Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest of four children born to Carl Augustus Hansberry, a successful real-estate broker, and Nannie Louise (born Perry) a school teacher. In 1938, her father bought a house in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago, incurring the wrath of their white neighbors. The latter’s legal efforts to force the Hansberry family out culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hansberry v. Lee. The restrictive covenant was ruled contestable, though not inherently invalid. Carl Hansberry was also a supporter of the Urban League and NAACP in Chicago. Both Hansberrys were active in the Chicago Republican Party. Carl died in 1946, when Lorraine was fifteen years old; “American racism helped kill him,” she later said. The Hansberrys were routinely visited by prominent Black intellectuals, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Carl Hansberry’s brother, William Leo Hansberry, founded the African Civilization section of the history department at Howard University. Lorraine was taught: ‘‘Above all, there were two things which were never to be betrayed: the family and the race.’’ Lorraine Hansberry has many notable relatives including director and playwright Shauneille Perry, whose eldest child is named after her. Her grandniece is actress Taye Hansberry. Her cousin is the flautist, percussionist, and composer Aldridge Hansberry. Hansberry became the godmother to Nina Simone’s daughter Lisa—now Simone.
Hansberry graduated from Betsy Ross Elementary in 1944 and from Englewood High School in 1948. She attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she immediately became politically active and integrated a dormitory. She was the only girl I knew who could whip together a fresh picket sign with her own hands, at a moment’s notice, for any cause or occasion,” said classmate Bob Teague. She worked on Henry A. Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1948, despite her mother’s disapproval. She spent the summer of 1949 in Mexico, studying painting at the University of Guadalajara. She decided in 1950 to leave Madison and pursue her career as a writer in New York City, where she attended The New School. She moved to Harlem in 1951 and became involved in activist struggles such as the fight against evictions.
In 1951, she joined the staff of the black newspaper Freedom, edited by Louis E. Burnham and published by Paul Robeson. At Freedom, she worked with W. E. B. Du Bois, whose office was in the same building, and other Black Pan-Africanists. At the newspaper, she worked as “subscription clerk, receptionist, typist and editorial assistant” in addition to writing news articles and editorials. One of her first reports covered the “Sojourners for Truth and Justice” convened in Washington, D.C., by Mary Church Terrell. She traveled to Georgia to cover the case of Willie McGee, and was inspired to write the poem “Lynchsong” about his case. She worked not only on the US civil rights movement, but also on global struggles against colonialism and imperialism. Hansberry wrote in support of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, criticizing the mainstream press for its biased coverage. Hansberry often clarified these global struggles by explaining them in terms of female participants. She was particularly interested in the situation of Egypt, “the traditional Islamic ‘cradle of civilization,’ where women had led one of the most important fights anywhere for the equality of their sex.” In 1952, Hansberry attended a peace conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, in place of Paul Robeson, who had been denied travel rights by the State Department.
On June 20, 1953, she married Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish publisher, songwriter and political activist. Hansberry and Nemiroff moved to Greenwich Village, the setting of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Success of the song “Cindy, Oh Cindy”, co-authored by Nemiroff, enabled Hansberry to start writing full-time. It is widely believed that Hansberry was a closeted lesbian, a theory supported by her secret writings in letters and personal notebooks. She was an activist for gay rights and wrote about feminism and homophobia, joining the Daughters of Bilitis and contributing two letters to their magazine, The Ladder, in 1957 under her initials “LHN.” She separated from her husband at this time, but they continued to work together. A Raisin in the Sun was written at this time and completed in 1957.
Opening on March 11, 1959, Raisin in the Sun becoming the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The 29-year-old author became the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Over the next two years, Raisin was translated into 35 languages and was being performed all over the world. Hansberry wrote two screenplays of Raisin, both of which were rejected as controversial by Columbia Pictures. Commissioned by NBC in 1960 to create a television program about slavery, Hansberry wrote The Drinking Gourd. This script was called “superb” but also rejected.
In 1961, Hansberry was set to replace Vinnette Carroll as the director of the musical Kicks and Co, after its try-out at Chicago’s McCormick Place. It was written by Oscar Brown, Jr. and featured an interracial cast including Lonnie Sattin, Nichelle Nichols, Vi Velasco, Al Freeman, Jr., Zabeth Wilde and Burgess Meredith in the title role of Mr. Kicks. A satire involving miscegenation, the $400,000 production was co-produced by her husband Robert Nemiroff; despite a warm reception in Chicago, the show never made it to Broadway. In 1963, Hansberry participated in a meeting with attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, set up by James Baldwin. Also in 1963, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She underwent two operations, on June 24 and August 2. Neither was successful in removing the cancer. On March 10, 1964, Hansberry and Nemiroff divorced but continued to work together. While many of her other writings were published in her lifetime—essays, articles, and the text for the SNCC book The Movement—the only other play given a contemporary production was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window ran for 101 performances on Broadway and closed the night she died.
On her religious views, Hansberry was an atheist. According to historian Fanon Che Wilkins, “Hansberry believed that gaining civil rights in the United States and obtaining independence in colonial Africa were two sides of the same coin that presented similar challenges for Africans on both sides of the Atlantic.” In response to the independence of Ghana, led by Kwame Nkrumah, Hansberry wrote: “The promise of the future of Ghana is that of all the colored peoples of the world; it is the promise of freedom.” Regarding tactics, Hansberry said Blacks “must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent…. They must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps—and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities.”
In a Town Hall debate on June 15, 1964, Hansberry criticized white liberals who couldn’t accept civil disobedience, expressing a need “to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” At the same time, she said, “some of the first people who have died so far in this struggle have been white men.” Hansberry was a critic of existentialism, which she considered too distant from the world’s economic and geopolitical realities. Along these lines, she wrote a critical review of Richard Wright’s The Outsider and went on to style her final play Les Blancs as a foil to Jean Genet’s absurdist Les Nègres. However, Hansberry admired Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
In 1959, Hansberry commented that women who are “twice oppressed” may become “twice militant”. She held out some hope for male allies of women, writing in an unpublished essay: “If by some miracle women should not ever utter a single protest against their condition there would still exist among men those who could not endure in peace until her liberation had been achieved.” Hansberry was appalled by the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which took place while she was in high school, and expressed desire for a future in which: “Nobody fights. We get rid of all the little bombs—and the big bombs.” She did believe in the right of people to defend themselves with force against their oppressors. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began surveillance of Hansberry when she prepared to go to the Montevideo peace conference. The Washington, D.C. office searched her passport files “in an effort to obtain all available background material on the subject, any derogatory information contained therein, and a photograph and complete description,” while officers in Milwaukee and Chicago examined her life history. Later, an FBI reviewer of Raisin in the Sun highlighted its Pan-Africanist themes as dangerous.
After a battle with pancreatic cancer she died on January 12, 1965, aged 34. James Baldwin believed “it is not at all farfetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man.” Hansberry’s funeral was held in Harlem on January 15, 1965. Paul Robeson and SNCC organizer James Forman gave eulogies. The presiding minister, Eugene Callender, recited messages from Baldwin and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. which read: “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.” She is buried at Asbury United Methodist Church Cemetery in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
- May, 19, 1930
- Chicago, Illinois
- January, 12, 1965
- New York, New York
Cause of Death
- pancreatic cancer
- Bethel Cemetery
- Croton-on-Hudson, New York