Lorraine Hansberry is a National Treasure. We need her voice. Especially now when, as a country we find ourselves so polarized and divided around race and politics. Hers is a voice that speaks fiercely while bridging those gaps, which is at once radical and healing and willing to deal with the complexities of issues rather than deliver empty slogans.
She was only 29 in 1959 when her first play, A Raisin In the Sun, opened on Broadway, and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. She was the youngest playwright and first Black Writer ever to win that award.
Interviewer (about that play):
“. . . someone comes up to you and says: ‘This is not really a Negro play; why, this could be about anybody? It’s a play about people!’ What is your reaction? What do you say?”
Lorraine Hansberry’s response:
“Well I hadn’t noticed the contradiction because I’d always been under the impression that Negroes are people” (Y, G & B 129).
BAM! This is quintessential Lorraine. Let’s listen to her.
Hansberry goes on to say, however, that it is a play written specifically about Southside Chicago —its location —and it is an experience specific to that place. She would know, because that’s where Lorraine Hansberry grew up.
The play chronicles the struggles of the Younger family squished together in Southside tenement housing, reduced by the conditions of that place as well as the conditions of being black in America. In an attempt to get out, Mama, buys a house in a white neighborhood nearby with the insurance money she receives from the death of her husband. Told clearly by the white folks who live there they are not wanted, they choose to move there anyway. They are heading toward that unknown trajectory when the play ends.
The Hansberry’s moved to a house in an all white neighborhood in 1937. A white mob attacked it, throwing a brick though the window nearly killing eight year old Lorraine.
Langston Hughes asks in his poem that inspired the title:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does is dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
And he continues,
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?
Hansberry’s play exactly examines this question. And possibly all her plays examine the variety of outcomes listed above of what happens to “a dream deferred,” both individual and collective.
The Ripples of Raisin
“Hansberry is important because of her incisive, articulate, and sensitive exposure of the dynamic, troubled American culture. That she, a black artist, could tell painful truths to a society unaccustomed to rigorous self-criticism and still receive its praise is testimony to her artistry”(Les Blancs, from Introduction by Margaret B.Wilkerson 4).
When I was 12 (so in the mid-70s) my sister, Maria, (co- conspirator of this website) brought home a book (play) from the library titled A Raisin in the Sun. It is unclear now whether it was a school assignment or just a discovery she made at the library. She read it, loved it and passed it on to me. Being the youngest girl of four, I was always reading books my older sisters recommended.
Handing it to me, she made a few references I could not understand until I read the book and felt a strange sense of uneasiness about the world, the world I apparently lived in, a world that could create conditions to lead other humans to have such experiences, to have to make such choices, to have the experience of fear and degradation be as common as the air the rest of us invisibly and unconsciously breathe.
I knew nothing about the woman who wrote it or her life, or what that play meant to the greater world, the advances it had provided, the ambitions it held, the absolute fight it contained.
Though I knew none of that, the message of the play came through, which I suppose is the definition of good writing and a good writer. And the success of the play— to have reached a middle school curriculum or library in white Keene, New Hampshire by the mid-70s—is evident.
Hansberry (in a letter to her Mama about Raisin):
“Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are—and just as mixed up—but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks—people who are the very essence of human dignity. That is what, after all the laughter and tears, the play is supposed to say. I hope it will make you very proud”(Y, G & B 109).
Born in 1930, she grew up on the Southside of Chicago between the two great wars with a father who was very active in NAACP, part of a generation of activists who believed they could change the reality of black lives in the United States with legislation. It turned out not to be true, leading Lorraine Hansberry to choose a more nuanced approach and inspiring her to become one of the greatest thinkers in the ongoing fight for black liberation in the 60s.
Young, Gifted and Black
To Be Young, Gifted and Black: an informal autobiography is part journal, letters written in response to ones she received, and social commentary. Interspersed between these are scenes from her plays. It is a crazy quilt tapestry, revealing how life affected her art, how she made her life into art, how her art evolved as she matured, and where life and art intersect. Substitute police shootings for lynchings and it feels as though it could have been written today.
“I was given, during the grade school years, one-half the amount of education prescribed by the Board of Education of my city. This was so because the children of Chicago ghetto were jammed into a segregated school system. I am a product of that system and one result is that—to this day—I cannot count properly. I do not add, subtract or multiply with ease. Our teachers, devoted and indifferent alike, had to sacrifice something to make the system work at all—and in my case it was arithmetic that got put aside most often. Thus, the mind which was able to grasp university level reading materials in the sixth and seventh grades had not been sufficiently exposed to elementary arithmetic to make even simple change in a grocery store.
