Lorraine Hansberry: two biographies on the life of 'A Raisin in the Sun' lesbian playwright

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday February 15, 2022
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Lorraine Hansberry: two biographies on the life of 'A Raisin in the Sun' lesbian playwright

As soon as the curtain came down, the 1959 audience at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre spontaneously rose to give the cast of A Raisin in the Sun —the story of the Black Younger family living in poverty in south Chicago deciding what to do with a $10,000 life insurance check following the death of the father— a standing ovation which continued for several minutes.

Then shouts of "Author, Author," became deafening until the play's star, the late Sidney Poitier, jumped down to the third row and escorted playwright Lorraine Hansberry to the stage. She was overwhelmed by the adulation, yet it was clear her time had arrived.

Within the last four years, Lorraine Hansberry has had another long-deserved, long-delayed cultural moment. 2018 saw the electrifying PBS American Masters documentary about her life, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, as well as a memoir/tribute, Looking for Lorraine, by Imani Perry.

Lorraine Hansberry  

Last year, Georgetown Professor Soyica Diggs Colbert published her Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, a scholarly analysis of her written work, situating her art in mid-twentieth-century political currents, especially the homophile, third-wave feminism, and Black diasporic freedom/civil rights movements.

And now we have the first traditional mainstream biography by a major publisher written by Charles J. Shields, a respected literary biographer (Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut).

All this attention on Hansberry seems amazing for a writer who died aged thirty-four, 57 years ago, and produced only one significant work in her lifetime.

But Hansberry's Raisin is now recognized as one of the greatest American plays of the 20th century, a permanent fixture in the literary canon, continually produced by professional theater companies worldwide, read and discussed by almost all high school students. It also has the distinction of being the first Broadway play written by an African-American woman.

Hansberry is eminently worthy of this recent reassessment of her legacy, especially that it's only been since 2013 that her full uncensored (meaning lesbian-themed) private papers, correspondence, diaries, articles, and unpublished manuscripts were made available to researchers. And what is abundantly clear is that A Raisin in the Sun was just the tip of her creative genius iceberg, with her role as social critic underappreciated.

Photo of a scene from the play 'A Raisin in the Sun.' From left-Louis Gossett (George Murchison), Ruby Dee (Ruth Younger) and Sidney Poitier (Walter Younger). Everyone shown in the photo reprised their roles in the 1961 film.  (Source: Wikipedia)

Chicago roots
Shields traces her family's roots in Chicago. Lorraine's father Carl was the most influential figure of her life, yet Shields' reveals a complex, contradictory character as any Hansberry devised on stage. He was a real estate broker who saw that the increase in Black population, due to migration from the South to escape Southern Jim Crow laws, was driving many whites out of Chicago into the suburbs.

Hansberry would purchase the abandoned buildings at a cheaper price and subdivide them into small "kitchenettes" with one restroom for thirty-plus residents, thus earning three or four times the rent he would have made under the old system. Shields' appropriately labels him a slumlord.

In interviews, Hansberry would call him a real estate magnate. On the plus side, opposing racially restrictive housing covenants, Carl bought a house in an upscale white neighborhood for the family, and residents terrorized them.

Shields describes the harrowing scene of mobs hurling a cement chunk through the window, almost hitting seven-year-old Lorraine in the head. Hansberry remembered her desperate and courageous mother "patrolling our house all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children."

A court case ensued in which the Hansberrys were evicted, the judge commenting, "I don't go where I'm not wanted." Carl fought an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled in his favor, giving him back his house. The experience left him bitter and disillusioned. Exiled in Mexico, he died of a stroke when Lorraine was 15, a trauma from which she never fully recovered.

biographer Charles J. Shields  

It's not hard to see how her father's experiences might have birthed Raisin. She always referenced his civil rights advocacy as a catalyst for her work. Shields implies Raisin might have acted as atonement for her father's greed and his kitchenettes sub-standard living conditions that exploited other Black people.

Yet the family's past haunted her, as Hansberry had to flee Chicago on opening night of Raisin to avoid capture by the police because the city had issued arrest warrants for all the Hansberrys, including Lorraine, for unpaid fines and poor living circumstances. For the rest of her life, she instructed her lawyer to put legal distance between her and the family business.

Literary warrior
Shields is excellent at discussing how Sean O'Casey's folk tragicomic drama Juno and the Paycock influenced her ideas about both the mechanics and subject matter (Irish working class) of playwriting and reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex released her latent feminism.

Unfortunately, no novel advanced her understanding of lesbianism, though she would send pseudonymous letters to the Daughter of Bilitis's magazine The Ladder and the editors urged her unsuccessfully to come out.

However, another inconsistency she never quite overcame was her connection to wealth. She grew up upper middle class with all the benefits that came with her father's success, including chic clothes (i.e. her snobbish mother insisted she wear an ermine coat on her first day at elementary school to prove "we were better than no one but infinitely superior to everyone" even though her street-smart schoolmates pushed her into the mud), a stunning home, and elite education.

biographer Imani Perry  

Again, Shields implies her unease over the family's fortune might have precipitated her move toward Marxist politics. Shields shines at detailing how a Mexican summer workshop on art developed her social realism and her conviction that the only reason to be creative was to benefit humanity.

Her journalist career at blacklisted entertainer/Communist advocate Paul Robeson's monthly magazine Freedom while living a bohemian Greenwich Village existence radicalized her, with some calling her a "Pan-Africanist with a socialist perspective" who saw the civil rights struggle as part and parcel of the global struggle of all people of color against colonialism.

