin in the Sun in 1961 starring Sidney Pointier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee. In 1961 the film version opened. Hansberry won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Screen Writer’s Guild Award for her screenplay. A second television adaptation of the play was aired in 1989 starring Danny Glover, Esther Rolle, and Kim Yancey. Hansberry in this play portrayed individuals – not only black – who defend their own and other’s dignity. In writing A Raisin in the Sun Lorraine instilled her values of equality … Hans berry’s purpose was to show “the many gradations in even one Negro family.” The characters suffer, hope, dream, and triumph over the enormous barriers erected by the dominant culture.
Celebrated drama critic Brook Atkinson wrote: “She has told the inner as well as the outer truths about a Negro family in Chicago. The play has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of anyone who sees it.” The production catapulted Hansberry into the forefront of the theatre world.
“All art is ultimately social: that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber,” she once said.”… in order for a person to bear his life, he needs a valid re-creation of that life, which is why, as Ray Charles might put it, blacks chose to sing the blues. This is why Raisin in the Sun meant so much to black people – on the stage: the film is another matter. In the theater, a current flowed back and forth between the audience and the actors, flesh and blood corroborating flesh and blood – as we say, testifying… The root argument of the play is really far more subtle than either its detractors or the bulk of its admirers were able to see.” (James Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work, 1976)
The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally ‘The Crystal Stair’ after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was from another Langston Hughes poem, which asked: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?” The play was later renamed A Raisin in the Sun taking its title from a line in Langston Hughes’ poem What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over- Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode
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