This is what is meant when we speak of the scars, the marks that the ghettoized child carries through life. To be imprisoned in the ghetto is to be forgotten—or deliberately cheated of one’s birthright—at best”(Y, G & B 63).
Hearing Frank Lloyd Wright speak (“attacking the “babbitry and the nature of education saying that we put in so many fine plums and get out so many fine prunes”) (Y, G & B 93) inspired her to drop out of college and move to NYC to become a writer. She loved Shakespeare and Sean O’ Casey, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. De Bois, Langston Hughes, and Sojourner Truth. She worked in Harlem for the Black Liberation paper Freedom.
Her list of proposed works included:
The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft: a full length drama
(thesis: strong-minded woman of rationality; & a creature of history; nonetheless, a human being, destroyed many times over by “life as she is lived ”) (Y,G & B 137).
Ah, that she had lived to write that.
In a speech she gave about the protests, both peaceful and violent, erupting in the 60s:
“And then I noticed the reaction, starting in Washington and coming on up to New York, among what we are all here calling the white liberal circles, which was something like, you know: you Negroes act right or you’re going to ruin everything we’re trying to do!…The problem is we have to find some way, with these dialogues to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal—and become an American Radical”(Y, G & B 247).
Lorraine was caught between choosing feminism and black rights. She spoke of intersectional feminism before anyone had even thought of it. Though she married artist Robert Nemiroff in 1953, they divorced in 1962 but continued living together. She left him literary executor of her work. It seems he kept hidden the pieces in which she discusses and shares her Queer identity, where she expresses her love for and sexuality experienced with other women. These writings have only recently come to light.
“In 1957, around the time she separated from her husband, Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry sent a letter to the editors of the national lesbian journal, The Ladder, along with a money order for $2.00 (to receive as many back issues as the amount covered). In the first one, Hansberry offered several observations about social difference—what she described as “off-the-top-of-the-head reactions,” and developed what may be identified as the first theory of intersectionality. She first wished to dispel the idea of “wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero”(http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/lorraine-hansberry/lesbian-writing).
Though most well known for her play A Raisin in the Sun, her other plays are astounding in their astute rendering of race issues and revolutionary thinking.
“Lorraine’s passion for the theater, Shakespeare, and writing were matched only by her love for Africa”(McKissack 35 ). Her uncle was Professor William Leo Hansberry, an esteemed scholar on Africa who believed “Africa rather than Asia was in all probability the birthplace of the human race and that it was they [Africans], it appears who first learned and then taught the rest of mankind how to make and use tools, to develop a religion, to practice art, to domesticate animals, to smelt metals—particularly iron, and to create and maintain a deliberately constructed and tradition-bound state”(McKissack 36).
In her play Les Blancs, Hansberry takes on the issue of African revolutions and white colonialism on that continent.
This intense story made audiences uneasy and received mixed reviews because of that. The spirit of Africa looms large in this play as a woman who is haunting and taunting the protagonist, Tshembe Matoseh, not to forget Her. Tshembe has experienced success among whites in America and Europe and has married a white woman. In part he wishes to remain in that simple life and forget Africa and all that history carries for him, but as he attends his father’s funeral in his country of birth, he is caught up in the upswell of the revolution that is taking place there, leading to a dramatic and unsettling conclusion.
One critic wrote of the play:
“How can the last play of one of America’s great playwrights fail to attract large audiences? . . . especially when she’s in top form as a dramatist.
The answer is in the play—fear—fear of blacks, fear of the race problem, fear of facing it, fear of ourselves.
But we all know the truth: a disease, ignored, doesn’t disappear; it just becomes more virulent. The problem must be faced…”(Les Blancs 135).
The main character in that play delivers hard and cutting lines about racism and the state of relations between whites and blacks globally.
Charlie: (Pleased to have at last found common ground) But I agree with you entirely! Race hasn’t a thing to do with it actually.
Tshembe: Ah—but it has!
Charlie: (Throwing up his arms) Oh, come on, Matoseh. Stop playing games! Which is it, my friend?
