Lorraine Hansberry is best known as the playwright of A Raisin In The Sun, the groundbreaking play about a working class African-American family on the South Side of Chicago that illustrates how the American Dream is limited for Black Americans. The play is widely hailed as one of the greatest-ever achievements in theater. Hansberry herself led an extraordinary life, which is profiled in the American Masters film Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Hearts.
I knew Hansberry was a legendary playwright before I watched the film, but I didn’t know that she was a true revolutionary. Revisiting her life and work — from her radical anti-racist activism to her shattering of gender and social norms — feels more timely now than ever. Here's what I learned.
1. Throughout her childhood, Hansberry’s family fought passionately against segregation in Chicago.
Like the family in A Raisin In The Sun, Hansberry and her family lived on the South Side of Chicago, where her father was an influential real estate developer who helped Black families to find housing amid strict segregation laws. When Hansberry was young, her father decided to take a stand against the racist laws, moving the family to a white neighborhood. A court ruling forced the family to leave — but they fought back. The case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court and, in 1940, resulted in a decision that opened up some properties in Chicago to Black residents.
2. From a young age, she questioned assumptions about race and justice.
In the American Masters film, Hansberry’s sister recalls that they called Lorraine “the little sponge” because she observed the world around her and soaked up information. As a child who experienced racist taunting and bullying, Hansberry recognized that despite her family’s prosperity, she couldn’t escape the harsh reality and physical violence of racism. When her father died suddenly of a stroke, she partly blamed racism, saying that, “The cost, in emotional turmoil, time and money, led to my father’s early death.”
3. She launched her career as a writer and activist in Harlem, and was active in the Communist Party.
After attending college in Wisconsin, Hansberry set out to the East Coast “seeking education of another kind.” In New York, she started working for the radical newspaper Freedom, which she called the “journal of Negro liberation.” She wrote about economic rights, women’s liberation, the plight of the poor, and other injustices. Surrounded by a community of radical thinkers, she joined the Communist Party and the Labor Youth League, attracted to the mission of fighting segregation and oppression.
4. Her activism caught the attention of the FBI.
In the 1950s, the nation was swept up in paranoia and fear of communist infiltrators. As a 22-year-old, Hansberry’s work caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and she was put under surveillance. She refused to be silenced, and continued writing. The FBI kept a dossier on her for years, and an undercover agent attended an early screening of A Raisin In The Sun to make sure it didn’t make any Communist statements.
5. She turned to art to make a political statement.
Living in the creative hub of New York City’s Greenwich Village was where Hansberry made the jump from journalism to playwriting. At the time, American theater was coming into its own, as playwrights used the stage to critique social norms and provide commentary on current affairs. Hansberry saw theater as an avenue to make a political statement.
6. To write A Raisin in the Sun, she drew on her personal experience.
To write a story about the struggles of working-class African Americans in Chicago, Hansberry drew on her own life and people she knew from her childhood. ''Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life,'' she wrote. ''And I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are — and just as mixed up — but above all we have, among our miserable and downtrodden ranks, people who are the very essence of human dignity.''
7. The play electrified the Black theater community — and the wider theater community.
Before Hansberry’s play, Black actors could only find work in occasional Broadway roles, usually written by white writers. A Raisin in the Sun created the unprecedented opportunity to cast many Black actors in a play that centered on Black characters. Hansberry became the first African American woman to have a play performed on Broadway, and she won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, becoming the youngest playwright to do so, at age 28. Star Sidney Poitier said about the play, “She put together a group of characters that were unbelievably real. She was reaching into the essence of who we are, where we came from.”
8. She fought conventions in her personal life.
Hansberry was never really concerned with doing what was expected of her as a middle-class Black woman. In 1953, she married Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish activist who supported her ambitions to become a writer. At the time, interracial marriage was still illegal in half of America. In private, Hansberry identified as a lesbian, and even published short stories about the gay community under a pseudonym. She was careful to keep her sexuality private and separate from her public image, although it wasn’t a secret to people close to her.
9. James Baldwin invited her to a meeting with RFK about race relations.
Hansberry never stepped away from her advocacy for racial justice, especially as the Civil Rights Movement took off in the early 60s. In 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy was struggling with growing racial tensions in the South. He invited James Baldwin — who in turn invited Hansberry as well as Harry Belafonte, Jerome Smith, and other Black leaders — to his Manhattan apartment for a meeting.
In Harry Belafonte’s words, the evening “imploded." Hansberry tried to appeal to Kennedy’s privilege, but she was disappointed that he seemed unsympathetic to what needed to be done for civil rights. She became discouraged that white people would ever understand the plight of Black Americans.
10. Her life was cut short, but her legacy is long-lasting.
Tragically, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in 1965 at the age of 34, soon after the premiere of her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Even in the final months of her life, she continued speaking out and fighting for civil rights, particularly calling on white liberals to do more to fight racism. Her enduring legacy can be explained in these words, the inspiration for the film’s title: “One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.”
Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Hearts airs on WGBH 2 on Sunday, July 26 at 5pm.