When you’re young, gifted and black, your soul’s intact
Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ was released in 1969 in memory of her friend Lorraine Hansberry, who had died five years earlier at the tender age of 34. Hansberry had been a gifted playwright who used her talents to fight for racial equality. Her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun was the first by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway; starring Sidney Poitier in an almost entirely black cast, it told the story of an upwardly-mobile black family who came into enough money to buy a house in a primarily white neighbourhood.
The plot, in many ways, was inspired by her own childhood. Lorraine Hansberry was born in 1930 into an affluent African American family, and from the age of eight lived in the white-only Washington Park area of Chicago, where African Americans were barred from leasing or purchasing land. Their hostile white neighbours promptly turned to the law in a bid to turf them out, but Lorraine’s father challenged the initial decision of the Illinois Supreme Court and eventually won his case to stay in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Hansberry v. Lee.
We’ve all got acute ghetto-itis – Beneatha in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’
With a father who was active in the Urban League and the Chicago NAACP, and an academic uncle who specialised in African history and culture, Lorraine Hansberry was exposed at a young age to discussion of racial equality. At the primarily white University of Wisconsin, where she enrolled in 1948, her first move was to integrate her dormitory. It was also here that she developed an appreciation of theatre as a medium for social commentary: she was impressed by a university production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and took note of O’Casey’s ability to universalise the horrors of the Irish Civil War. In 1951, she joined the staff of the black newspaper Freedom, where she worked alongside W. E. B. DuBois, covering key events in the growing Civil Rights movement.
A Raisin in the Sun was a huge hit, and a game-changer for both the theatre industry and African American culture. Two weeks before its Broadway opening, Lorraine Hansberry gave a speech at a black writers’ conference. She encouraged her listeners to delve into political and intellectual questions: ‘all art is ultimately social’, she declared, and thereby galvanised a whole generation of African American writers into action. Its universal themes – such as Hansberry had admired in Juno and the Paycock – encouraged white middle-class audiences to embrace A Raisin in the Sun: as one interviewer artlessly exclaimed: “This is not really a negro play – it could be about anybody. It’s a play about people!” Over 600 black theatre companies sprang up across the USA between 1964 and 1974, and in 1970 Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody became the first play by an African American writer to win the Pulitzer prize.
Not all audiences were receptive to learning about the black experience. When Hansberry was commissioned to write a drama about slavery for NBC, she was given a free rein and told her portrayal should be ‘as frank as it needs to be’; yet the finished script was deemed too controversial and never produced.
With her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry shifted her focus away from the black experience and instead displayed a broad-ranging concern with oppression and division in society, touching on the constraints of class, gender and sexuality.
Hansberry held many causes close to her heart alongside African American rights. As an author for Freedom, she investigated the struggle for women’s equality in Egypt. She also worked with the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organisation in the USA, and (in spite of her 1953 marriage to Robert Nemiroff) was widely believed to be a lesbian herself. Her partnership with Nemiroff made sense given their shared interests and values: few other couples would have calmed pre-wedding jitters by protesting the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg together.
Lorraine Hansberry died following a battle with pancreatic cancer in January 1965, just a few months after the first Civil Rights Act was passed to end segregation in public places and unequal application of voter registration requirements. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, for which she had helped to raise funds some years earlier, had played a major role in bringing about these changes.
Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn. – Martin Luther King’s address at Lorraine Hansberry’s funeral
Hansberry’s final play Les Blancs, a lyrical epic concerning the fate of an unnamed African country under colonialism, was left unfinished, but Zemiroff helped to piece it together and it was eventually produced on Broadway in 1970, starring a young James Earl Jones. Lorraine Hansberry considered it her most important work, and the rapturous reception for its recent production at London’s National Theatre suggests that it has retained its resonance today.