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Art HERstory: Lorraine Hansberry


Art HERstory: Lorraine Hansberry
Art HERstory: Lorraine Hansberry

‘What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— And then run?’ – ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes

As women, we  constantly face the societal side eye. We are often considered inferior and only good for ‘womanly’ duties. Before August 18, 1920, women’s lives were consumed by domestic work. The ratification of the 19th Amendment unlocked the door of opportunity. Women ignored the knob completely and kicked that mofo in! One of those fed-up women was author and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965). She was sick of knocking and took the initiative to write her own destiny.

Lorraine was born in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents were both successful intellectuals who spared no expense when it came to the life of their little girl. She attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The college experience didn’t inspire Lorraine as she thought it would so she dropped out and move to NYC. Once in the Big Apple she began classes at The New School. Outside of academia, Lorraine wrote for the Black newspaper Freedom under the pseudonym Paul Robeson. Coincidentally, W.E.B. DuBois’ office was in the same building so she spent a portion of her time working for him as well.

The poster for the Broadway production of 'A Raisin in the Sun' was simple yet dramatic. The expression on Walter Lee's face is unforgetable.

The poster for the Broadway production of 'A Raisin in the Sun' was simple yet dramatic. The expression on Walter Lee's face is unforgetable.

Although Lorraine spent her life composing essays, political speeches, and letters, her most important and well-known work is the play A Raisin in the Sun. The title of the play came from the opening line of Langston Hughes’ Harlem. The play debuted on Broadway in 1959 and starred the likes of Sydney Portier, Ruby Dee, and Louis Gossett Jr. It was the first Broadway play written by an African-American woman.

The plot of the play hit close to home for Lorraine. It was actually based on a 1940 lawsuit involving the Hansberry family. The entire issue took place in Chicago’s Washington Park Subdivision. In 1928, the landlords of the subdivision signed covenants that stated that no properties the the neighborhood “…shall be sold, given, conveyed or leased to any negro or negroes, and no permission or license to use or occupy any part thereof shall be given to any negro except house servants or janitors or chauffeurs employed thereon…” The covenants were even submitted to the Cook County Register of Deeds as binding legal documents.

Walter Lee and Beneatha never agreed on anything. Here, Beneatha (Diana Sands) is trying to talk some sense into that hard-headed brother of hers.

Walter Lee and Beneatha never agreed on anything. Here, Beneatha (Diana Sands) is trying to talk some sense into that hard-headed brother of hers.

As the Great Depression took a choke-hold on the country’s finances, more and more non-white families began to purchase homes in Washington Park. The Burkes were one of those families. In 1938, the Burkes sold their home to the Hansberry family. Anna M. Lee, a White occupant in the neighborhood, along with others who signed the covenants sued to prevent the Hansberry’s from moving into the home they purchased. The family’s refusal to move initiated borderline violent outbursts from the Washington Park community. Lorraine recalls in her book To Be Young, Gifted, and Black:

“25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.”

The rebellion resulted in the court case Hansberry vs Lee. The Illinois court system ruled in favor of the Lees. The NAACP, outraged and persistent, wasn’t satisfied with the outcome and didn’t accept it. They got the case elevated to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Hansberrys under the argument that their 14th Amendment rights were violated. The 14th Amendment includes the Citizenship Clause that gave Blacks citizenship, Due Process Clause which prohibits government from depriving citizens of life, liberty, and property, and the Equal Protection Clause which requires each state to provide equal protection for all people within its jurisdiction. The 14th Amendment was the same amendment used in Dred Scott vs Sandford and Brown vs Board of Education. The irony of it all is that once the Hansberry’s seizedvictory, White tenants started to get evicted to make way for African-American families with higher income. Believe it or not, by 1950 the subdivision was 99% Black. The Hansberry home is now an official landmark.

'A Raisin in the Sun' was re-produced in 1998 as an ABC made for television movie. The cast included Sean 'P Diddy' Combs as Walter Lee, Sanaa Lathan as Beneatha, and Phylicia Rashad as Mama.

'A Raisin in the Sun' was re-produced in 1998 as an ABC made for television movie. The cast included Sean 'P Diddy' Combs as Walter Lee, Sanaa Lathan as Beneatha, and Phylicia Rashad as Mama.

Since A Raisin in the Sun‘s debut, it has become a play studied in classrooms across America. It’s considered one of the most important plays ever written. It has also been made into a musical, a movie 3 times, and revived on Broadway in 2004. The 2004 cast included stars such as Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs and Phylicia Rashad. I’m sure Lorraine never expected her play to have such an impact on a nation.

Lorraine Hansberrycontinued to create until her death at age 34. She battled long and hard with pancreatic cancer until January 12, 1965.

Image Layout: Phaymiss

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One Response to “Art HERstory: Lorraine Hansberry”

  1. Gabriella GDK says:

    So much accomplished in such a short life. Beautiful post!

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