Lorraine Hansberry: Award-Winning Playwright and Civil Rights Activistby Susan Sinnott
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Lorraine Hansberry tells the fascinating story of the brave and talented woman who, almost single-handedly, overcame the racial obstacles that made for a segregated American theatre in the years following World War II. Hansberry was just twenty-nine years old when her play A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959--an era wher her very existence as a black, female writer wwas considered unusual. The play was an overnight sensation, earning its author the double distinction of being the youngest playwright and first black person to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. In Hansberry's own words, A Raisin in the Sun "tells the truth about people... We have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity. That is what, after all the laughter and tears, the play is supposed to say."
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Award-Winning Playwright and Civil Rights Activist
By Susan Sinnott
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1999 Susan Sinnott
All rights reserved.
A Sweet Promise
It has become a sweet promise, hiding, whispering to me daily ... fame! I shock myself with such thoughts and shake my head with embarrassment ... fame!
—Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black
Lorraine Hansberry, twenty-eight years old, Was back in Chicago, and she was about to become a star. Everyone around her could feel it; she could, too. Her play A Raisin in the Sun was scheduled for a brief run at the Blackstone Theater and would then move to Broadway in early March. Its success was, as one reporter wrote, the story of an "emerging bombshell." Not only did everyone want to interview Lorraine, they seemed to crave her opinion on everything—theater, life, and, most of all, what it was like to be black in America in 1959.
So Lorraine was almost relieved when she walked into her mother's house on South Park Way and her older sister Mamie immediately began to complain about Lorraine's sloppy clothes and careless grooming. "Just like old times," Lorraine thought. She only shrugged, mumbling something to Mamie about not having had much time to think about her clothes, what with all the rehearsals, tryouts in New Haven and Philadelphia, meetings, and late nights. She hoped Mamie would take the hint and drop the subject.
"This is Chicago!" Mamie threw her hands up in despair. "You're not really going on to the stage in blue jeans!" she exclaimed, and then begged Lorraine to let her pick out a new dress for the opening. She knew just where to go to find something really chic. The family didn't want her to embarrass them, after all.
Yet Lorraine hardly needed to be reminded of where she was. Didn't her own nerves, wound much more tightly now than at any time during the last six weeks, tell her that? A Raisin in the Sun, after all, was set in Chicago. It was about Chicago, at least a certain part of it-the South Side's so-called Black Metropolis, where the Hansberry family still lived. It was also about a certain family, the Youngers, who were poor and working class, and had only a flickering hope that life could match their dreams.
Lorraine Hansberry had spent her entire Chicago childhood looking into the lives of her South Side neighbors, people just like the Youngers. She'd listened to little boys talk tough and watched them shadowbox like their idol, Joe Louis. She'd stood close by while skinny-legged girls jumped double dutch to rousing singsongs that made them go faster and faster. How Lorraine had envied the neighborhood kids their independence, brashness, even the violence that was part of their daily lives!
She had rarely been asked to join in the games, though; she couldn't get the steps or the words just right. She'd been different. She'd been a girl whose father had scratched out the word "Negro" on her official State of Illinois birth certificate and written in "black" instead. "Black must mean that I'm different," she thought, when she was old enough to hear about how Carl had changed the birth certificate, but still too young to understand its meaning. Black and proud and different. So she'd stood by and watched, as though her nose were pressed hard against a windowpane.
People like the Youngers didn't try to hide the shabbiness that was everywhere around them. Porches sagged, unpainted steps split and broke apart. Full clotheslines waved in the dirty Chicago wind. As Lorraine saw it, their segregated lives were a form of protest, the sooty clothing their banners.
Yes, here in Chicago, everything would be much more personal. The audiences would be full of people who had known her as a shy, chubby, serious-talking young girl. There would be many, too, who remembered her father Carl Hansberry, a successful real estate broker. Carl had devoted years of his life to challenging the city's restrictive housing laws and, more than twenty years earlier, had enlisted his whole family in the battle.
In the summer of 1938, the Hansberrys had bought a home in Chicago's all-white Washington Park neighborhood, which bordered the University of Chicago. It had been, as Lorraine remembered it, a "hellishly hostile" place. One day soon after moving in, she and Mamie sat on their front porch, passing the afternoon on a hanging swing. Suddenly, a large, angry crowd gathered. The two sisters ran inside the house and, as they stood in the living room with their mother, someone hurled a brick through the front window with such force that it lodged in the plaster wall. It had missed Lorraine's head by less than an inch.
By the end of that summer, the Hansberry family had been given a court order to leave the neighborhood. Carl, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), filed suit. They took the case, Hansberry v. Lee, all the way to the Supreme Court and won in 1940. Within a few years, however, as Carl faced the realization that changing laws and changing attitudes are two different struggles, the victory became hollow. Before he died in 1946, Carl became discouraged and disillusioned, uncertain if there was such a thing as justice for the black man in America.
