Born Black and Female
by Robert Nemiroff
“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 adolescence during another. While I was still in my teens, the first atom bombs were dropped on human beings and by the time I was twenty-three years old my government and that of the Soviet Union had entered actively into the worst conflict of nerves in history—the Cold War.”
— Lorraine Hansberry, “The Negro Writer and His Roots: Towards a New Romanticism,” American Society of African Culture,
First Conference of Negro Writers, March 1, 1959.
These words, spoken by Lorraine Hansberry before a conference of young Black writers at the very beginning of her career starkly illustrate the circumstances of the playwright’s childhood in the 1930s. As a result of a legal battle waged by her father the “restrictive covenants” of Chicago, which confined Blacks to one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos, her father occupied disputed property in a hostile white neighborhood. A brick hurled through the window nearly killed the eight year old Lorraine. She remembered too the faces of the mob that cursed and spat at her on the way to school, and the sight of her mother patrolling their home through the night with a loaded Luger, while her father and NAACP lawyers in Washington fought a struggle in the Supreme Court that resulted in an historic decision bearing his name.
Years later, as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Lorraine Hansberry slipped into the auditorium of the University during a rehearsal of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. She was mesmerized; the student portraying O’Casey’s heroine wailed in grief at the death of her son, killed in the Irish struggle for freedom: “Oh, Blessed Virgin . . . where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets?. . .Sacred heart of the crucified Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone and give us hearts of flesh!”
Reflecting some years later, the dramatist realized that it must have been at that moment in the dark, empty University theatre that she recognized her own intimate knowledge of the great Irishman’s tragic tale —a keening in the Mother’s mourning like sirens in the Chicago night. It was, she knew, a theme to which she would someday turn her talents — but in a “different key.”
Quitting school in her sophomore year—“to pursue” as she said, “an education of another kind,” Lorraine Hansberry came East in 1950 to New York—and to Harlem. She plunged into the peace and freedom movements of the day, marched on picket lines, moved the furniture of evicted tenants back into their homes, studied African history under W.E.B. DuBois, worked (for $31.70 a week) as reporter and editor on Paul Robeson’s Black radical monthly Freedom, spoke on street corners—and often found herself wandering the Harlem streets in wonder, making entries in a journal, drinking in the sights and sounds, the laughter, the brooding anger and the will to live of her people. On a picket line to protest discrimination at NYU, she met—and on June 20, 1953 married—Robert Nemiroff, who shared her social commitment and interest in writing. And all the while the confluence of the Black experience and that Irish wail she had heard “in a different key” continued to reverberate within.
One day in 1957, in a fit of disgust, she flung the manuscript of a play on which she was working to the ceiling, then into a wastebasket, and stormed out; her husband—as she liked to tell the story in later interviews—gathered up the pages and put them away until a better time—and then patiently started her back to work.
The play was A Raisin In The Sun. It opened on Broadway in March 1959—and American theatre has never been quite the same since. This was not just because Lorraine Hansberry became, at 29, the first Black dramatist—as well as the youngest American—to win the Best Play of the Year Award of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. Or that the play has become an American classic, published and produced in over 30 languages abroad and in thousands of productions across the country. A Raisin In The Sun marked a turning point because, as James Baldwin has summed it up: “Never before in the entire history of the American theatre had so much of the truth of Black people’s lives been seen on the stage.”
The play brought a new Black audience to the theatre. And it opened a door for a generation of Black artists, writers, performers—among them all of the original company. In addition to Sidney Poitier, the only previously established star, these included: Lloyd Richards, Broadway’s first Black director, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Ossie Davis, Louis Gosset, Ivan Dixon, Glynn Turman—and, he even in the smallest roles, Douglas Turner Ward, distinguished founder and Artistic Director of the Negro Ensemble Company, and Lonne Elder III, author of Ceremonies In Dark Old Men. The play did not “make” these artists, their own talents did that. Nor did it solve the problems of a theatre racist in vital respects — but the mere fact a cast could be assembled in one play proclaimed unmistakably the depths and of additional Black talent waiting orth.
Perhaps most important, A Raisin In the Sun pointed the way to others. Etched within its seemingly simple tale of a Black family’s refusal to sacrifice human dignity to the demands of a racist society, were multiple themes and levels of the Black revolution in consciousness that was to erupt with stunning swiftness in the 1960s, although most American theater-goers were unprepared to recognize this at the time. These were the themes of Black identity, Black power, and liberation—from the mass symbolic utilization of the “Black is Beautiful” slogan with its emphasis on images of Blackness reflecting unmistakable African ancestry, to the assertion of growing links with Black Africa—the passionate belief in which infused all the writings of Lorraine Hansberry, from her first play, set in Chicago, to her last, set in Africa.
In A Raisin In The Sun for the first time on the stage: an African student, Asagai, articulates his vision of the coming liberation of Africa and the revolutionary future; the natural hair style and African dress appear in a ghetto setting; the young daughter, Beneatha, attacks the concept of “assimilationism . . . into the dominant and in this case oppressive culture” (and also sounds a clear note for the liberation of women); while the hero, Walter Lee, in final confrontation with his family and himself, rejects the operating money values of society in favor of the continuing quest for dignity and freedom.
On January 12, 1965, five years later, during the run of her second play, The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window, Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer. She was 34.
In her short lifetime, Lorraine Hansberry was a participant in a tremendous range of history. At her funeral, in one of his last public appearances, Paul Robeson sang. James Foreman, executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spoke next; in her last months in the hospital she had written, for SNCC, the text of an extraordinary photohistory of the Civil Rights struggle, The Movement. A message was read from Shirley Graham DuBois, widow of W. E. B. DuBois. In a back pew of the church sat Malcolm X. while from the rostrum the words of Martin Luther King rang out: “Her commitment of spirit . . . her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
That Dr. King did not exaggerate has become apparent in the years since as more and more of the work she left is brought before the public. The longest running off-Broadway play of 1969, To Be Young, Gifted And Black: A Portrait of Lorraine Hansberry In Her Own Words, adapted by Robert Nemiroff, has been presented in every state of the union, recorded, filmed, televised, expanded into book form, and turned into a popular song by Nina Simone, while the phrase itself, from her last speech, has entered the language. Les Blancs, her last play, presented posthumously on Broadway, received the votes of a number of critics for the Best American Play of 1970. Her published works include A Raisin In The Sun, The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window, The Movement, To Be Young, Gifted And Black, and Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays Of Lorraine Hansberry. A number of these works have been recorded by Caedmon Records and excerpts from her speeches and interviews can be heard on the Caedmon recording Lorraine Hansberry Speaks Out: Art And The Black Revolution.
Lorraine Hansberry, participating both as a dramatist and as a leader in the historic liberation efforts of our time, left a legacy of commitment to the struggles of the disinherited and oppressed. Lorraine Hansberry’s philosophy was summed up by the artist herself in an address to young Black writers:
“What I write is not based on the assumption of idyllic possibilities or innocent assessments of the true nature of life — but, rather, my own personal view that, posing one against the other, I think that the human race does command its own destiny and that that destiny can eventually embrace the stars. . .”
Note: This essay was published as liner notes for the 1971 cast recording of To Be Young, Gifted and Black (Caedmon records, TRS 342).