Before her untimely death from cancer in 1965 at the age of 34, writer, playwright and inspiration for Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black“, Lorraine Hansberry left us with perhaps one of the most poignant plays of all time, A Raisin in the Sun (We were lucky enough to see its most recent installation during a 14 week run on Broadway this past April. Check back soon for our blog post on that fabulous experience). Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway, attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and, in 1951, began her illustrious writing career as a member of staff of the black newspaper Freedom, which was edited by Louis E. Burnham and published by Paul Robeson. At Freedom, she worked with W. E. B. Du Bois and other Black Pan-Africanists. This experience undoubtedly set the stage for the rest of her career.
A Raisin in the Sun, which was loosely based on her family’s struggle against segregation and the legal efforts to force the Hansberry family out of their predominately white neighborhood, and which culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in challenging a restrictive covenant and eventually provoking the case Hansberry v. Lee, has become one of the most reproduced African American plays in history. The title, taken from the Langston Hughes poem Harlem, is easily recognizable and quickly associated with Hansberry’s masterpiece.
Hansberry, the youngest of four children born to a school teacher mother and real-estate broker father, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her parents, both supporters of the Urban League and NAACP in Chicago were also active in the Chicago Republican Party. This political involvement undoubtedly helped shape young Lorraine into the civil and basic human rights activist she would become.
While widely known for A Raisin in the Sun, her other works include Les Blancs, Toussaint, (a fragment from a work in progress, unfinished at the time of Hansberry’s death), The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (her second and last staged play), The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers?, just to name a few.
Today, we salute you Lorraine Hansberry. Happy Birthday.