Tshembe: I am not playing games. (he sighs and now, drawn out of himself at last, proceeds with the maximum precision and clarity he can muster) I am simply saying that a device is a device, but that it also has consequences: once invented it takes on a life, a reality of its own. So, in one country, men invoke the device of religion to cloak their conquests. In another, race. Now, in both cases you and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he refuses to become a Muslim or a Christian—or who is shot in Zatembe or Mississippi because he is black—is suffering the utter reality of the device. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn’t exist—merely because it is a lie! (Les Blancs 92)
The following much quoted speech by Tshembe to Charlie who accuses him of hating all white men must be repeated here:
Tshembe: Oh dear God, why? . . .Why do you all need it so!? This absolute lo-o-onging for my hatred! (a sad smile plays across his lips) I shall be honest with you Mr. Morris. I do not “hate” all white men—but I desperately wish that I did. It would make everything infinitely easier! But I am afraid that, among other things, I have seen the slums of Liverpool and Dublin and the caves above Naples. I have seen Dachau and Anne Frank’s attic in Amsterdam. I have seen too many raw-knuckled Frenchmen coming out of the Metro at dawn and too many hungry Italian children to believe that those who raided Africa for three centuries ever “loved” the white race either. I would like to be simple-minded for you, but . . . I cannot. I have . . . seen(Les Blancs 19).
In The Drinking Gourd, Hansberry creates the scene of a pre Civil War plantation and the various aspects of slave, master, slave owner, planation work, and escape. In the play Hannibal, the main character, learns to read, taught by his young master in exchange for banjo lessons. He is punished greatly when it is found out—blinded. All the while he has been planning his escape, following the “drinking gourd,” a reference to the Big Dipper and how it points to the North Star as a code for the route runaway slaves followed along the underground railroad.
The master of this house thinks himself a “good” slave owner. Though he chooses to treat his slaves in a way he feels is fair, he wholeheartedly believes in slavery. His son does not agree with his father and wishes to hold a heavier hand. Believing the Civil War will win vindication for the South, he is glad when it erupts.
Meanwhile Rissa, the master’s closest servant and loyal friend, finds her boundary with him finally, after her son, Hannibal, is blinded for learning how to read. She will no longer appease her master and leaves him to die alone though he pleads for her help.
Listen to the song The Drinking Gourd here.
Hansberry’s The Drinking Gourd was commissioned by NBC for a series to be run on the centennial of the Civil War. Hansberry’s was to be the first production in the series. They paid her for it and she wrote it “and then they put it away in a drawer”(Les Blancs 145). The producer, Dore Schary tells the story of when he went to the executives of NBC, telling them he had commissioned the first writer, the young black author of A Raisin in the Sun —
“There was a long moment of silence. And then the question was asked: ’What is her point of view about it—slavery?’
I thought they were pulling my leg, and so I answered presently, gravely: ‘She’s against it’.
Nobody laughed—and from that moment I knew we were dead”(Les Blancs 147).
Thereafter the whole project was dropped.
As Hansberry said many times, “It’s no Gone With the Wind.”
Hannibal: (Suddenly older and wiser) That’s slave-owner talk, Sarah. Whatever you hear Marster say ‘bout slavery—you always believe the opposite. There ain’t nothin’ hurt slave marster so much —(savoring the notion)—as when his property walk away from him. Guess that’s the worst blow of all. Way I look at it, ever’ slave ought to run off ‘fore he die.
~The Drinking Gourd (Les Blancs 176)
I must confess that in writing this piece I became obsessed with Lorraine Hansberry and ended up reading everything she had ever written. I became despondent over the loss of this woman’s voice, first to pancreatic cancer at the age of 34, and then to the disappearance of her work in the the public canon. I became enraptured by her passion, her ferocity, her insight, with what she was trying to do, to say, to effect, with her art. Ahead of her times doesn’t even come close. She was exceptionally brilliant and poignantly sensitive to the social ideologies of the time and the reality of black and white in America that persist to this day. The struggle, the hope, the despair, the frustration the ignorance, the audacity.
My goddess! This woman was a prophetess. Her voice must be returned.
“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. Moreover, because this is so, I wish others to live for generations and generations and generations.”
Lorraine Hansberry is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2018
Hansberry Lorraine, A Raisin in the Sun, Modern Library Edition, 1995.
Hansberry, Lorraine, Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays, Vintage Books, 1972.
Hansberry, Lorraine, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Signet Classics, 2011.
McKissack, Fredrick L. & Patricia C., Young, Black and Determined,: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Holiday House, 1998.