Without question, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is one of the most important plays ever written about Chicago. Emotionally powerful and intellectually provocative, it vividly shows an African-American family’s struggles to escape the shackles of segregation on the city’s South Side. When it made its New York premiere in 1959, it was the first time a script by a black woman had ever been performed on Broadway. It was filmed in 1961 with stars Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. And it did not take long to gain status as a true American classic, becoming one of the country’s most-produced plays.
A Raisin in the Sun is so beloved and respected that it has overshadowed Hansberry’s other writings — as well as the story of Hansberry herself. “What I kept hearing was: ‘She died so tragically young that we don’t know what she would have become,’” says Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, published Fall 2018 by Beacon Press. “I didn’t realize how much she’d actually written. She wrote so much, in a very short life.”
Hansberry, a Chicago native who grew up on the South Side before moving to New York, died of cancer in 1965, at the age of 34, cutting short a life bursting with promise and potential. In addition to plays, she’d written fiction and essays, demonstrating a thoughtful intellectual prowess, as well as a talent for creating realistic characters. “She wrote the characters in all of her plays in an authentic way,” says Perry, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University. “She wasn’t writing them to be lessons. But then, they did have lessons to reveal.” Perry’s book arrives on the heels of a PBS documentary, Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, which aired in January 2018 on the American Masters series. Together, they’re bringing new light onto Hansberry’s life and literary legacy.
When Hansberry was seven, her family bought a house at 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue in an area of Woodlawn where restrictive covenants forbade white property owners from selling to blacks. White mobs threatened the Hansberrys, spitting on and cursing at Lorraine and her siblings. A chunk of cement came flying through a window at the house, narrowly missing Lorraine and landing in the living room wall. “That was a grotesque sight to see that lodged in the wall,” Lorraine’s sister, Mamie, later said. “You know that somebody doesn’t like you, doesn’t want you there.” Their father, Carl Hansberry, sued for the right to buy a house where he wanted, eventually winning on a technicality at the U.S. Supreme Court.
That experience had a profound effect on Lorraine Hansberry, shaping the story of A Raisin in the Sun, as well as her many stories and essays. Hansberry, whose parents had moved from the Deep South during the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North, developed a nuanced view of racial issues. “She was very aware of being a child of migration,” Perry explains. “She always had both the South and Chicago in her mind. That gave her a level of sophistication about thinking how deeply entrenched racial inequality was in the society. Chicago was this migration destination, this place where people went to escape the hardships of living in the American South, and then confronted a whole new set of exclusions and bigotries.”
When Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun, she borrowed the title from a Langston Hughes poem, which asks: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” The 46-year-old Perry—who grew up in Connecticut, but spent her childhood summers with her father on Chicago’s West Side—says that poem is an apt description for Chicago itself. “I often talk about Chicago as the site of the dream and its deferral,” she says. “It really is both at once. That’s the place where the first black president emerged. And it’s also the place that’s known as the murder capital right now.”
Hansberry was inspired by the South Side’s vibrant cultural scene—which included writers Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks—as well as its political activism. Perry says many people overlook just how political Hansberry was—and just how radical. A year before Malcolm X’s famous 1964 “freedom by any means necessary” speech, Hansberry had delivered a similar message. Giving a speech near her home in New York’s Hudson Valley, she’d warned that the oppression of African-Americans was pushing them towards revolution. “Whether we like the word or not, the condition of our people dictates what can only be called revolutionary attitudes,” she asserted.
Hansberry’s political mentors were the giants of an older generation of African-Americans: W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Her friends included author James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone. “She’s this really important mid-20th-century figure, not just as a playwright, but as someone who was at the center of all of these ways of thought and activism,” says Perry.
On May 24, 1963, Hansberry and several other prominent African-Americans met at a Manhattan hotel room to answer Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s questions about how to deal with black protests for civil rights. Hansberry was blunt and direct when she spoke to RFK. At the end of a tense discussion, she declared, “I am very worried ... about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” In her book, Perry describes what happened next: “She smiled a cutting smile at the attorney general, turned, and walked out. Most of the others followed.” A month later, at the urging of his brother Robert, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech proposing the measures that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Arguably, Hansberry was one of the voices that persuaded the Kennedys to support that landmark legislation. “That was quintessentially her, she was bold and unflinching,” notes Perry. “She didn’t bite her tongue for prominent people and dignitaries.”
Perry’s book also explores an aspect of Hansberry’s story that remained largely hidden during her lifetime: her sexuality. “She identified as a lesbian and she wrote lesbian literature. I think very few people knew that,” relates Perry.
In 2016, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre revived one of Hansberry’s lesser-known plays, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, with a critically acclaimed production. “I would love to see some of her other plays produced more often,” Perry says. “They’re so pertinent, in the present moment. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and [the posthumously released] Les Blancs both deal with sexuality. They deal with interracial intimacy, issues that I think are now even more at the front of people’s minds.”
Perry sees Hansberry as an inspiration for artists and activists in today’s “fraught period of history.” As she explains, “Having a role model who was always willing to speak truth to power is really important for us.” It’s impossible to know exactly what Hansberry would make of today’s America. But if she were still alive, suggests Perry, “She’d have a lot to say. That’s for sure.”