May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965
For LGBT+ History Month 2020 the EFL is honouring Lorraine Hansberry. Although she died at the age of 35, she achieved a great deal in her short life: writing five plays, over 60 articles, and many poems. She was the first black woman to have her play produced on Broadway and the first black winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. As a black writer in 1950s America, the expectation was that she would write solely about the black experience, but she sought to push away those expectations and embrace a universality in her work:
“One of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay great attention to the specific. Universality, I think, emerges from truthful identity of what is…in other words, I think people, to the extent we accept them and believe them as who they’re supposed to be, to that extent they can become everybody”.
Lorraine Hansberry also refused to separate the link between society and art, she said “the writer is deceived who thinks he has some other choice. The question is not whether one will make a social statement in one’s work – but only what the statement will say”.
Born in Chicago, in 1930, Lorraine’s middle class upbringing did not afford itself the luxuries it may have, had she been white. She saw first-hand the deeply divided lines caused by segregation, and this was formative to her political and social development.
Lorraine briefly attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a majority white university in which the members of the women’s dormitory to which she was assigned (Langdon Manor) had a meeting to discuss if the “coeds would be amenable to the presence of a Black girl”. In her 2018 biography of Hansberry, Imani Perry feels that the experience of being “in a predominantly white university, while in some ways isolating, also somewhat surprisingly provided a space for her to find and exercise a political voice beyond the circumscribed set of issues…to which women of her race and class were often confined”.
Lorraine left Madison and moved to New York in 1950, taking a job writing and editing the newspaper Freedom which provided articles about “global anticolonialist struggles and domestic activism against Jim Crow”. It was during this time she openly declared her allegiance to Communism, and the FBI started to actively follow her[*].
In 1953 she married Robert Nemiroff, and they mostly lived together in New York, though Lorraine frequently spent large amounts of time back in Chicago with her family. Her diaries and letters of this time are filled with confusion and echoes of her depression. During the 1950s Lorraine was finding her place in the world, and beginning to challenge all conventions of marriage, children, and sexuality. Although they separated in the late 1950s, Robert continued to be one of Lorraine’s most ardent supporters, and the pair worked together frequently.
Her early published writing was under the name of Emily Jones, in which she wrote often about the tension between commitment to family, the expectations placed on her due to her gender, and the insidiousness of homophobia within relationships. Lorraine’s relationships with women was well known amongst her circle of friends, but on her death Robert Nemiroff donated all of Lorraine’s private documents (diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts) to the New York Public Library, where it was under restricted access until 2013. The result of this was that an important aspect of her life was unknown for many years. Since her papers have become available to researchers we have gained a greater understanding of Lorraine’s own thoughts about her sexuality, and how she saw herself.
In her diary Lorraine writes:
“As for this homosexuality thing (how long since I have thought or written of it in that way— as some kind of entity!) am committed to it. But its childhood is over. From now on— I actively look for women of accomplishment— no matter what they looked like. How free I feel today. I will create my life— not just accept it.”
On 11th March 1959, Lorraine’s first play A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway. The New York Times reported a day later that Lorraine received a standing ovation at the end of the first performance, and described it as “a play about human beings who want, on the one hand, to preserve their family pride and, on the other hand, to break out of the poverty that seems to be their fate.” It would play on Broadway for twenty-seven months, and win Lorraine the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
Lorraine continued to write – producing screenplays for A Raising in the Sun that were all ultimately rejected by movie studios, as well as writing articles – and a second play was released during her lifetime, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Her main focus from 1960 onwards was political activism, her focus being “the liberation of Black people from colonialism abroad and Jim Crow at home.”
In the last years of her life, Lorraine continued to work tirelessly, determined to make a change in the world regardless of the pain her illness was inflicting on her. After her death, Robert Nemiroff adapted some of her unpublished work into the play, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, later also reproduced as a biography of Lorraine.
The legacy of Lorraine Hansberry is clear from the plays produced, and articles written, both during her lifetime and posthumously, but only in recent years are we finding out more about the Lorraine behind the words. Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, has compiled a thorough life in Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, that is both biography and tribute to a remarkable woman.
[*] Her FBI files can be seen online at http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/fbeyes/hansberry
 Wilkerson 1983: 9 /  Wilkerson 1983: 9 /  Wilkerson 2005 /  Perry 2018: 27-28 /  Perry 2018: 47 /  Perry 2018: 81 /  Perry 2018: 87 /  Mumford 2016: 19
 Mumford 2016: 19 /  New York Times, Thursday March 12 1959 /  Perry 2018: 150
Mumford, Kevin J. 2016. Not straight, not white : black gay men from the March on Washington to the AIDS crisis. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Mumford, Kevin. n.d. Opening the Restricted Box: Lorraine Hansberry’s Lesbian Writing. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/lorraine-hansberry/lesbian-writing.
Perry, Imani. 2018. Looking for Lorraine. The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Beacon Press.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. 2005. “Lorraine Hansberry.” In Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://blog.oup.com/2006/09/women_and_liter-3/.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. 1983. “The Sighted Eyes and Feeling Heart of Lorrain Hansberry.” Black American Literature Forum 17 (1): 8-13.
This exhibition has been curated by Jen Gallagher – EFL Reader Services Librarian