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Lorraine Hansberry

TSHEMBE: (Closing his eyes, wearily) I said racism is a device that, of itself, explains nothing. It is simply a means. An invention to justify the rule of some men over others. CHARLIE: (Pleased to have at last found common ground) But I agree with you entirely! Race hasn't a thing to do with it actually. TSHEMBE: Ah -- but it has!
CHARLIE: (Throwing up his hands) Oh, come on, Matoseh. Stop playing games! Which is it, my friend?
TSHEMBE: I am not playing games. (He sighs and now, drawn out of himself at last, proceeds with the maximum precision and clarity he can muster) I am simply saying that a device is a device, but that it also has consequences: once invented it takes on a life, a reality of its own. So, in one century, men invoke the device of religion to cloak their conquests. In another, race. Now, in both cases you and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he refuses to become a Moslem or a Christian -- or who is shot in Zatembe or Mississippi because he is black -- is suffering the reality of the device. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn't exist -- merely because it is a lie!

          — Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays

Biography / Criticism

"I was born black and female," Lorraine Hansberry said. These twin identities would dominate her life and her work. Rejecting the limits placed on her race and her gender, she employed her writing and her life as a social activist to expand the meaning of what it meant to be a black woman.
Her first play, A Raisin In the Sun, is based on her childhood experiences of desegregating a white neighborhood. It won the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award as Best Play of the Year. She was the youngest American, the fifth woman and the first black to win the award. Her success opened the floodgates for a generation of modern black actors and writers who were influenced and encouraged by her writing.

Hansberry was born in 1930, the youngest of four children of Carl and Nannie Hansberry, a respected and successful black family in Chicago, Illinois. Nannie was the college educated daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Carl was a successful real estate businessman, an inventor and a politician who ran for congress in 1940. Both parents were activists challenging discriminating Jim Crow Laws. Because of their stature in the black community such important black leaders as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes frequented the Hansberry home as Lorraine was growing up.

Although they could afford good private schools, Lorraine was educated in the segregated public schools as her family worked within the system to change the laws governing segregation. After high school Hansberry briefly attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison before moving to New York for "an education of another kind. " She married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish intellectual who she met on a picket line protesting the exclusion of black athletes from university sports. She worked as editor for Paul Robeson's radical black newspaper Freedom until her husband's songwriting success allowed her to devote herself to her playwriting.

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Hansberry used the success of A Raisin In the Sun as a platform to speak out for the American Civil Rights Movement and for the African struggle to free itself from white rule. She helped raise money, gave impassioned speeches and took part in panels and interviews to further these causes.

After her initial success she lived only six years and was able to complete only one more play, a movie and a television script which was too racially controversial to be aired. Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, was received with mixed reviews and kept open for 101 performances only by the contributions and support of the theatre community. It closed the night she died at 34 from cancer. After her death Nemiroff finished and produced her final work, Les Blancs, a play about African liberation.

Hansberry had begun to claim her identity as a lesbian in a 1957 letter to a lesbian periodical, The Ladder. This information and her 1964 divorce from Nemiroff was not widely known at the time of her death. In 1965 the Gay Liberation Movement did not exist and a woman could not claim such an identity without major reprisals. It was not until the 1980s that feminist scholars began connecting her feminist vision with a lesbian identity.

Hansberry's work was a preview of the African-American spirit that engulfed the nation in the historic changes of the Civil Rights Movement. Her writing foresaw feminism, the Gay Liberation Movement and the demise of colonialism. She was a spearhead of the future, a woman who refused to be confined by the categories of race and gender.

Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author

Works about the Author

Related Links

ISU Play Concordances: A Raisin in the Sun
This database contains the complete dialogue from the play A Raisin in the Sun in a full concordance format: every word in the dialogue of the play is indexed and connected to its textual context. You can search it for word lists (alphabetic and frequency-ordered), for KWIC concordances, and for collocations (in the context around the keyword).

Books & Writers: Lorraine Hansberry
Presents a brief overview of her life and career.

"Chapter 8: American Drama - Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965). "
This site offers a selected bibliography and scholarly articles from PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide. This is an ongoing project by Paul P. Reuben.

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