In 2010 the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture published an article, “Young, Gifted, Black, and Complicated: The Question of Lorraine Hansberry’s Legacy,” in their newsletter, Africana Heritage. In that article, Steven G. Fullwood, Assistant Curator, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture puts the incredible legacy of Lorraine Hansberry’s contribution as an artist, activist, public intellectual, and writer into context. In addition, Fullwood points out the enormous gift for researchers and scholars have with access to the unusual depth and range of materials in the Lorraine Hansberry Papers, as generated by the executors of the Lorraine Hansberry Estate over the last 50 years.
To Be Young, Gifted, Black and Complicated: The Question of Lorraine Hansberry’s Legacy
Steven G. Fullwood
In 1984, scholar and former editor of The Black Collegian, Kalamu ya Salaam, published a probing article on Lorraine Hansberry, in which he encouraged a re-reading of her work and legacy. Salaam points to omissions of Hansberry’s groundbreaking work in various anthologies of black literature during the Black Arts Movement suggesting the oversight was due primarily to her death at age 35, and that her work was often seen as “non-Black,” “white-oriented,” “commercial.”
He posits intriguing reasons why, after nearly two decades after her death, Hansberry’s significance as a writer and intellect of almost uncanny and prophetic vision, she had yet to be scrutinized or acknowledged for her intellectual and creative works.
However Salaam’s oversights were as interesting. In 1979 Freedomways published “Lorraine Hansberry: Art of Thunder, Vision of Light,” a special issue on Hansberry and her work featuring rich, insightful, and sometimes blistering essays by James Baldwin, Woodie King, Jr., Julian Mayfield, Adrienne Rich, and Margaret Wilkerson. In the journal’s introductory essay, “Lorraine Hansberry: To Reclaim Her Legacy,” Jean Carey Bond describes Hansberry as “born into material comfort, but baptized in social responsibility; intensely individual in her attitudes and behavior, yet sensitive to the wills and aspirations of a whole people; a lover of life, yet stalked by death…” Mayfield recalled the playwright’s clear-eyed perspective on celebrity, quoting her response to handling talk shows, “I figure the best way to approach [it] is to act as if you do not expect to be invited back, and to say what’s on your mind.”
Salaam also failed to mention that Hansberry’s former husband, Robert Nemiroff, was proactive in keeping Hansberry’s works—and legacy—very much alive. Shortly after her death, in addition to handling Hansberry’s literary estate, Nemiroff began building an archive of Hansberry’s materials, reaching out to people she knew or with whom she worked, and institutions where she had worked or appeared as a speaker. Under his guidance several legacy projects came to light including the play and subsequent book, To Be Young Gifted and Black, and Raisin, a musical based on Hansberry’s seminal work, A Raisin in the Sun.
For many, A Raisin in the Sun is their first encounter with Hansberry. Few know about her other writings—plays, articles, short stories, poems, editorials—not to mention her work as a political activist. Even fewer know about her work as an associate editor for Freedom newspaper in the 1950s or that she had relationships with women. While it is usually history’s prerogative to present people as flat and one-dimensional, one could easily surmise that Hansberry’s legacy, as complicated and as far-flung as any creative person’s could be, does not allow for simple rendering. Engaging her raging creativity and politics not only fascinate because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, of Hansberry’s “profound grasp of the deep social issues” of the time, but because her work dealing with race, human rights, women’s equality, sexuality, predates the Black Power, Black Arts, Women’s, and Gay and Lesbian movements of the late 1960s.
How She Became Herself
The last of four children, Hansberry was born in 1930, auspiciously at the beginning of the Great Depression, in Chicago to middle-class parents. She described herself as a “serious off-talking kid who could [not] double-dutch,” but envied those children who could. Her interests (or perhaps, preoccupations) with human rights struggles had been anticipated by the work of her father, Carl Hansberry, a business man who successfully sued the city of Chicago in Hansberry vs. Lee  a landmark case which effectively broke the racial covenants in real estate. Her mother, Mamie, was a schoolteacher and community leader. Lorraine grew up in a home often visited by luminaries of the day such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. William Leo Hansberry, her uncle, taught at Howard University where he founded the African Civilization Section of the History Department. Consider the effect of overhearing conversations among these men about race, civil rights, Communism, Africa, and the subsequent impressions they may have left on this “serious” young woman.
Much like those varied conversations, Lorraine was complex and thoughtful and sometimes uncomfortable in her middle-class brown skin. In To Be Young Gifted and Black, Nemiroff included Hansberry’s recalling an incident during her childhood when she was sent to school in a white ermine fur during the Depression. “The kids beat me up,” she recalled, “and I think it was from that moment I became a rebel…” The coat was a Christmas present that she didn’t favor, and after being attacked at school she became “antagonistic to the symbols of affluence.”
Hansberry enrolled in University of Wisconsin in 1948, and studied art, literature, drama, and stage design. Captivated by the Communism movements sweeping the nation, she became the Chair of the Young Progressives. In the summer of 1949 Hansberry traveled to Mexico to study art at the University of Guadalajara. However it was in the 1950s, the post-World War II McCarthyism era that continued to lay the groundwork for Hansberry’s political and artistic sensibilities, dramatically changing her life. Upon arriving in the New York she immediately became heavily involved in peace and freedom campaigns led by the Communist Party and the Labor Youth League. She was also a member of Sojourners of Truth and Justice, a delegation of 100 black women who met in Washington, D.C. to demand federal protection of the lives and liberties of black people.