Reporters always seemed to want to know the whys and hows of A Raisin in the Sun, and Lorraine scarcely knew what to say. Should she talk about her own father and mother, and their tremendous persistence and courage? Or, should she talk about the time she was an eighteen-year-old college student who walked into the rehearsal of a student production of Juno and the Paycock at the University of Wisconsin Theater? As soon as she heard playwright Sean O'Casey's rich dialogue, his exquisite melody, she knew that she, too, would try to write her own melody one day, but "as I knew it—in a different key."
In truth, though, she hadn't thought much about the whys, hadn't separated out the momentous events from the trivial. "Wasn't that for biographers and critics?" she thought, laughing at her own pretentiousness. All she knew was that after years of letting the story slosh about in her head, she had just started in and written it. For eight months in 1956 and 1957, she sat in the little study off the kitchen of her Greenwich Village apartment and typed. She slept little, smoked countless cigarettes, and drank pots of coffee.
There had been many, many times she thought she wouldn't be able to finish. Once, in an explosion of desperation, she tossed the entire manuscript high in the air and stomped out of the room. Bob—her husband, Robert Nemiroff—had gotten down on the floor, picked up each page, and put them all back in order. Then he put the play in a box and hid it for several days, until he thought Lorraine could face her work once again.
When she did, it came easily. The dialogue seemed to flow from the typewriter onto the paper. Then, when she finished typing, ripped the last page from the carriage, and placed it carefully at the bottom of the manuscript, she lay face down on her living room carpet and stretched her hands and feet as far as they could go. She had done it—she had written her play! It was no longer inside her; it was there in that pile. It was a lovely little bundle that she could now wrap in a neat package and send out to the world. As she wrote to her mother from her hotel room in New Haven, Connecticut, just before A Raisin in the Sun's first preview performance in January 1959:
Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people. Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are— and just as mixed up—but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity. That is what, after all the laughter and tears, the play is supposed to say. I hope it will make you very proud....
Now, a few weeks later, as she waited for the opening night in Chicago, she felt like a nervous parent watching her only child grow up and strike out on its own. During rehearsals, sitting about ten rows back from the stage, she marveled at the set. The Youngers' apartment was a perfect replica of a Chicago-style kitchenette, just like in the kinds of places her father had rented out over and over again during the Depression. She could admire, too, the stunning cast—which included the magnetic, powerful Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia McNeil—who breathed vibrant life into her paper characters. How had it happened that in America—which in 1959 was only just considering full racial integration—an unknown black playwright and director and a distinguished, though still little-known, group of actors stood poised and ready to capture the heart and soul of Broadway? How was it that she, Lorraine Hansberry, was at the center of this swirl?
In the end, Lorraine gave her sister Mamie permission to buy her something black and elegant at one of Michigan Avenue's smart dress shops. She only asked that Mamie forgive her if she really couldn't concentrate on that sort of thing, not now, not with this noise constantly in her head. What was it? It was a kind of buzzing that she'd first heard very faintly that first week in New Haven back in January. Now it was getting louder, almost drowning out everything else. Was it really the sound of an emerging bombshell, or was it, as another reporter offered, that Goddess Success? Or was it fame ... just fame? All Lorraine knew was that, whatever it was, it was coming closer, about to turn her life upside-down. And it was too late to get out of the way, even if she wanted to....
I was born on the Southside of Chicago. I was born black and a female. I was born in a depression after one world war and came into my adolescence during another....
—Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black
Lorraine's own parents, Carl and Nannie Hansberry, seemed born to a life of genteel protest. They were considered educated and refined by their community and, above all, they were proud people, proud of their country and their race. When Lorraine was born, on May 19, 1930, Carl and Nannie were both active members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Chicago Urban League, and the Republican Party. Carl didn't see any contradiction in these various affiliations. His lifelong goal was to give blacks the freedom to become just as rich and powerful as any white man—especially those who were bent on denying men like Carl any opportunity at all.
Carl August Hansberry was born in Gloster, Mississippi, in 1895. His grandfather William Hansberry had been born a slave in Culpepper County, Virginia. William's mother was African, and his father was the plantation's master. That fact, however, didn't prevent him from selling his son "down the river"—to harsher conditions in Louisiana—when William was fifteen.
William Hansberry was more fortunate than most slaves sent to the Deep South, however. His new master, Mr. Young, valued William's craftsmanship and treated him fairly and humanely. By 1864, with the South's defeat in the Civil War all but certain, Mr. Young asked William to help him hide the family's gold, silver, and jewelry in a nearby woods. Together, they dug several holes and buried everything. Before the war ended, however, Mr. Young was killed as he tried to cross Union lines. William later retrieved the treasure and over several years invested it carefully and cautiously, in both land and education for his family of ten children. One of his sons, Mender Hansberry, attended Alcorn College and married a fellow student, Ethel Frances Woodward. They both became teachers and raised their six children, including Carl Hansberry, in Gloster, Mississippi.
