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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago. Her parents, Carl and Nannie Hansberry, were a successful black family. Nannie was the college-educated daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister and Carl was a successful real estate businessman, an inventor, and a politician who ran for Congress in 1940. Both parents were activists challenging the laws of discrimination against the blacks. Many important black leaders, such as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes, frequented the Hansberry home.
Lorraine was the youngest of four children. Although her parents could have afforded a private education for her, they sent her to the local public school, which was segregated. They wanted to work within the system to change the laws concerning discrimination. When they moved into an all-white neighborhood, her father, Carl Hansberry, fought in the Supreme Court for her family's right to live there. One night, when Lorraine was eight years old, a brick broke through a window in her house and almost hit her as she and her family sat in their living room. It was thrown with so much force that it became embedded in the wall on the far side of the room. It made a great impression on Lorraine and inspired her to fight for equal treatment for all repressed people. In each of her later literary works, her devotion to social, political, and racial equality is clearly seen.
After high school, Lorraine attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but she did not stay for long. She moved to New York and later studied at Roosevelt University, the New School for Social Research, and the Jefferson School for Social Sciences. In New York, she married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish intellectual whom she met on a picket line protesting the exclusion of black athletes from university sports. After her marriage, she worked as the editor for Paul Robeson's radical black newspaper, "Freedom," until her husband's songwriting career became successful enough to allow her to devote herself to her playwrighting.
In 1959, Hansberry's first play, A Raisin in the Sun, was produced on Broadway; she was the first black female playwright to have a drama presented there. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the 1959 season; she was the youngest American, the fifth woman, and the first black to win the award. The play was later made into a film (1961) and a musical (1973). Hansberry's only other completed play was The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964). It received with mixed reviews and was kept open for 101 performances only by the contributions and support of the theater community. It ironically closed on the night she died.
Although deeply committed to the black struggle for human rights, Hansberry was not a militant writer, a stance that distinguishes her work from other black writers of the 1960s. Instead, Hansberry was keenly aware that "I was born black and female." This double identity would dominate her life and her work. Rejecting the limits placed on her race and her gender, she employed her writing and her life as a social activist to expand the meaning of what it meant to be a black woman. She used the success of A Raisin in the Sun as a platform to speak out for the American Civil Rights Movement and for the African struggle to free itself from white rule. She helped raise money, gave impassioned speeches, and took part in panels and interviews to further these causes. After her death it became known that she had divorced her husband in 1964 and had claimed her lesbianism.
At the age of 34, Hansberry died of cancer on January 12, 1965, cutting short her career and leaving behind several unfinished works, including Toussaint, an opera based on the life of the 18th century Haitian leader. Robert Nemiroff, her ex-husband, compiled his wife's writings in a book entitled, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, published in 1969. He also published Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry in 1972. This volume contained The Drinking Gourd, Les Blancs, and What Use are Flowers.
Hansberry's work serves as a preview to the African-American spirit that engulfed the nation in the historic changes of the Civil Rights Movement. Her writing foresaw feminism, the Gay Liberation Movement, and the demise of colonialism. Truly a spearhead of the future, Hansberry refused to be confined by the categories of race and gender.