In 1951 Hansberry joined the staff of Freedom newspaper under the guidance of editor Louis E. Burnham and founder Paul Robeson. A year earlier the U.S. State Department, under the Subversive Activities Control Act, had revoked Robeson’s passport, claiming he was a subversive. Unable to travel, Hansberry served as his representative at the Inter-American Peace Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, at the age of 24—quite an accomplishment for someone so young. A year later Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a songwriter who was also active in communist circles.
In 1956 Hansberry sat down to write, in her words, “an honest play about Negroes.” That play became A Raisin in the Sun, which starred Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, and Diana Sands. In 1959 A Raisin in the Sun was a smash on Broadway, and garnered a Drama Critics Circle Award, making Hansberry the first black playwright and the youngest woman to win the Best Play of the Year award. Prize-winning author and radio broadcast personality Studs Terkel interviewed Hansberry and asked if the play was autobiographical.
She remarked that although she came from an “extremely comfortable background, materially speaking,” her family lived in a ghetto which meant that she had direct experiences with people of varied classes. “This is one of things that the American experience has meant to Negroes,” she remarked noting that working class and poor black people’s experiences were more common, and that those people will help to transform our lives and will be “most decisive in our political history and our political future.”
Hansberry’s health began to falter in the early 1960s, however she continued to work. In addition to public appearances in support of her work and various civil rights causes, she wrote the screenplay for A Raisin in the Sun; the text for The Movement, a pictorial book on the Civil Rights Movement; editorials; letters to newspapers and magazines; poetry; short articles; and most importantly, plays. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which debuted on Broadway in the fall of 1964, is the last play Hansberry would complete and have produced during her lifetime. When Brustein opened in October 1964, Hansberry was already battling cancer.
The play was scheduled to close soon after opening because of a lack of financial support. Celebrities such as James Baldwin and Shelley Winters contributed money and encouraged many others to do so, including members of the audience, keeping the play alive for several weeks. Finally, on January 12, 1965, after 101 performances, Hansberry passed away, and Brustein, at last, closed on Broadway.
Hansberry’s Words, Our Gifts
But the curtain did not and could not close on Hansberry, or her work. Indeed, her spirit lives in the Lorraine Hansberry Papers located in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The papers chronicle the life of the award-winning playwright, her activities during the Civil Rights Movement, and documents her legacy largely amassed and constructed by her late former husband, Robert Nemiroff, and his third wife, the late Jewell Gresham-Nemiroff. The collection includes virtually all of Hansberry’s writings, autobiographical materials, journals, diaries, personal and professional correspondence, and related materials generated by the executors of the Lorraine Hansberry Estate.
Scholars will find Hansberry’s papers exceptionally rich. Few collections can boast the depth and range of materials. The largest and most substantive papers, Writings, contains the bulk of Hansberry’s play scripts, A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, and Les Blancs, plus production files for each play, as well as other produced, unproduced, and incomplete plays among them Toussaint, The Drinking Gourd, What Use Are Flowers? and Masters of the Dew. There are drafts with Hansberry’s and Nemiroff’s edits for most titles. Researchers will find the original 1957 version of A Raisin in the Sun with annotations, deleted scenes, and notes offering a sense of what the playwright envisioned as she created the world of the Youngers, a working-class family living on the Southside of Chicago. Similarly, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was originally called The Sign in Jenny Brustein’s Window, and the original play script can also be found in the collection.
The lectures and speeches Hansberry gave primarily as the result of the success of A Raisin in the Sun reveal a remarkable intellect and hunger for social justice. She wrote a variety of articles as a journalist and editor for Freedom newspaper, Freedomways, and The New York Times, and there are files for the book, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality, for which Hansberry wrote the text. In addition there are short stories, poems, and letters Hansberry penned from 1947 to 1964.
The collection also includes correspondences and materials that illuminate Hansberry’s activism with Camp Unity, the Labor Defense League, and the Inter-American Peace Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay. The Legacy papers were created by Robert Nemiroff to document Hansberry’s contribution to American letters, and includes files detailing his activities as the executor of the Lorraine Hansberry Estate, including three major projects: the plays To Be Young, Gifted and Black and Raisin, and the project “All The Dark and Beautiful Warriors.”
The audio visual component of the collection includes films, filmstrips, reel-to-reels, and record albums featuring Hansberry and cast recordings of her plays including A Raisin in the Sun, and the musical Raisin. Cast photographs and a few photos of Hansberry are in the collection. Also included are Hansberry’s FBI file, interviews with the writer, and biographical information about Hansberry during her life and posthumously can also be found in the papers.
In December 1955, Hansberry wrote a diary entry in the late hours of Christmas that is as haunting as it came to be prophetic:
“Such are my days…longings, longings, longings, longings….I want the world to love my singing. Whether I am less for it or no—I want it!”
A copy of the finding aid to the Lorraine Hansberry Papers is available by sending an e-mail request to scmarbref (at) nypl.org. For more information, please call (212) 491-2224.
This article was originally published in Africana Heritage, Volume 10, Number 1, 2010.