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Black News and News Makers in History: Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930–1965), playwright, essayist, poet, and leading literary figure in the civil rights movement. She was 29 years old when her first play, "A Raisin in the Sun," opened on Broadway to instant success.

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Lorraine Hansberry, playwright most known for "A Raisin in the Sun."Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, the youngest of four children to Carl Augustus Hansberry, a prominent real estate broker, and Nannie Louise Perry, a school teacher and, later, ward committee woman. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, Sr., was from Gloucester, Mississippi, moved to Chicago after attending Alcorn College. He became known as the "kitchenette king" after subdividing large homes vacated by whites moving to the suburbs and selling these small apartments or kitchenettes to African American migrants from the South. Her mother was from Tennessee. At the time of Lorraine's birth, her mother had become an influential society matron who hosted major cultural and literary figures such as Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Jesse Owens, and Joe Louis.

Hansberry attended public schools: Betsy Ross Elementary and Englewood High School, where she encountered the children of the working class whose independence and courage she came to admire.

Although Lorraine and her siblings enjoyed privileges unknown to their working-class schoolmates, the parents infused their children with racial pride and civic responsibility. They founded the Hansberry Foundation, an organization designed to inform African Americans of their civil rights, and encouraged their children to challenge the exclusionary policies of local restaurants and stores. Later, one of Lorraine Hanberry's brothers served in a segregated unit in World War II; another refused his draft call, objecting to segregation and discrimination in the military.

She was the niece of the Africanist Professor, William Leo Hansberry after whom the Hansberry Institute of African Studies in the University of Nigeria was named. Her maternal uncle, Graham T. Perry, was one the first African American attorney-generals for the State of Illinois.

In 1938, the family moved, desegregating a white neighborhood with a restrictive covenant. The legal struggle over their move led to the landmark Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940), though a legal victory, it was not without repercussions.

Her family home at 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue has since been designated a City of Chicago landmark.

Departing from the family tradition of attending black colleges, Hansberry enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a predominantly white university, to study journalism, but was equally attracted to the visual arts. She integrated an all-white women's dormitory and became active in the campus chapter of the Young Progressive Association, a national left-wing student organization, serving as its president during her sophomore year. After seeing a moving performance of Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock," she decided to become a writer and to capture the authentic voice of the African American working class.

Within two years of university studies, she left in 1950 to pursue her career as a writer in New York City, where she attended The New School for Social Research. She also attended Roosevelt College and School of Art Institute.

She worked on the staff, first as a writer then as an associate editor, of the Black newspaper "Freedom" under the auspices of Paul Robeson and worked closely with Louis Burnham, who became her mentor. While working for the "Freedom," she also worked with W. E. B. DuBois, whose office was in the same building.

She attended the Intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1952, when Paul Robeson was denied a passport to attend. After this experience, she spoke at public rallies and meetings, often critiquing U.S. policy. Hansberry's association with "Freedom" placed her in the midst of Harlem's rich cultural, artistic, and political life. She read avidly and widely in African American history and culture, politics, philosophy, and the arts, and was especially influenced by the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, William Shakespeare, and Langston Hughes.

While participating in a demonstration at New York University, she met Robert Barron Nemiroff, son of progressive Russian Jewish immigrants, and after a short courtship, married him on 20 June 1953. Having earned his master's degree four months earlier at New York University, he had begun writing a book on Theodore Dreiser, his thesis topic. The young couple moved to Greenwich Village and Hansberry began to write extensively about the people and lifestyles that she observed around her. She was already an experienced writer and editor, having published articles, essays, and poetry in "Freedom," "New Challenge," and other magazines.

After leaving "Freedom" in 1953 to concentrate on her writing, Hansberry worked various odd jobs including tagger in the garment industry, typist, program director at Camp Unity (an interracial summer camp), recreation leader for the physically disabled, and teacher at Jefferson School for Social Science. When her husband co-wrote "Cindy Oh Cindy" (1956), a ballad that became an instant hit, the revenue freed Hansberry to devote her full energies to a play about a struggling, working-class black family, like the families who rented her father's properties on Chicago's South Side—"A Raisin in the Sun."

Lorraine Hansberry completed her first play in 1957, taking her title from Langston Hughes' poem, "Harlem."

"What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore -- and then run?"

She began to circulate the play, "Raisin in the Sun," trying to interest producers, investors, and actors. Sidney Poitier expressed interest in taking the part of the son, and soon a director and other actors (including Louis Gossett, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis) were committed to the performance. Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre in 1959.

It was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway.

