Biography of an Intellectual
From Social Justice Wiki
On May 19, 1930, a star was born...
Her writings go beyond A Raisin in the Sun...
Her legacy transcends her tragically short life.
Lorraine Hansberry died at the young age of 34, but her life was still filled with countless accomplishments. She is most well-known for writing the Broadway hit A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry, however, was not just a playwright. She was an activist, and many of her less-publicized writings reflect her emotional investment in the Civil Rights Movement.
Little Lorraine: The Childhood Years
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930 in Chicago, IL. Hansberry was raised in a black middle class family – her father, Carl, was a real estate agent and her uncle, William, was a college professor. Although well off, her family was by no means placated by the system as it stood. Hansberry came from an activist family, and she would see her family’s strides against segregation firsthand.
In 1937, the Hansberry family moved into an all-white suburb in Chicago. They were greeted by a mob attempting to scare them out of the neighborhood. Rather than move, they sued, and in the case of Hansberry v. Lee the US Supreme Court agreed that they could keep home.
Hansberry’s parents, also in protest, sent Lorraine to public school in order to protest segregation. With these beginnings, the intellectual started on her promising path.
Hansberry Comes of Age
Upon graduating from a Chicago-area high school, Hansberry decided to study at the University of Wisconsin. While there, she was deeply involved in several student activist organizations. After two years at Wisconsin, Hansberry fell in love with writing. She would subsequently make decisions that would drastically change the trajectory of her life.
Hansberry dropped out of Wisconsin and moved to New York City, following after her dreams of becoming a writer. While in New York, she met famous Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who would heavily influence her future works. She took several classes, including one taught by W.E.B. DuBois, and began writing for Paul Robeson at the progressive Freedom newspaper. Joining the Freedom staff gave Hansberry the opportunity to write some of her first essays on the state of Black America.
The Meteoric Rise
It was in New York City that Hansberry flourished as a writer, activist, intellectual, and person. While living in New York, she would meet and marry Robert Nemiroff in 1953. When Nemiroff wrote a hit song, the financial windfall allowed her to quit her job as a waitress and write full-time. She began work on a play, originally entitled The Crystal Stair but renamed A Raisin in the Sun; both titles were inspired by Langston Hughes’ poetry.
Hansberry’s most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun became a Broadway hit. In 1959, it became the first Broadway play to be directed by a black person since 1907. The accolades flowed in for Hansberry, as she was named most promising playwright by Variety magazine. The play was so successful that it was turned into a popular film, starring Sidney Poitier, in 1961. The film won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an award by the Screen Actors Guild.
While A Raisin in the Sun saw continued success, Hansberry continued writing other works, including a “photo documentary” on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), entitled The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality.
With her popularity high, it appeared that the author’s career was going well. Sadly, her success would quickly sour.
The Tragic Decline
Back home, Hansberry’s parents found themselves in serious trouble, accused of being slum lords. At around the same time, Hansberry’s marriage with Nemiroff started to fall apart; the two divorced in 1964. Although she continued to write dramas, none of her works could measure up to the success of A Raisin in the Sun. The Drinking Gourd was deemed “too controversial” to produce, and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was unpopular.
Diagnosed with cancer, Hansberry’s health quickly began to deteriorate. She was hospitalized and stricken to a wheelchair for the last days of her life. Hansberry died on January 12, 1965 at the young age of 34.
At the time of her death, Hansberry had several unfinished works. In addition, many of her essays and short writings had not been published.
Hansberry’s former husband took it on himself to organize, compile, and even finish some of his dead former wife’s literature. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black was produced in 1969 and published as a book in 1970. The play Les Blancs, French for “The Whites,” was also performed in 1970.
Hansberry’s most famous play saw new light in several ways after her death. A Raisin in the Sun was turned into the musical Raisin in 1973, and has been performed in several theaters and on film since its original production.
Hansberry also has several memorials established in her name, including a theater in San Francisco.
The posthumously-published works of Lorraine Hansberry showed in death what may not have been well-known in life – that Hansberry was a talented, multifaceted writer. Though she may always be most well-known for A Raisin in the Sun, the works that came out after her death solidify her place in the circle of black activist intellectuals of the Civil Rights Movement.
To see a timeline of Lorraine Hansberry's life, click here.