The Radically Lived Experience of 20th Century Playwright Lorraine Hansberry
Until recently, I knew little about the 20th figure Lorraine Hansberry. That is until I stumbled upon a book at Tattered Cover Bookstore in downtown Denver’s McGregor Square a couple of months ago entitled A Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry.
Written by Georgetown Professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts Soyica Diggs Colbert, this eye-opening read provides a deep exegesis into the life of Lorraine Hansberry (born May 19, 1930, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.—died January 12, 1965, New York, New York), an American playwright whose A Raisin In the Sun (1959) has the distinction of being the first drama by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway.
Inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” A Raisin In the Sun” is best reflected in this excerpt:
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?
A Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry looks at the historical context and influences behind Hansberry’s work. Colbert does a stellar job of examining Hansberry’s personal life and how it informs her work and politics.
Colbert notes in the book
“Given the distinction between Hansberry’s public self and the one that emerges in her private writing, I refer to the public figure as Hansberry and the private one as Lorraine. Of course the two blended into each other, but part of what this book establishes is how the public image enabled and limited the visibility of her radical vision.”
Bringing light to Chicago’s segregated history, Lorraine’s father Carl Augustus Hansberry was a plaintiff in a highly publicized Supreme Court housing case.It involved a law which prohibited Mr. Hansberry from purchasing the property at 6140 South Rhodes Avenue in the all-white neighborhood of Woodlawn near the University of Chicago.
In 1938, after her father secured the house, the Hansberry family faced the vitriolic wrath of their white neighbors leading to the Hansberry v. Lee case. In this landmark ruling the Supreme Court asserted that whites cannot bar Blacks from white neighborhoods.
Carl Hansberry died in 1946 when Lorraine was only fifteen years old. She was later quoted as saying that “American racism helped kill him.”
Adds Colbert in “Radical Vision:”
“Grappling with loss informed her theories about the world, justice, and freedom. Although she idolized her father, she reflected: Daddy felt that this country was hopeless in its treatment of Negroes. So he became a refugee from America. I’m afraid I have to agree with Daddy’s assessment of this country. But I don’t agree with the leaving part.”
During the summer of 1953, Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish publisher, songwriter, and political activist. The couple later moved to Greenwich Village, the setting of a second Broadway play of hers entitled “The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.”
A closeted lesbian, Hansberry prior to her marriage had noted in her personal notebooks that she had an attraction to women. Although the couple separated in 1957 and divorced in 1962, they maintained a professional relationship until Hansberry's death.
Lorraine came from a prestigious community of family and friends, including a number of people who were involved in the arts world. Included in this mix was noted civil rights activist, sociologist, and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, musician and actor Paul Robeson, Hansberry’s uncle William Leo Hansberry who founded the African Civilization section through Howard University’s history department, and her cousin, actress and playwright Shauneille Perry. She also maintained close bonds with Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and other key Black figures of the time.
In 1969, four years after Lorraine Hansberry’s death, Simone wrote a song inspired by a talk that Hansberry delivered to college students titled “Young, Gifted, and Black.” It begins:
To be young, gifted and black
Oh, what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black
Open your heart to what I mean
In the whole world you know
There are a million boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black
And that’s a fact!
Hansberry and Simone shared a comradery and common bond around social justice and racial politics. Simone, in fact, named Lorraine the Godmother of her daughter, Lisa Simone.
Hansberry was a big advocate of gay rights through her own brand of Black, feminist, queer thought. As an art critic and writer, she sought to integrate themes of race and sexual identity into their cannon of work, openly discussing
lesbianism and the oppression of homosexuality in a number of her works.
As noted by Colbert in her book:
“The unconventional way she (Hansberry) lived, a Black, radical, woman artist and self described ‘hero sexually married lesbian,’ reflected her commitment to define living as a set of possibilities and theories yet to crystallize”
Hansberry as an advocate for Black freedom was also very outspoken about racial and social issues in her novels and plays. She examined themes like colonialism and imperialism that were much talked about themes of that era.
Because of her growing stature, Hansberry was invited to meet in 1963 with then U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy but declined the invitation. She held strong beliefs around the need for the Kennedy Administration to be more active in addressing issues of segregation that were pervasive in many U.S. communities.
At her funeral in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked:
“Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
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