At 29 years, she became the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

After a pre-Broadway tour, it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City on 11 March 1959 to instant critical and popular success. In 1961, it was produced as a film with most of the original cast and won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival. During this period, Hansberry was much in demand as a public speaker. She articulated her belief that art is social and that black writers must address all issues of humankind. As the civil rights movement intensified, she helped to organize fund-raising activities in support of organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), called for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and declared that President John E. Kennedy had endangered world peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The play, with themes both universally human and specifically about racial discrimination and sexist attitudes, was successful, and a screenplay soon followed in which Lorraine Hansberry added more scenes to the story -- none of which Columbia Pictures allowed into the film.

Lorraine Hansberry was commissioned to write a television drama on slavery, which she completed as "The Drinking Gourd," but it was not produced -- NBC executives apparently didn't support the idea of a black screenwriter writing about slavery.

Moving with her husband to Croton-on-Hudson, Lorraine Hansberry continued not only her writing but also her involvement with civil rights and other political protest, even after being diagnosed with cancer.

In 1964, "The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality" was published for SNCC (Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) with text by Hansberry. She divorced Nemiroff in March, though they continued to work together.

In October, Lorraine Hansberry moved back into New York City as her new play, "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" began rehearsals. Although critical reception was cool, supporters kept it running until the night of Lorraine Hansberry's death in January—running for 110 performances on Broadway.

After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, she died on January 12, 1965 at the age of 34. According to James Baldwin, Hansberry was prescient about many of the increasingly troubling conditions in the world, and worked to remedy them with literature. Baldwin believed "it is not at all farfetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man."

Her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff became the executor for several unfinished manuscripts. He added minor changes to complete a play centered on liberation movements in Africa, "Les Blancs," which Julius Lester termed her best work. This play opened in 1970 and ran for only 47 performances.

Her ex-husband also adapted many of her writings into the play, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," which was the longest-running Off-Broadway play of the 1968-1969 season and toured colleges and communities in the U.S. during 1970 and 1971. It appeared in book form the following year under the title, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words."

She left behind an unfinished novel and several other plays, including "The Drinking Gourd" and "What Use Are Flowers?," with a range of content, from slavery to a post apocalyptic future.

Among her other writings were a musical adaptation of Oliver LaFarge's "Laughing Boy"; an adaptation of "The Marrow of Tradition" by Charles Waddell Chesnutt; a screenplay based on Jacques Romain's novel about Haiti, "Masters of the Dew"; and a critical commentary on Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex," a book that had significant impact on Hansberry's thinking. Until 1991 when he died, Robert Nemiroff devoted his life to editing, promoting, and producing Hansberry's works on stage and television.

"Raisin," a musical based on "A Raisin in the Sun," opened in New York in 1973, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, with the book by Nemiroff, music by Judd Woldin, and lyrics by Robert Britten.

"A Raisin in the Sun" was revived on Broadway in 2004 and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Play. The cast included Sean "P Diddy" Combs as Walter Lee Younger Jr., Phylicia Rashad (Tony Award winner for Best Actress) and Audra McDonald (Tony Award winner for Best Featured Actress). It was produced for television in 2008 with the same cast; the production garnered two NAACP Image awards.

Hansberry contributed to the understanding of abortion, discrimination, and Africa. She joined the Daughters of Bilitis and contributed letters to their magazine, The Ladder, in 1957 that addressed feminism and homophobia.

In San Francisco, The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which specializes in original stagings and revivals of African-American theatre, is named in her honor. Singer and pianist Nina Simone, who was a close friend of Hansberry, used the title of her unfinished play to write a civil rights-themed song "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" together with Weldon Irvine. The single reached the top 10 of the Rhythm and Blues charts. A studio recording by Simone was released as a single and the first live recording on October 26, 1969 was captured on Black Gold (1970).

She is the first cousin of director and playwright Shauneille Perry, whose eldest child is named after her. Her grandniece is actress Taye Hansberry. Her cousin is the flautist, percussionist, and composer Aldridge Hansberry. Lincoln University's first-year female dormitory is named Lorraine Hansberry Hall. There is a school in the Bronx called Lorraine Hansberry Academy and an elementary school in St. Albans, New York named after the famous author and playwright.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Lorraine Hansberry on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

Both "A Raisin in the Sun" and "A Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" are staples of high school English classrooms. "A Raisin in the Sun" famously opens with Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem".

Other awards included New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1959, for "A Raisin in the Sun" and the Cannes Film Festival special award, 1961, for "A Raisin in the Sun" (screenplay).

Compiled from: http://womenshistory.about.com/od/aframerwriters/p/hansberry.htm, http://aalbc.com/authors/lorraine.htm, http://www.answers.com/topic/lorraine-hansberry#ixzz1A2hpz8Zt, and http://www.answers.com/topic/lorraine-hansberry.

 
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