“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
Groundbreaking playwright Lorraine Hansberry drew the title of her most famous work – A Raisin in the Sun – from the powerful poem Harlem, written by Langston Hughes about the promise of freedom in the Emancipation Proclamation remaining a dream a hundred years later for African Americans.
The 1959 play, the crown jewel of Hansberry’s work, tapped into her background and upbringing in Chicago to showcase the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in the third largest city in America.
Still from the 2017 Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
Because of Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry became the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway, also making her the youngest American playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, beating fellow nominees and literary powerhousesTennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
The play made it to the big screen as well, one starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee (1961) and a TV adaptation with Sean Combs and Audra McDonald (2008).
Original trailer for the 1961 film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun.
Hansberry biographer Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton, describes in her book Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, describes a life, though brief, that was groundbreaking and relevant, well beyond the success of Raisin.
For example, her father, Carl Hansberry, was a local realtor in Chicago and made history with a lawsuit to break racial covenants in the city’s housing market. The suit went to the U.S. Supreme Court and he won, but his neighbors in his family’s new, formerly all-white neighborhood weren’t welcoming, an experience that is reflected in Raisin in the Sun.
A Chicago newspaper reporting on the results of the Hansberry Supreme Court case.
Hansberry also broke from her family’s tradition of enrolling in Southern Black colleges to attend school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She dropped her original major of painting for writing, leaving school in two years to move to New York City where she attended The New School.
In 1953, she entered an interracial marriage to Robert Nemiroff, who she met on a picket line, even though such unions were illegal in many parts of the U.S. Though they later divorced, he remained her “closest confidant,” adapting her writings and interviews into an off-Broadway play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. He safeguarded her work until his death, in 1991, according to Perry.
Though her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, received an unenthusiastic reception on Broadway, she continued to address social and racial issues beyond her plays, writing for what were considered “radical” publications.
She became active in the civil rights movement in the early ‘60s, writing articles about colonialism and imperialism from the female perspective in Freedom, a progressive black journal.
In a memorable life moment, Hansberry was invited to meet then-U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May 1963, prompted by her civil rights activism. Among the attendees, Harry Belafonte, author James Baldwin, singer Lena Horne, June Shagaloff of the NAACP and Jerome Smith, a Southern freedom movement organizer who had been viciously beaten by police at a protest.
Jerome Smith is still an important part of the civil rights movement to this day and currently resides in New Orleans.
Hansberry confronted Kennedy who seemed to dismiss Smith’s testimony about the “perpetual demolition” of black men trying to protect their families. She backed Smith’s questioning of the federal government’s sincerity to protecting the civil rights of black Americans, asking Kennedy for a moral commitment in addressing segregation.
Baldwin recalls her telling the attorney general, “I am very worried … about the state of the civilization which produced (a) photograph of a white cop standing on a Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” Then she turned and walked out of the room, Baldwin said, with many attendees following suit.
Hansberry, too, was a closeted lesbian, her journal writing revealing an attraction to women. She was a frequent contributor to The Ladder, a gay publication, where she wrote about feminism and homophobia. Near the end of her life, she committed to “create” her life, building a circle of gay friends, vacationing in Provincetown, Mass., calling it a “gathering of the clan.”
Lorraine Hansberry (center left) and Nina Simone (center right) singing at a fundraiser event (1963)
She died in in 1965 at age 34 of pancreatic cancer, eulogized by singer Paul Robeson at a funeral in Harlem where a note was read from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
In May, a statue of Hansberry titled “Just Sit a While and Think,” was unveiled in Times Square by the Lilly Awards Foundation to honor the playwright and civil rights leader while investing in those following her lead.
The statue, a depiction of Hansberry sitting on a tree stump with five empty seats, inviting people to join her, is inspired by a line in her play Raisin in the Sun – “Don’t get up. Just sit a while and think. Never be afraid to sit a while and think.” The statue is on a tour of the United States and can currently be seen at Howard University in Washington D.C., with its final stop and permanent installation to be Chicago, her home town.
More information on the sculpture, including where it will be installed next, can be found here.