She met such Black intelligentsia as W.E.B. DuBois, Alice Childress, Malcolm X, and her close friend James Baldwin in this period. But her politics resulted in her becoming an F.B.I. surveillance target, betrayed by informants, with a file that grew to 1,000 pages at her death.

Marriage of politics
Hansberry's subsequent marriage to white Jewish Marxist activist and publisher Robert Nemiroff —a bold move in 1953 segregated America— reinforced her political convictions, though it was clear almost from the outset that they didn't mesh sexually. "I want one or two things which you simply cannot give," she wrote.

Hansberry pursued clandestine same-sex relationships, most of which were unsuccessful, calling herself a "heterosexually married lesbian," though Shields moniker, the invisible lesbian, is probably more truthful.

Shields confirms that her creative partnership with Nemiroff was the most significant in her life, living together on-and-off, despite eventually officially divorcing in 1964. He co-authored a hit song, "Cindy O Cindy," in 1957, which made him sufficiently wealthy so Lorraine could leave her job and write full-time.

He was her protector, editor, manager, and encouraged her to write even when in anguish she felt her work was a failure or useless. For better or worse, he was designated her literary executor after Hansberry died. He urged her to buy a house in Croton-on-Hudson in Westchester County as a country writer's retreat where there would be fewer distractions, but it also isolated her.

Black lives onstage
In Raisin, Hansberry avoided her mistake made in previous plays of "putting picket signs on the stage." For her, realism expressed in the Younger family's relationships with each other, emboldened them, despite racism, not to give up. Freedom requires action as a form of witness, which for the Youngers, meant moving into a white neighborhood.

Hansberry's way to overcome injustice is to recognize the inherent dignity that unites all people, despite race, class, gender, or sexual difference, even if one is constantly tottering between despair and hope. James Baldwin 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."

As a feminist lesbian Black nationalist and internationalist, Hansberry was arguing for intersectionality decades before it had even been defined.

Her second Broadway play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, opened in October 1964, about a racially mixed group of activists dealing with racism, women's rights, homosexuality, and suicide. She was dying of pancreatic cancer (though Nemiroff refused to tell her) and didn't have the energy to do the necessary rewrites. The critics were merciless in denouncing it, having instead hoped for an upbeat sequel to Raisin. One critic characterized it as "an unresolved chaos of liberalistic political and sexual ideas."

The 2008 film remake of 'A Raisin in the Sun'  

The writing urge
With the exception of Baldwin, who had emigrated to Paris, Hansberry was the only person of color artist attempting to balance all these competing justice issues. She felt alone, which led to periods of depression and creative paralysis. There was no Black, lesbian, feminist community to support her. Even the lesbians she knew and intermingled with were white.

Sidney was her first attempt to deal with all these oppressive systems and seek some freedom for her characters, but also for herself. The play ran less than three months, closing on January 12, 1965, the day Hansberry died.

However, a very serious lack in the book is that Shields devotes only 20 pages to her post-Raisin career when she became the female equivalent to Baldwin's Black public intellectual spokesman, both willing to converse about racial democracy on TV talk shows.

There is nothing about her experience writing the screenplay for the Raisin 1961 film, now recognized by the National Film Registry under the Library of Congress as culturally significant.

There are only two scant paragraphs on her famous 1963 meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy along with Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Kenneth Clark, and Southern Freedom Movement/CORE organizer Jerome Smith.

Kennedy wanted a quick political solution to the unrest at Birmingham, Alabama, (where four Black girls were killed by a bomb planted at a Baptist Church) but she insisted it was a moral issue about the struggle for liberation and so bolder long-term solutions were needed, a point Kennedy wasn't ready to hear.

One can only speculate what Hansberry might have achieved had she had more time. The book ends with one of her final heartbreaking journal entries, while dying in hospital, desperately wanting to return to the Sidney Brustein production.
"The writing urge is on. Only death or infirmity can stop me now."

Revolutionary voice
Shields brings the shadowy Hansberry back to life, but Perry's book is the greater achievement because it restores her revolutionary voice, even if it is not a standard biography.

Perry's slant is more what Hansberry means to her and how she impacted her life, personally and professionally. Yet even adopting this non-objective viewpoint, she conveys much more clearly than Shields why Hansberry remains relevant, why she was ahead of her time, and why people still want to learn about her life a half century after her death.

Perry also analyzes much of her unpublished work (including Sappho's poetry and lesbian short stories), seeing her radical politics as the key to interpreting her career, especially Raisin. Few could articulate more brilliantly the struggle for human rights, even though Hansberry reluctantly concluded in despair, that all forms of resistance (legal/illegal, violent/nonviolent) were necessary for black freedom, both here and in Africa.

Shield's book is at its strongest tracing her literary influences. His examination of Raisin's plot and influence is spot-on. He situates her among other midcentury American writers, artists, and activists, both white and Black, arguing she shouldn't be forgotten or critically disparaged.

Overall his biography works best as an introduction to Hansberry for readers familiar with Raisin who know little about its author. We can only hope as more scholars and activists investigate her private papers they will continue to write about her, as it becomes increasingly clear Lorraine Hansberry was one of the inspirational founding mothers of Black Lives Matter and her spiritual artistic presence echoes through every demonstration and protest.

Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun by Charles J. Shields. Henry Holt and Company, $29.99 www.henryholt.com

Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry. Beacon Press, $17.95. www.beacon.org

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