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Finding a female counterpart to the remarkable August Wilson is not easy, but Lorraine Hansberry comes close, and she came to mind additionally as we prepare for Malcolm X’s birthday May 19, which she shared.
Hansberry’s legacy and accomplishments were also invoked recently in a discussion about the ever commanding presence of James Baldwin, and I thought of the letter he wrote about her in Esquire magazine in 1969. It was entitled “Sweet Lorraine,” a nod to the popular song “and that’s the way I always felt about her,” Baldwin began, “and so I won’t apologize for calling her that now.”
Toward the end of the brief letter Baldwin commented on her condition and the cancer that had bedridden her. “I saw Lorraine in her hospital bed, as she was dying,” he wrote. “She tried to speak, she couldn’t. She did not seem frightened or sad, only exasperated that her body no longer obeyed her; she smiled and waved. But I prefer to remember her as she was the last time I saw her on her feet.”
And that is my preference here, although I never saw her on her feet and only realized her brilliance and persona through the production of her plays, none more astonishing than “A Raisin in the Sun.”
The granddaughter of a slave, Hansberry was born in Chicago May 19, 1930, and to a great degree her signature play was drawn from her coming of age in the Windy City and its environs. Her father was a successful realtor and her mother was a school teacher. Hansberry received her first encounter with racism when the family moved to an all-white neighborhood, where they faced violence and relentless hostility.
They refused to bend or to move until they were embroiled in a fight challenging the racist illegalities of restrictive covenants, which they won in the famous Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee. The budding playwright, rather than attend the traditional Black colleges like her parents, enrolled in the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Although a talented painter, she soon changed her major to writing, and then after two years dropped out of the school and moved to New York City.
Almost upon arrival in New York City, Hansberry began writing for a number of Black and alternative publications, including Paul Robeson’s Freedom and the National Guardian a leftist weekly. One of her first dramatic pieces was done in collaboration with writer Julian Mayfield and performed at the communist connected Camp Unity in 1954.
Her political activism and reportage were complemented by her attendance at the New School for Social Research. There were also a number of menial jobs to pay the rent, but none that would interfere with her determination to write. During her tenure at the Ladder, a publication devoted to feminism and lesbianism, her own sexual orientation was exposed, forcing her for a while to write under an assumed name to hide the fact. Her lesbianism was further complicated after her marriage to Robert Nemiroff in 1953.
It was during this period that the first iterations of her famous play emerged as “The Crystal Stair,” which like its final draft as “A Raisin in the Sun,” owed its title to poems by Langston Hughes. The play premiered in 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and was a huge success, running for 530 performances. Hansberry’s play was the first by an African-American woman produced on Broadway, and she was the first Black playwright and the youngest to win the New York Critic’s Circle award. Two years later, the filmed version, starring Sidney Poitier, would receive an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
An exchange between Asagai and Beneatha in the play embodies much of Hansberry’s outlook and philosophy. “It isn’t a circle—it is simply a long line—as in geometry, you know, one that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes. And it is very odd that those who see the changes—who dream, who will not give up—are called idealists…and those who see only the circle we call them the ‘realists’!”
In effect, Hansberry might be seen as part idealist and realist. She was a determined artist with a revolutionary commitment to change but realistic about its possibilities in her lifetime.
It was impossible for her to ignore the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the late ’50s and the ’60s, and she devoted a considerable amount of time to the marches, rallies and lending her voice to the struggle to break down the walls of racism and discrimination, probably to the detriment of her art, to hear some critics.
Even so, the calling of the theater had to be answered and she delivered “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” in 1964, assisted by Nemiroff, although they were divorced by then. A summary of the play, which is a radical departure from the intense racial politics of her major work, is not easy with its focus on the bohemian life in Greenwich Village that unravels in sequences of absurdity and disappointments. As in her famous play, elements of her life are mirrored in the play. The reviews, where they existed, were lukewarm to dismissive.
That Hansberry was able to complete the play given the onset of pancreatic cancer is amazing. Her illness was debilitating by this time so the lack of enthusiasm for her play was secondary to her survival, and she died Jan. 12, 1965. Nemiroff, in a tribute to her, mounted a play based on her collected writings entitled “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and it ran for eight months off-Broadway.
In a letter she wrote to a white southerner in 1962, Hansberry offered these parting shots: “I think, then, that Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent. That 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.”