Carl, too, attended Alcorn College, the "family school." But by the time he graduated in 1915, blacks were leaving the South by the thousands, boarding trains for the great northern industrial centers, captivated by the "promise of the North." These trains followed the routes of the Underground Railroad which fifty years earlier had led thousands north, out of slavery. Then, before the Civil War, terrified slaves had fled their quarters at night, running across open fields and into the nearest woods. Now—nearly two generations since slavery's end in 1863—blacks stood in broad daylight on the platform of train stations in cities like Biloxi, Mississippi, and Macon, Georgia, carrying their few belongings in cardboard suitcases tied together with string. Their destinations were often a matter of train connections: From Virginia and the Carolinas, migrants went to Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York City. From parts of Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky, they headed for Pittsburgh or Cleveland. And those from Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, or Louisiana rode the Illinois Central Railroad to Chicago.
Carl Hansberry, whose background and education separated him from many of his fellow migrants, was linked to them by the belief that there was no future for the colored man in the Deep South. There had been a brief period just after the Civil War when one could have hoped it would be otherwise. Carl Hansberry's grandparents might have felt it in Mississippi during the late 1860s, but such optimism didn't last long. Ultimately, Southern tradition—what the esteemed black author and educator W. E. B. DuBois called a "system of caste and insult"—dictated that blacks and whites would never be treated equally in any sphere of society.
The infamous Jim Crow laws, first enacted in 1877, made DuBois' words a reality. Jim Crow was the name of a well-known character in minstrel shows, which featured white entertainers wearing black makeup and acting out a stereotype of the slow-witted slave. This crow's antics were intentionally offensive and his name—always despised by black people—soon became synonymous with segregation. Sharecrop farming—destined to be Carl Hansberry's life unless he finished school—was nothing more than the Jim Crow South's form of legalized slavery.
So in 1914, when word spread that jobs were plentiful in such northern industrial cities as Chicago, St. Louis, and New York, there was more than a buzz of interest. The great war just beginning in Europe had completely cut off the flow of immigrant workers from the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, and suddenly the steel mills, meat-packing plants, and railroad yards were calling for help. Chicago-based companies like Armour, Swift, and McCormack turned to the untapped supply of labor in the South to fill these high-wage jobs. At first "the word" was just a whisper, passed from train porters to southbound passengers and on to rural townspeople. But soon talk of well-paying jobs up north was on just about everyone's lips. I pick up my life and take it away, Langston Hughes wrote in his poem "One-Way Ticket": On a one-way ticket/Gone up North, Gone out West, Gone!
There were other northern destinations, of course, but Chicago was special. A frontier outpost only a couple of generations earlier, it now seemed the very place to lead the world into the twentieth century. Black people knew it as not only the home of the Sears catalog but as a city that supported such black-owned enterprises as Provident Hospital, two banks, and even a professional baseball team. And it was where the flamboyant Robert Sengstacke Abbott published the straight-talking newspaper, the Daily Defender.
Abbott, born in rural Georgia, first traveled to Chicago to perform at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition with a vocal quartet from the Hampton Institute. He was captivated by the gritty, fast-moving city and returned in 1897, hoping to become a journalist. Unable to find a newspaper job, however, he enrolled in law school. After a prominent attorney informed him he was "too dark" to ever be taken seriously in a courtroom, Robert Abbott hatched another plan. In 1905, he printed a few copies of "The World's Greatest Weekly," as the Defender boldly called itself, and then he sold them on the street comer. He built his newspaper empire both by extolling the glories of big, burly Chicago and by telling the South's real story-the one blacks were too fearful to tell themselves. The Defender had the boldness to speak loudly—and luridly-about lynchings, mob violence, and the many degradations of daily life. "WHEN THE MOB COMES AND YOU MUST DIE TAKE AT LEAST ONE WITH YOU," shouted one headline.
For Southern blacks, who comprised more than half of the Defender's readers, this combination of pride, dignity, and assertiveness represented all that was missing in their own lives. In Mississippi, a man could be lynched for merely brushing against a white woman while he ran for a train. In Chicago, "God's Country," it was said you could go anywhere, anytime. Why, the Defender even reported that prizefighter Jack Johnson rode right down Michigan Avenue in a big, shiny car with a white woman at his side!
Carl Hansberry's dreams, on the other hand, were strictly middle class. He wanted to own a home in a decent neighborhood, give his children a good education, and provide material comforts for his entire family. In 1915, however, a black man could be considered a dewy-eyed optimist for thinking such dreams would ever come true. Bright, ambitious, and very determined, Carl soon took a job with the fledgling Binga Bank, one of the city's two black-owned banks. At the nearby Lake Street Bank, Carl met a pretty young teller named Nannie Perry.
Excerpted from LORRAINE HANSBERRY by Susan Sinnott. Copyright © 1999 Susan Sinnott. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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