Lorraine Vivian Hansberry

Activist Writer Playwright

“Blacks must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent… They must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps—and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities.”

“Above all, there were two things which were never to be betrayed: the family and the race”.

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) initially worked on the Pan African journal ‘Freedom’, where she met and mixed with other giants of Civil Rights such as Paul Robeson and Du Bois, in her work on the Africans and Black Americans struggles for liberation and equality.

Like Paul Robeson and many black civil rights activists, Hansberry understood the struggle against ‘White Supremacy’ to be interlinked with the program of the Communist Party of which she joined. One of her first reports covered the Sojourners for Truth and Justice convened in Washington, D.C., by Mary Church Terrell. She travelled to Georgia to cover the case of Willie McGee, and was inspired to write the poem ‘Lynchsong’ about his case.

LYNCHSONG

I can hear Rosalee
See the eyes of Willie McGee
My mother told me about
Lynchings
My mother told me about
The dark nights
And dirt roads
And torch lights
And lynch robes

The
faces of men
Laughing white
Faces of men
Dead in the night
sorrow night
and a
sorrow night

Having grown up in a family that had struggled and fought against segregation, the family challenged a restrictive covenant  eventually provoking the Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940), she was 10years old at the time, as you can see she was well versed in challenging the ‘White Supremacist’ system. Hansberry worked on not only the US civil rights movement, but also global struggles against colonialism and imperialism. She wrote in support of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, criticising the mainstream press for its biased coverage. She believed that gaining Civil Rights in the United States and obtaining independence in colonial Africa were two sides of the same coin that presented similar challenges for Africans on both sides of the Atlantic

She would often explain these global struggles in terms of female participants. She was particularly interested in the situation of Egypt, the traditional Islamic ‘cradle of civilisation’, where women had led one of the most important fights anywhere for the equality of their sex.

In 1952, Hansberry attended a peace conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, in place of Paul Robeson, who had been denied travel rights by the State Department. In 1959, Hansberry commented that women who are “twice oppressed” may become “twice militant”. She held out some hope for male allies of women, writing in an unpublished essay: “If by some miracle women should not ever utter a single protest against their condition there would still exist among men those who could not endure in peace until her liberation had been achieved”,and in 1963 whilst suffering from cancer she was invited to a meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, set up by James Baldwin.

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was an ‘intellectual tour de force’, a writer of great vision, she was the first African-American author to have a play performed on broadway. At the age of 29, she won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, making her the first African-American dramatist, the fifth woman, and the youngest playwright to do so.

Her best known work, the play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago. Her work also discussed her lesbianism and the oppression of homosexuality. The play was translated into 35 languages and catapulted her into fame.

Even though for many years she remained a ‘Closeted Lesbian’, she was in anybody’s eyes a woman way ahead of her time.

Along with Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois, she also associated  with poet Langston Hughes, musician Duke Ellington and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, and her close friend  Nina Simone another Civil Rights activist. Hansberry inspired Nina to write the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black“, she was also the Godmother to Nina’s daughter Lisa.

The title of the song refers to the title of Hansberry’s autobiography, which Hansberry first coined when speaking to the winners of a creative writing conference on Mayday1964:

“Though it is a thrilling and marvellous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and black.”

To celebrate the ‘Freedom’ newspaper’s first birthday, Hansberry wrote the script for a rally at Rockland Palace, a then-famous Harlem hall, on ‘the history of the Negro newspaper in America and its fighting role in the struggle for a people’s freedom, from 1827 to the birth of ‘FREEDOM’.

She also collaborated with the already produced playwright Alice Childress, who also wrote for ‘Freedom’, on a pageant for its ‘Negro History Festival’, with Harry BelafonteSidney PoitierDouglas Turner Ward and John O. Killens. This is her earliest remaining theatrical work.

Lorraine Hansberry died young aged just 34 in 1965 of pancreatic cancer, but the cancer that dogged her through her life the FBI and American government were still pursuing her to her deathbed, investigating her communism, her attendance of the peace conference in Montivideo in 1952 and declaring her play ‘A Raison In The Sun’ a dangerous, subversive, menacing un-American piece of work – too right.

For all their propaganda she lives on in other ways – the Hansberry Project of Seattle WA, founded in 2004 and officially launched in 2006 was created as an African American theatre lab, led by African American artists and designed to provide the community with consistent access to the African American artistic voice. A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) was their first incubator and in 2012 they became an independent organisation. The Hansberry Project is rooted in the convictions that black artists should be at the centre of the artistic process, that the community deserves excellence in its art, and that theatre’s fundamental function is to put people in a relationship with one another. Their goal is to create a space where the entire community can be enriched by the voices of professional Black artists, reflecting autonomous concerns, investigations, dreams, and artistic expression.

In 2010, Hansberry was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

In 2013, Hansberry was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people. This makes her the first Chicago-native honoured along the North Halsted corridor. Also in 2013, Lorraine Hansberry was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and was honoured in the Women’s Hall of Fame in 2017.

Further reads

A Raisin the Sun – by Lorraine Hansberry PDF format full text

Interview with Lorraine Hansberry

Eamonn Fitzgerald documentary: Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965): Playwright, Activist, American

Lorraine Hansberry website

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