Hansberry vs. Chicago

March 11:Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened on this dayin 1959, becoming a popular hit and a historic moment in American theater—530performances, 6 Tony Awards, the first play by a black woman to run onBroadway. Hansberry was raised in Chicago; when she was two years old, herfather made headline news when he won his Supreme Court challenge to the”covenant” agreements which allowed whites to bar blacks from livingin their neighborhoods. The climax of ARaisin in the Sun is Walter’s struggle to stand by the family’s decision tobuy a house in a white neighborhood, instead of selling out to the white manwho wants to buy them off:

I’m going to look thatson-of-a-bitch in the eye and say—(He falters)—and say, “All right, Mr.Lindner—(He falters even more)—that’s your neighborhood out there! You got theright to keep it like you want! You got the right to have it like you want!Just write the check and—the house is yours.” And—and I am going tosay—(His voice almost breaks)—”And you—you people just put the money in myhand and you won’t have to live next to this bunch of stinking niggers!…”And maybe—maybe I’ll just get down on my black knees… “Captain, Mistuh,Bossman… Oh, yassuh boss! Yasssssuh!…”

In To Be Young, Gifted and Black, her posthumously-publishedcollection of autobiographical writings, Hansberry says that she and her threesiblings were raised in a “utilitarian” manner, getting few hugs andkisses but plenty of other nourishment:

We were vaguely taughtcertain vague absolutes: that we were better than no one but infinitelysuperior to everyone; that we were the products of the proudest and mostmistreated of the races of man; that there was nothing enormously difficultabout life; that one succeeded as a matter of course.

Hansberry’s parentsinsisted that their four children put the family principles into practice. MarieHansberry, interviewed recently when the Hansberry’s South Side Chicago homewas designated an official landmark, said that she and her siblings wereencouraged to eat in discriminatory, white-owned restaurants so that they wouldbe booted out and given the opportunity to sue.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.