Lorraine Hansberry embodied the phrase “young, gifted, and
black.” She was the very first black woman to pen a Broadway play and the very
first black person to ever win a New York’s Drama Critic’s Circle Award and today
would have been her 87th birthday.
Lorraine Hansberry at her typewriter in her Greenwich Village apartment. Photo by David Attie (x).
Born on May 19, 1930, Lorraine was the youngest of her
parents’ four children. Her mother was a driving school teacher and her father
was a notable real estate salesman in the South Side of Chicago. In 1938, her
father bought a house in the historically white area of Washington Park Subdivision.
After the white residents of the subdivision tried to keep the Hansberrys from purchasing the home, Lorraine and her family were engulfed in the now
famous case of Hansberry v. Lee. The publicity the case received not only
resulted in the Hansberry family becoming close friends with several iconic
black activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, but it also led to the
creation of A Raisin in the Sun, the semi-autobiographical play that would put Lorraine’s name on the map.
After spending her college days deep in political
activism, Lorraine decided to move to New York City in 1950 to try and make it as a writer. She
eventually moved to Harlem and began working for Freedom newspaper, a progressive, black publication. In 1953,
Lorraine married a prominent Jewish songwriter and political activist, Robert
Nemiroff. The marriage was short lived and the two separated amicably in 1956,
most likely because it is around this time that Lorraine came to terms with her
lesbianism. After separating from Robert, she became involved in the
LGBT activist scene in New York, joined the Daughters of Bilitis, and began
contributing to the lesbian magazine The Ladder under her initials “LHN.” Lorraine’s
personal journals and letters reveal a deep and distinct understanding of her
own sexuality, which you can read more about here!
Cigarette in hand, Lorraine dances with James Baldwin – one of her closest friends who was also a gay black literary icon (x).
In 1957, Lorraine completed her magnum opus, A Raisin in the Sun. The play opened on Broadway
on March 11, 1959 and at the age of 29, Lorraine became the first black woman
in history to have written a play performed on a Broadway stage. A Raisin in the Sun went on to win the New
York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, once again making Lorraine both the
first black person and the youngest person in history to ever win a Circle Award.
After her breakout success, she wrote two more plays, tried her hand at stage
directing, and stayed firmly planted in the heart of social activism.
Tragically, Lorraine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963. She died on
January 12, 1965 at the young age of 34. Her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window coincidentally celebrated its
closing night on Broadway the night of her death.