Friday, May 19, 2017

Lorraine Hansberry - Eternally Young, Gifted and Black

"A woman who is willing to be herself and pursue her own potential runs not so much the risk of loneliness, as the challenge of exposure to more interesting men - and people in general."
Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965) knew what she was talking about. In her short life, she never shied away from pursuing her own goals. And because of her dedication she was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway, and she won the New York's Drama Critic's Circle Award -- the first black dramatist, the fifth woman and, at the age of 29, the youngest playwright to do so.

She is most well known for her play A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway in 1959 and tells the stories of Black Americans living in Chicago who, after the death of the father, is trying to decide how to use his life insurance money to improve their situation. The crux of the play is the decision to move into an all-white neighborhood, and the problems that come from that.

This is a story Lorraine knew quite well. When she was a child her own family had struggled against segregation in Chicago. In 1938 they bought a house in the same neighborhood used in the play, and immediately faced unrelenting harassment  The white neighbors sued to get them to leave, and the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court (Hansberry v. Lee).

Her family valued education and routinely entertained notable black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, and were very active in the civil rights movement as well as local politics.

Having been raised in such a progressive household, it's no surprise that she herself was a fire brand for equality as she grew older. When she was in college, she was active in politics as well as fighting for civil rights issues. In fact, she was the first black student to integrated a dormitory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison while she was there.

After two years, though, she decided college wasn't a good fit for her. She dropped out and moved to Harlem, where pursued a career as a writer. She worked as a journalist for the Pan-African newspaper Freedom -- published by Paul Robeson -- covering a wide variety of events and subjects of interest to black people around the globe. True to her belief in gender equality she brought a refreshing point of view to her writing, making sure her articles included the perspective of the women involved.

After a few years working for Freedom and being very active in political and civil rights circles in New York, she married another passionate political activist and writer, Robert Nemiroff, whose work enabled her to leave the newspaper and become a full-time writer. The marriage didn't last, but the two ended it on amicable terms and continued to work together.

In fact, there is substantial evidence that Lorraine Hansberry was a lesbian. She was a vocal activist for gay rights, wrote extensively about feminism and homophobia, and around the same time as their separation, she joined the Daughters of Bilitis - one of the first lesbian rights organizations, started in San Francisco in 1955.

Who knows what she could have done, had she not died so young. Her death from Pancreatic cancer cut short a life that had been filled with activity and talent. Her dear friend Nina Simone wrote her song "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" in her memory.

Watch a short interview with Nina Simone and an early performance of "To Be Young, Gifted and Black:

If you want to read more about her life and writing check out her informal autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

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