Lorraine Hansberry  playwright and agitator

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was one of the most relevant playwrights of the 20th century. Her work highlights the struggle for equality and justice, as an African American woman who in her early years was also a leader of the Communist youth movement.

Born in 1930, Hansberry grew up in Chicago. Frequent visitors to her home included African American figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Jesse Owens and many others.

Eventually her family moved to a suburban community, which Hansberry described as a “hellishly hostile white neighborhood.” Her father fought segregation policies, which sought to institutionalize discrimination based on race, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Hansberry v. Lee ruling became an important victory during the civil rights struggle.

Meanwhile, Hansberry was sent to an all-white public school as a protest against segregation, which was the inspiration for her most famous work, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

In 1948, she attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she became active on campus including with the Labor Youth League, which was that era’s incarnation of the Young Communist League. Hansberry became a member of the editorial staff of the LYL’s publication, “The New Challenge.”

Hansberry moved to New York City where she studied at the New School for Social Research and the Jefferson School for Social Sciences (a school run by Communists and independent socialists). She took a seminar on Africa taught by W.E.B. Du Bois that heightened her awareness about Africa’s fight against colonialism.

She found a job with Paul Robeson’s magazine Freedom, initially as a secretary, though she quickly moved up to become associate editor.

Hansberry met Langston Hughes, who became another major influence in her life. The title of her play “A Raisin in the Sun” comes from Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred,” in which he asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, Or does it explode?” Completed in 1957, the play was celebrated for its insight into everyday Black life.

In 1959, “A Raisin in the Sun” opened in Philadelphia and New Haven, Conn., followed by Hansberry’s hometown Chicago, where the play is set. It finally made Broadway, where it was a hit, running 530 performances. The cast included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Louis Gossett.

It was the first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway, and Hansberry became the first African American, as well as the youngest person, to produce a work that won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play of the year.

As a college student Hansberry had written: “We want to see films about people who live and work like everybody else, but who currently must battle fierce oppression to do so.” The movie adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun,” released in 1961, won Hansberry a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Screen Writers’ Guild Award. Recently, it was chosen as one of the 100 most significant works of the 20th century in a British theater poll of playwrights, actors, directors, journalists and other theater professionals.

After divorcing her husband of four years, Hansberry joined the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation’s first lesbian organization. She contributed to their publication, The Ladder, writing scathing critiques of sexism and homophobia, pointing out their political roots.

“Homosexual persecution has at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma,” she wrote. Because of aggressive repression of the LGBT community, the publication used only writers’ initials to protect their identities. Her involvement with the early lesbian movement has only recently been discovered.

Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at age 34, leaving behind several unfinished plays. Her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff completed and released several of them, including “Les Blancs” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” She also left several more that were never finished, such as an opera about 18th-century Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Hansberry once stated, “All art is ultimately social: that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber,” and even today her writings succeed in agitating and raising awareness.

Brandon Slattery is a Young Communist League leader in Philadelphia. Adapted from an article published in Dynamic, the YCL’s magazine.