Lorraine Hansberry


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To my social world, in all these avenues of social outlets, the best part is it levels the playing field for all regardless of race or economic status. It allows you to reach the world! At its worst, it breaks the bond of human connection. There can be a room full of people and everyone is on their phones without any interaction. They are missing an opportunity to network in the sense of touch, feel and talk.

Black history is every month, not just February. Today, The B.A.F. will focus on one of the most complex and creative persons of any time! She happens to be an African American, Lorraine Hansberry, whose flame died out too soon. Her concerns for human life were so deep. She carried the tragedies of social ills in her soul. Her social conciseness was felt thru her works. Hansberry was a pillar of social strength. She is known throughout the world as an amazing playwright and known to the black community as the care giver of our social being and responsibilities to one another.

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry; (1930-1965) was an African American playwright and writer.

Early in life, Ms. Hansberry was drawn to the Theatre (Broadway plays). Not in the acting, but the production because no one had ever produced a Broadway play that was covered in black skin. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Hansberry’s family struggled against segregation. Her family, as a unit, faced personal attacks and attention because of their stance against discrimination and the popular policy at the time, “Restrictive Covenant”. These were property laws enacted in the state of Illinois to prevent blacks from buying land in certain parts of the state, eventually, provoking all the way up to the Supreme Court. The case was fighting the Restrictive Covenant in “Hansberry v. Lee”. Her life was set and molded by her family’s mission to upset the norm of racial discrimination.

She moved to New York, inspired by the earlier movement of the Harlem Renaissance and the people who helped shape it. Hansberry worked at the Pan-Africanist Newspaper as her first job in New York and her first experience with high profiled freedom fighters. She dealt with intellectuals like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois at the Freedom, a newspaper dedicated to the well-being and betterment of blacks. Much of her work focused on the struggle for liberation of blacks in America, but she saw the need for liberation of ALL blacks in the world and operated it as a universal call for unity in the fight for liberation. Her classmate, Bob Teague once said “The only girl I knew who would whip tougher a fresh picket sign with her own hands at a moment’s notice and join a cause on any occasion”.

Hansberry’s belief system was at a high level with her love for blacks and their freedom. She once wrote “We and Africa are one. Their struggles are our struggles”. She also wrote “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, do sit ins, lay downs, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps, and yes, shoot from their windows when ‘racists’ come crashing thru our communities”. She is known happily to the world as the first African American to produce (write) a Broadway play. It opened on March 11, 1959 – “A Raisin in the Sun”.

The 29 year old author became the youngest playwright and the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play! Over the next two years, her play was translated into 35 languages and performed all over the world! A Raisin in the Sun was revived on Broadway in 2004 and received a Tony Award for best revival. The case included Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald as its main stars. If you’ve not seen it or know nothing about it (a shame if you don’t), A Raisin in the Sun highlights the lives of black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago (many say it was her own life experiences). The play’s namesake came from one of her heroes and might I add, the most prolific writer of American history,Langston Hughes. In one of his poems titled “Harlem”, he says “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

“A Raisin in the Sun” is in the top five Broadway plays of the world. Yet, the B.A.F. explores more than the surface of famous African Americans. Why did James Baldwin call her the saddest person he’s ever met? Hansberry is much like Phillis Wheatley before her, whose accomplishments and credit didn’t reach her till after her death. Her life was extremely painful, penniless and homeless (most often). Her two children died before her and her last one died minutes after her.

Hansberry was complex, as I stated earlier. I’ll go a step further and say that she was a tortured soul. She felt others’ pain and loved so deep that it poisoned her. She became physically ill in high school after pictures/news of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Asked later, “Why do you care so much about Asians?” She said “Life is life, color is shade, blind should be the view of race”. She was tortured by more than her life’s passion.

Hansberry’s biggest challenge was not her inner turmoil of black social woes, it was more personal. Understand the time in which she lived. She has been identified as a lesbian and sexual freedom was important to her. How frustrated was she not to be her true self? Even the small percentage of people who knew gave her advice on how to “cure herself”. She self-medicated with liquor and a three pack a day cigarette habit. In secret writings under her cover name “LHN”, she wrote “I’m a Closet Lesbian”. Her husband (yes, husband) released her personal notebook as well as unreleased works, exposing her lesbian lifestyle after her death. Secretly, she was an activist for gay rights. Under “LHN”, she wrote about feminism and homophobia more than her poems and plays. She was involved in two of the first American Gay Societies/Organizations. Secretly, she joined “Daughters of Bilitis” (DOB) and “Ladder”. To the DOB, she wrote two letters (they still refuse to release them) and in 1957, she wrote for the Ladder.

If that’s not enough of a burden for Ms. Hansberry, she was attracted to white women. Besides what she dealt with in the 40’, 50’s and 60’s, she was sexually attracted to whites. Her husband was Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish publisher, songwriter and political activist. The marriage was of convenience, personal business and respect. Mr. Nemiroff championed her works after her death. He is remembered by his quote “love without sex”. They were a team. He represented the accepted life style of marriage. She represented acceptance for him in his mission of politics/racial activism. They divorced in 1962 (married in 1953).

Hansberry’s demons consumed her. The pain of having that much sympathy for human life in the chaos of the mid/late 50’s and early 60’s overwhelmed her soul. Have you ever met a person that worried over everything? This was her persona. Yet, her concerns were for “life”, all life tortured by living in a time not ready for her lifestyle. She crossed racial lines, which brought her stress from her own people. She crossed gender lines and hid, unsuccessfully, her sexual orientation in the late 50’s. She crossed lines of social world norms. Hansberry called herself an atheist because of the bible’s stance on gay lifestyles. She died in 1965 from pancreatic cancer. Her good friend James Baldwin said “What she saw in the world contributed to the death of a legend. For the effort and care was too much for one to bear. Peace has finally found my friend”.

Nina Simone sang “To Be Young and Gifted and Black”. Her husband wrote a book entitled the same. Simone poured out her soul in tribute to a black hero, as she put it. So, the woman, in a true men’s world in her time, gay in a time when homophobia killed people, had love for the color of the very oppressor she fought against. She was an activist in a time when discrimination was bold and vicious.

Let’s remember a great complex soul.

• In 2013, posthumously, Lorraine Hansberry was inducted to the American Theatre Hall of Fame

• In 1999, posthumously, she was inducted to the Chicago’s Gay/Lesbian Hall of Fame

People only focus on her major accomplishments, but she opened eyes to social ills that have just become acceptable. She is truly a credit to humanity, not just her race. “Peace at last” Lorraine Hansberry.

Thank you.
-KJS
#youngblackhistorian

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