Knowledge Session: Who Was Lorraine Hansberry?

Lor­raine Hans­berry (1930–1965)

Play­wright Lor­raine Hansberry’s A Rais­in in the Sun was the first drama by an Afric­an Amer­ic­an woman to be pro­duced on Broad­way. Widely acclaimed, it helped pave the way for oth­er black play­wrights. She com­pleted only two plays in her short life, but left unfin­ished works that pub­lished posthum­ously, exten­ded her con­tri­bu­tion to lit­er­at­ure, theat­er, and the Civil Rights Move­ment.

Hans­berry was born May 19, 1930, in Chica­go, Illinois, the young­est of four chil­dren. Her moth­er, Nan­nie Perry, was a school­teach­er act­ive in the Repub­lic­an Party. Her fath­er, Carl Augus­tus Hans­berry, was a suc­cess­ful real estate entre­pren­eur involved with the Nation­al Asso­ci­ation for the Advance­ment of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urb­an League.

When Hans­berry was eight years old, the fam­ily moved into a primar­ily white neigh­bor­hood with restrict­ive cov­en­ants pre­vent­ing Afric­an Amer­ic­ans from buy­ing homes. Hansberry’s fath­er chal­lenged the restric­tions, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 1940. Racial dis­crim­in­a­tion in Chica­go, how­ever, remained harsh and bru­tal. Hansberry’s exper­i­ences in deseg­reg­ated pub­lic schools and in a self-described “hellishly hos­tile white neigh­bor­hood” influ­enced her best-known play.


After gradu­at­ing from Engle­wood High School in 1948, Hans­berry atten­ded the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin, fur­ther­ing her interest in theat­er and becom­ing involved with the Young Pro­gress­ives of Amer­ica. In 1950, she left col­lege for New York City where she stud­ied at the New School for Social Research, and became a staff writer and even­tu­al edit­or for Paul Robeson’s pro­gress­ive black news­pa­per Free­dom.

As a report­er, Hans­berry traveled widely, even attend­ing the 1952 Inter­con­tin­ent­al Peace Con­fer­ence in Uruguay, and wrote about sub­jects ran­ging from social inequal­it­ies to the arts. She taught classes at Harlem’sFrederick Dou­glass School and was con­sist­ently act­ive in polit­ics. In 1951, Hans­berry met Robert Nemiroff, a white gradu­ate stu­dent and song­writer, at a New York Uni­ver­sity anti­discrim­in­a­tion rally. They mar­ried June 20, 1953.

Hans­berry worked sev­er­al jobs until 1956 when she began writ­ing full time. She fin­ished A Rais­in in the Sun in 1957, tak­ing its title from the lines of a Lang­ston Hughes poem: “What hap­pens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up like a rais­in in the sun?” The play por­trays the real­ist­ic struggles of a work­ing-class Afric­an Amer­ic­an fam­ily want­ing to improve their lives.

A huge crit­ic­al and pop­u­lar suc­cess, A Rais­in in the Sun opened at Broadway’s Eth­el Bar­ry­more Theatre on March 11, 1959, run­ning for 350 per­form­ances over 19 months. Hans­berry became the first black woman to have a play pro­duced on Broad­way and the young­est per­son and first Afric­an Amer­ic­an to win the New York Drama Crit­ics Circle Award for Best Amer­ic­an Play. Vari­ety named her the season’s “most prom­ising play­wright.” Writer James Bald­win later wrote: “Nev­er before, in the entire his­tory of the Amer­ic­an theat­er, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.”


A Rais­in in the Sun has been widely per­formed and antho­lo­gized, and The Nation­al Theat­er lists it among the 20th century’s 100 most sig­ni­fic­ant works. Hans­berry wrote the screen­play for the 1961 film adapt­a­tion, win­ning a Cannes Film Fest­iv­al Award and a nom­in­a­tion for a Screen Writers Guild Award. Her ini­tial draft, with mater­i­al not included in the 1961 movie, was pub­lished in the early 1990s. In 1973, the play was adap­ted into a music­al, Rais­in, which won a Tony Award and ran for nearly three years. In 1960, NBC com­mis­sioned Hans­berry to write a TV drama for the Civil War centen­ni­al, but her exam­in­a­tion of slavery was con­tro­ver­sial and the pro­ject was can­celled. The mater­i­al was posthum­ously pub­lished as the play The Drink­ing Gourd.

Nemiroff and Hans­berry moved from New York City’s Green­wich Vil­lage to Cro­ton-on-Hud­son in 1961 where Hans­berry lived until her death. Dur­ing this time, she gen­er­ated sup­port for the Stu­dent Non-Viol­ent Coördin­a­tion Com­mit­tee (SNCC), which aimed to end segreg­a­tion in the south, and spoke out against the House Un-Amer­ic­an Activ­it­ies Com­mit­tee. In 1963, Hans­berry joined prom­in­ent civil rights lead­ers to meet with Attor­ney Gen­er­al Robert Kennedy. That year, the Act­ors Stu­dio Writers Work­shop staged a scene from Les Blancs, her play about Africa.

Hans­berry was dia­gnosed with can­cer in 1963, but she con­tin­ued to write and par­ti­cip­ate in polit­ic­al causes. In 1964, she wrote the SNCC book The Move­ment: Doc­u­ment­ary of a Struggle for Equal­ity. That May, she was released from the hos­pit­al to address United Negro Col­lege Fund writ­ing con­test win­ners. In this speech, she used the phrase “to be young, gif­ted, and black,” which later became the title of a play and book about her.

Also in 1964, Hans­berry and Nemiroff divorced, though they remained close. He helped pro­duce The Sign in Sid­ney Brustein’s Window—the only oth­er com­pleted work pro­duced in Hansberry’s lifetime—which opened at Broadway’s Longacre Theat­er to mixed reviews. The play con­cerns a lib­er­al intellectual’s exper­i­ences with polit­ics and act­iv­ism; it closed Janu­ary 12, 1965, the day Hans­berry died of pan­cre­at­ic can­cer at age 34. Her early death was mourned in many circles, and more than 600 people atten­ded her funer­al where trib­utes from gov­ern­ment, arts, and civil rights lead­ers accom­pan­ied Robeson’s eulogy.

As execut­or of Hansberry’s lit­er­ary estate, Nemiroff exten­ded her work’s influ­ence. He col­lec­ted and adap­ted unfin­ished pieces, let­ters, and diary entries into a play, To Be Young, Gif­ted, and Black. Pro­duced in 1968, it became the longest-run­ning off-Broad­way play of that sea­son, and was later pub­lished as a book entitled To Be Young, Gif­ted, and Black: Lor­raine Hans­berry in Her Own Words. He also fin­ished Les Blancs and pub­lished it with the plays The Drink­ing Gourd and What Use Are Flowers? Hans­berry is cel­eb­rated for giv­ing real­ist­ic dra­mat­ic voice to Afric­an Amer­ic­an char­ac­ters and con­cerns. The Lor­raine Hans­berry Theatre was incor­por­ated in San Fran­cisco in 1981.



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Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rishma Dhali­w­al has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal
Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

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