For this Black History Month, we’re spotlighting the visionary Lorraine Hansberry. Her work has been exceptionally influential to the Black community and has left an indelible mark on theatre as a whole. Her writing includes scripts for the stage and screen, novels, essays, and poems. Her most famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, first appeared on Broadway in 1959 and was the first drama by an African American woman to be produced at that level. The play’s title was influenced by a line in the 1951 poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. It was this play that crossed boundaries, broke records, and earned Hansberry much critical acclaim. It is based on her own childhood, growing up in a segregated Chicago neighborhood where she and her family often faced discrimination. Within a couple of years, the play was translated into over 30 languages and performed all over the world.
The discrimination that she faced brought about many challenges to her family– including famous court cases such as Hansberry v. Lee. This case contributed to the eradication of discriminatory practices such as racially restrictive covenants. This is just one of the many ways her family has contributed to the progression of Civil Rights. The African Civilization section of the History Department at Howard University was also founded by her uncle, William Leo Hansberry.
Hansberry’s other works include her plays The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and Les Blancs and her autobiography, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. Readers may know these pieces from their authentic representation of the Black experience. The title of the latter was the inspiration for the song by Nina Simone, and it is one of many songs considered to be an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Hansberry’s activism during the US Civil Rights movement included writing for and marching with the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. The Sojourners for Truth and Justice was a radical group comprised of Black women that fought against discriminatory practices against Black Americans and also protested the government’s role in obstructing the work of W.E.B. Du Bois (whom she worked alongside for many years).
Hansberry was an activist throughout her entire life, fighting for the rights of women and the Black community as a whole. Some also consider her work to contribute to gay rights activism. Due to her early death, the world was deprived of the beautiful work that was sure to come. Hansberry’s writing is timeless and represents the hardship and dedication that the Black community has faced for decades, and it continues to influence young writers of color today and always.
If you’d like to learn more about Hanberry’s life and work, check out the new book Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry by STC’s very own Literary Associate Director, Dr. Soyica Diggs Colbert.