Lorraine Hansberry was a celebrated black playwright who was born in Chicago, Illinois, and died in New York City at the age of thirty-four from pancreatic cancer. Her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, was partially inspired by her family’s legal battle against racially segregated housing laws in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago during her childhood.
In order to meet the needs of growing families in the small black ghetto of Chicago, Lorraine’s father Carl (a prominent real estate broker) purchased large, older houses vacated by white flight and divided them up into small apartments that became known as “kitchenettes.” For his own family, he purchased a house in an area restricted to whites. The Hansberry family was thrust, the playwright said later, into a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’” where “howling mobs surrounded” their home. Hansberry was nearly killed when a cement slab was hurled through a window.
Her father joined with the NAACP to initiate a legal challenge against the restrictive covenants that kept blacks out of all-white neighborhoods. This struggle led to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940). The Court ruled in favor of Hansberry, although the ruling was made on technical grounds and did not invalidate all racial covenants.
The legal battle left Hansberry’s father embittered, and he died two years after the Supreme Court decision. Hansberry kept him alive however through her play, A Raisin in the Sun, set in the 1950s on the Southside of Chicago. The Younger family is a poor black family living in one of the “kitchenette” apartments. When Lena, the mother of Walter and Beneatha, receives insurance money from the death of her husband, everyone argues over what to do with the money. Lena decides to use a part of the insurance money to buy a new house in a white neighborhood. The repercussions of this decision, resonating throughout the Younger’s microcosmic world as well as the world outside, propel the action for the remainder of the play.
A Raisin in the Sun has become an American classic, enjoying numerous productions since its original presentation in 1959. The Broadway revival in 2004 brought the play to a new generation, and earned two Tony Awards for individual performances.
excerpted from Rhapsody in Books
Lorraine Hansberry speaks at an NAACP rally in June 1959. (Courtesy Gin Briggs/Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust)
photo from: The Good of All
Lorraine Hansberry’s radical imagination.
By Elias Rodriques
James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry dancing
“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 and generations.”
“Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When he’s done good and made things easy for everybody? That ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest……and he can’t believe in himself because the world’s whipped him so!”
“Write if you will: but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be—if there is to be a world. Write about all the things that men have written about since the beginning of writing and talking—but write to a point. Work hard at it, care about it. Write about our people: tell their story. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention. Don’t pass it up. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention. Don’t pass it up. Use it. Good luck to you. The Nation needs your gifts.”
Lorraine Hansberry speech, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” given to Readers Digest/United Negro College Fund creative writing contest winners, NYC, May 1, 1964.”