When she was eight years old, Hansberry’s family moved into a white Chicago neighborhood. This neighborhood had a restrictive covenant discouraging minorities from purchasing property. Lorraine and her family were victims of harassment but they refused to move until ordered to do so by court.
Carl Hansberry, Lorraine’s father, took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants illegal but could not prevent the enforcement of these covenants in Chicago.
Her parents were opposed to segregation so they sent Lorrain to public schools. She briefly attended the University of Wisconsin, then moved to New York where she worked as an editor for the black newspaper “Freedom.” While protesting the exclusion of black athletes from sports, she met her husband Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish songwriter.
Hansberry left Freedom and took a job as a waitress to focus more on her writing. Nemiroff wrote the successful song “Cindy, Oh, Cindy.” Once this song became popular, Hansberry could write full time.
It was during this period that she wrote the play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” It was the first Broadway-produced play written by an African-American woman.
After the successful run of “A Raisin in the Sun” the Hansberrys were accused of being slumlords in Chicago, Hansberry’s marriage to Nemiroff was also experiencing difficulties. As a result, the family moved to Los Angeles, and Hansberry divorced Nemiroff in 1964.
Hansberry continued writing but never again experienced the success she had with “A Raisin in the Sun.”
She wrote “The Drinking Gourd” for the National Broadcasting Company, but it was considered too controversial for television and was never produced. By 1964, Hansberry was diagnosed with cancer. She often attended rehearsals for another play, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” in a wheelchair. After 101 performances, the play closed the night Hansberry died, Jan 12, 1965.
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black: An Informal Autobiography,” Hansberry’s autobiography was published in 1970 by Signet.
Nemiroff adapted “A Raisin in the Sun” as a musical, “Raisin.” It won the Best Musical Tony Award in 1973 and ran on Broadway for almost three years. It was revised again in 1981.
Hansberry’s last three plays, “Les Blancs,” “The Drinking Gourd,” and “What Use Are Flowers?” were published in a collection, “Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays” published in 1994 by Vintage.
“A Raisin in the Sun” Plot
The story centers around the Younger family in Chicago. Walter Lee works as a limousine driver but hopes for a better life by using his father’s insurance money to open a liquor store. His mother wants to send her daughter, Beneatha, to college and to purchase a house. His mother gives in to Walter Lee and divides the money between a down payment on a house, Beneatha’s college education and the remainder she gives to Walter Lee. The house she put the down payment on is in an all-white neighborhood and one of the white residents tries to buy her out. Walter Lee’s money is stolen by a con artist.
The play’s title came from a Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem“
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
and then run?”
On March 11, 1959, the play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Hansberry was the first African-American to win the award.
Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, John Fiedler, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett, Jr. reprised their roles from the play for the 1961 film version. Both Poitier and McNeil received Golden Globe nominations. Dee received the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress and director Daniel Petrie received a “Gary Cooper Award” at the Cannes Film Festival.