The Revolutionary Artist & Civil Rights Activist Pop Culture Forgot About

Photo: David Attie/Getty Images
I think about Lorraine Hansberry a lot. She is the first Black woman to have a show produced on Broadway (1959’s A Raisin in the Sun) and one of the most brilliant Black lesbian feminist authors in American history. I think about her whenever someone says the words “young, gifted, and Black,” because it’s a phrase she coined; her friend Nina Simone made it prolific. When Chadwick Boseman declared the cast of Black Panther as “young, gifted, and Black” at the Screen Actors Guild awards, I thought of Lorraine Hansberry telling a class of students in 1965 that “there is no more dynamic a combination” that a person can be. I think about Hansberry every time a clip of her dear friend and colleague James Baldwin goes viral. Hansberry was one of his greatest influences.
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I don’t think Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy and accomplishments are memorialized enough — especially in comparison to her friends Simone and Baldwin. When so many incredible Black American feminists were quoted in Beyoncé’s Homecoming (the greatest concert film of all time), but Hansberry wasn’t, I thought about her again. Pop culture seems to have forgotten about one of the most revolutionary artists of the civil rights movement.
Princeton professor Imani Perry has thought about Hansberry so much she wrote a book about the playwright called Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. According to Perry, Hansberry was ahead of her time creatively and politically. "She was a feminist before the feminist movement,” Perry told NPR. “She was identified as a lesbian and thought about gay rights organizing before the gay rights movement. She was an anti-colonialist before all of the independences had been won in Africa and the Caribbean."
Perry’s book coincides with the 60th anniversary of A Raisin in the Sun, which became a film starring Sidney Poitier in 1961 with a reboot in 2008 starring Diddy and Phylicia Rashad, and the documentary about Hansberry’s life, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, that won a Peabody Award this month. Hansberry died of cancer at 34, before she could live to see her work immortalized but not before she changed the face of Broadway forever.
With help from Perry, over the phone from Toronto right before TIFF’s Books on Film anniversary screening of the original A Raisin in the Sun, here’s why Hansberry’s life and work are still so relevant, and why now may finally be the time the world starts remembering Lorraine Hansberry in the way she deserves.
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Photo: David Attie/Getty Images

Let’s start with the basics. Who is Lorraine Hansberry?

Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930 (she coincidentally shares a birthday with Malcom X, her contemporary and one of her biggest admirers). She grew up on Chicago’s South Side. Her father, Carl, was a prosperous local businessman, and her mother was a hairdresser, teacher, and cashier throughout her life. Hansberry’s parents were heavily involved in social issues and instilled in her a politically engaged spirit. In addition to being a playwright, Hansberry was a staunch activist and advocate of Black liberation, and along with Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, and James Baldwin, lobbied then US President Robert F. Kennedy to do more for civil rights. Until her death, Hansberry donated her money and resources to the freedom movement of the ’50s and ’60s.

What about Hansberry’s sexuality?

Hansberry described herself as a “heterosexually-married lesbian.” She was married to Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish man she met on a picket line, from 1953 to 1964. They stayed close friends until her death. Even though she was publicly out as alesbian, Hansberry’s sexuality very much informed her work. “It was definitely something she tied to her intellectual life because she thought a lot about what it meant to be lesbian in the context of feminism,” Perry says. The fact that Hansberry even called herself a lesbian to her close friends was radical. “This was still a period where lesbian and gay bars were being raided. People were being arrested, and people's names were being published in the newspaper, fired and their lives being destroyed if they came out.”
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A Raisin in the Sun came out 60 years ago. Why do people still care about it?

When Hansberry was 29, she became the first Black woman playwright to get a play produced on Broadway, which is impressive, but that’s not why A Raisin In The Sun is still lauded so many years later. The story goes like this: An impoverished Black family living in Chicago gets an insurance payout of $10,000 following the death of the family’s patriarch. From there, a story unfolds of class and race in America and what happens when dreams don’t come true. “The larger frame of [A Raisin in the Sun] is about residential segregation and the concentrated poverty that comes from a history of racial inequality,” Perry says. “Those are issues that we continue to confront today.” The year it debuted on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun won the New York Drama Critics' Circle for the best play of the year (beating Tennessee Williams), making Hansberry the youngest American to win the award.

Write if you will but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be. Work hard at it. Care about it. Write about our people. Tell their story.

Lorraine Hansberry

What else did Hansberry write?

A lot of things that will make you feel woefully inadequate, but aside from being a great playwright (her follow-up to A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, is criminally underrated), she was a brilliant essayist whose posthumous collection writing and interviews were turned into an off-Broadway production called To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
Hansberry was mentored by W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. Martin Luther King Jr. called her "an inspiration to generations yet unborn." She was friends with Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, and James Baldwin — she was one of the first people Baldwin would get to read his work and turned to her to help him get over his anxiety during his writing process.
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Why isn’t she as glorified as her peers?

Part of the reason she isn’t a household name, Perry says, is that Hansberry had less time to cultivate her legacy because she died so young, but so did a lot of artists we still revere to this day (see: The 27 Club). “It is astonishing we don't know more about her,” Perry says. “Some of that is also the intersections of sexism and racism that she’s not more regarded as one of the most influential playwrights in history of the American theater.” Perry hopes that with her book, the documentary, and a couple of forthcoming books, Hansberry will finally get the praise she deserves.

What can we learn from Hansberry’s work today?

Hansberry’s approach to her creativity — a no-holds-barred, self-deprecating attitude — and her dedication to both her work and the advancement of other Black creatives is what we can learn from her, according to Perry. “I want her to become someone whose life and work is used to think about our current time,” says Perry. “She can help us channel our senses of purpose and commitment. Rather than an icon I think of her as a walking, thinking partner for those of us trying to do meaningful work.”

Most importantly, if Hansberry were alive today, what would she be like on Twitter?

Aside from probably causing a stir for criticizing Black political leadership for not being far left enough (an argument she made often), Hansberry would be the kind of celeb who would quit Twitter dramatically, and come back a week later, Perry theorizes. “She would be very snarky and funny. I also think there would be moments when she would just throw up her hands because she would get irritated,” Perry laughs. “I also imagine her leaving in a huff and then returning.”
The TIFF Books on Film series is running now in Toronto. For more info, click here.
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