Have you ever thought about the effects that those who are young, gifted, and black endure in a world that tells them that they are lazy, criminal, and hopeless? Everyone wants the best for their child. How does he or she defy the odds to present their best self?
Meet Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, a playwright, writer, stage director and an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Hansberry lived from May 19, 1930, until Jan. 12, 1965.
Only 34 when she died, novelist and social critic James Baldwin has been quoted as saying, “It is not at all farfetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man.
Was she affected like that? Interestingly, about her father’s death, Hansberry once said that “American racism helped kill him.”
Hansberry is best known for writing “A Raisin in the Sun,” a play that shows the lives of a black family dealing with racial segregation in Chicago. It was named Best Play in 1959 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. By bringing such expression to the stage, Hansberry made history. She was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway. In addition, by winning the New York’s Drama Critic’s Circle Award at the age of 29, she became the first black dramatist and the youngest playwright to do so.
Before these accolades, Hansberry moved to Harlem and wrote news articles and editorials for the black newspaper called “Freedom.” She wrote about the African struggle for liberty.
An activist, Hansberry participated in the fight against evictions, as well as other civil rights protests. Her work in this area was not limited to the Civil Rights Movement within the United States. Hansberry often explained these global struggles through the lens of its female participants and their fight for gender equality. She recognized that minority women are twice oppressed.
In a town hall debate in 1964, Hansberry criticized white liberals who found it hard to accept civil disobedience. At the same time, however, she acknowledged that white men have been some of the first to die in the fight for civil rights.
Hansberry was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As follows, an FBI reviewer of “Raisin in the Sun” emphasized its Pan-Africanist themes as dangerous.
Hansberry inspired Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a term first coined by Hansberry while speaking to the winners of a creative writing conference in 1964. Simone wrote the song with a poet named Weldon Irvine. Her goal was to develop lyrics that would, as she said, “make black children all over the world feel good about themselves forever.”
Hansberry left a powerful legacy. Her work continues to be recognized and performed around the world. Even after death, her work has received numerous awards and acknowledgments. In addition, buildings have her name.
In 1999, Hansberry was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. In 2010, Hansberry was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. In 2013, Hansberry was inducted into the Legacy Walk, and in 2013, Hansberry was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. In 2017, Hansberry was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Dead at 34, Hansberry’s life illustrates what is possible in spite of the opposition when one is young, gifted, and black.
Keisha Bell is an attorney, author and public servant.