Lorraine Hansberry May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965
In the 1951 poem, “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, he asks:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?”
It was Hughes' prose, which influenced the title of Hansberry’s most famous play, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Lorraine Hansberry was a writer, activist, and playwright. Hansberry’s activist roots stems from her upbringing. She is the product of two very socially involved intellectuals. Her father a real estate broker, and her mother an educater, both contributed to their chapter of the NAACP and Urban League. Hansberry’s parents worked on social justice causes in Chicago during her youth. This work led to a young Hansberry often being exposed to prominent black leaders. Her parents welcomed the likes of Jessie Owens, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, and others into their home. Hansberry’s parents moved the family in 1938 into an all-white neighborhood. This neighborhood had a ‘restrictive covenant’ or legal mandate associated with property. This particular covenant was racial and denied the sale of a home to a black owner since doing so would eliminate the racial segregation in the neighborhood. Despite the restriction, the Hansberry’s purchased the home and were instantly the target of vicious threats.
The courts forced the Hansberry's out of the home. They appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case titled, Hansberry v. Lee. There, the Court ruled one portion of the residents (slightly more than half) supporting this restriction could not represent the whole when making those decisions. This allowed the covenant to be contested in court at a later date. However, the practical implications were not realized immediately since the Hansberry’s had already been forced out of their home and the community did not allow them to return.
Entertainer turned activist Paul Robeson, launched a weekly a newspaper in Harlem named Freedom. Hansberry joined Freedom initially as a writer before promoting to editor. When Hansberry left the publication three years later, she vowed to devote her time to writing – she did just that and produced her masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun.” After Sidney Poitier expressed interest in playing a role, Hansberry received commitments from other stars including Louis Gossett, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis. Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, making Lorraine Hansberry the first African-American playwright to open a play on Broadway.
It is no secret where Hansberry’s passion fighting for social change, derived – her parents. In her own words, “Both of my parents were strong-minded, civic-minded, exceptionally race-minded people who made enormous sacrifices on behalf of the struggle for civil rights throughout their lifetimes.” This is a beautiful account of the influence her parents had on her life. She did not feel burdened by their sacrifice, she felt emboldened. The strength of her parents to overcome adversity and Hansberry witnessing their perseverance fueled her and made her appreciate every day that life granted her. Hansberry explains, “I wish to live because life has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful and that which is love. Therefore, since I have known all of these things, I have found them to be reason enough and—I wish to live.”
Hansberry lost her life at the young age of 35 due to pancreatic cancer. Lorraine Hansberry, as fans of literature and justice, we thank you, we appreciate your hard work and your good deeds.