Now that we’re celebrating Women’s History Month the accomplishments of women are in the forefront.
Lorraine Hansberry was a history-making playwright and author who became the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Hansberry’s most famous work, “A Raisin In The Sun” remains one of the best known plays ever written by a Black female playwright.
Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930 in Chicago, Ill. She was raised middle-class by her father, a real estate broker, and her mother, a school teacher. When the family moved to Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side, they dealt with racism from whites that wanted to force them out of the subdivision. Hansberry’s parents, both Republicans, fought for their rights in a case that made it all the way into the Supreme Court. The family was close friends with Black intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, who often visited them.
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Hansberry’s journey towards activism and writing took place when she entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1948. She became politically active and helped to integrate a dorm at the school. She left the school in 1950, hoping to embark on a career as a writer in Harlem. While in New York, she worked for Robeson’s newspaper, “Freedom,” and worked alongside Du Bois. In 1953, she married Jewish songwriter and publisher Robert Nemiroff, and the pair began writing together.
Using her family’s experiences in Chicago, Hansberry started work on A Raisin In The Sun. A line from one of Langston Hughes’ poems inspired the play’s title. The work was completed in 1957 in the midst of Hansberry’s growing activism and involvement with feminism and gay rights. It has been theorized that Hansberry was a closeted lesbian, supported by secret letters and journal entries discovered after her death.
The play debuted on Broadway March 11, 1959, earning praise from critics and audiences alike. Set in the Chicago neighborhood of her youth, “A Raisin In The Sun” examined the impact racial segregation had on Black lives in the ’50s. At age 29, Hansberry became the youngest playwright and only the fifth woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
So immediately popular was “A Raisin In The Sun” that for the next two years, it was translated into 35 languages and performed around the globe. Hansberry continued to work as a writer and playwright, but only one of her other plays made it to Broadway.
The play, “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window,” was written with Nemiroff and had a limited run. In 1963, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and two surgeries failed to arrest its spread. Hansberry died in 1965 at age 34.
Robeson and SNCC leader James Forman eulogized Hansberry at her funeral. Messages from James Baldwin and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were also shared. Nina Simone’s famous song, covered by Donnie Hathaway and Roberta Flack and others “To Be Young, Gifted, And Black” was inspired by Hansberry.