Lorraine Hansberry Lives!

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday February 7, 2018
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In 2016, when The Denver Post asked 177 theater professionals nationwide what were the 10 most important American plays, "A Raisin in the Sun" was ranked #8. Arguably the original promulgator of Black Lives Matter, the African-American lesbian playwright Lorraine Hansberry, though dead 53 years, hasn't been forgotten. Her life is celebrated in the PBS American Master series in an electrifying documentary, "Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart," which can be streamed for free until Feb. 16. While her play is now considered a classic drama, winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, but shamefully not the Pulitzer Prize, little about her life has been publicly known. While "Raisin" was a landmark accomplishment, it was only one part of a multifaceted lifelong commitment to fighting injustice during the Civil Rights movement.

Hansberry's quest for equality must have been in her genes. Her father Carl was a wealthy real-estate broker on the south side of Chicago, where she was born in May 1930. When he bought a house in a white neighborhood in 1938, the Hansberrys were eventually forced out, even though he fought all the way to the Supreme Court. Disillusioned by the legal system, Carl moved to Mexico City as an exile, dying of a stroke. The 15-year-old Lorraine, who had remained in Chicago to finish high school, believed racism killed him. He was the most significant person in her life, inspiring her quest for liberation.

Arriving in Harlem, the cultural and political center of black life, she wrote for the Pan-African newspaper Freedom and became an active member of the Communist Party, which would result in the FBI keeping a file on her. She fell in love with a married radical Jewish Communist publisher activist, Robert Nemiroff, and after his divorce, married him in 1953, despite interracial marriage being illegal in half the states. She made the leap from journalism to fiction, writing a social drama about a working-class, multi-generational black family, the Youngers, struggling against discrimination. After they receive a $10,000 life insurance check from their late father, they decide to buy a house in a white neighborhood, paralleling Carl Hansberry's struggle. Its title from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, "A Raisin in the Sun" became the first Broadway play written by an African-American woman. It became a sensation with critics, the biggest hit that season. James Baldwin said it was the first time the truth about black people's lives had been exposed on the stage. Columbia Pictures bought the rights to the play, and Hansberry wrote the screenplay "so it wouldn't become a minstrel show or perverted." But the studio edited out most of the race-issue material she added. Her success enabled her to become an eloquent spokesperson for black civil rights.

Separated from Nemiroff around 1957 (they would divorce in 1964, but remained close friends; he was her literary executor), she moved to Croton-on-Hudson for privacy, leading a secret life as a lesbian ("for me, it has to be a woman,") mostly with white women. She published four short stories on lesbians under the pseudonym Emily Jones, sending anonymous letters to the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis magazine The Ladder. She discussed lovers only in her private journals and letters. Edie Windsor remembers her going to the same parties she attended, finding Lorraine "delightful, smarter than hell, so lovable." But despite occasional love affairs, Hansberry felt lonely.

In 1963, what became terminal pancreatic cancer was discovered, but Nemiroff and her doctor decided not to tell her the truth, a common practice at the time. She continued fundraising for civil rights groups and actions, and met Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963, along with Baldwin. She felt Kennedy couldn't hear the pain of black Americans, and felt futility in making white Americans understand the horrors of racism. She believed all forms of resistance, legal/illegal, violent/nonviolent, were necessary for freedom for blacks, here and in Africa. Years earlier she had spoken at the first conference of Negro writers in NY, saying, "One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world."

Her second play "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" opened on Broadway in October 1964, about a racially mixed group of activists dealing with racism, women's rights, homosexuality, and suicide. She was too ill to finish all the rewrites. With audiences expecting a sequel to "Raisin," it was savaged by critics, closing on the night of her death, Jan. 12, 1965, at 34. Six hundred mourners braved a blizzard to attend her funeral, where Paul Robeson paid tribute, friend Nina Simone sang, and Martin Luther King sent a telegram proclaiming she would be an inspiration to generations yet unborn.

The power of this documentary comes from the fact that much of what Hansberry wrote and fought for seems so topical today. One aches with sadness for a woman who was clearly ahead of her time yet isolated, arguing for intersectionality, that the struggle for civil rights, LGBT liberation, and feminism were all connected, because an oppressive society in any form dehumanizes everyone. She questioned if mere words were sufficient, though she was furious at white liberals who urged patience. Entertainer Harry Belafonte grieves over what artistic contributions she could have made yet never got the chance. The documentary is narrated by actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and actress Anika Noni Rose voices Hansberry, with actors Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett Jr. and lesbian writer Ann Bannon sharing intimate memories. Hansberry's lesbian lovers weren't interviewed on this neglected aspect of her life. Still, during times of resurgent racism, "Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart" reminds us not only what a loss her death was, but how badly we need another Lorraine Hansberry today.