January 12, 2017 will mark fifty-two years since Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930-1965) died at the age of thirty-four after a long battle with intestinal cancer. Her masterpiece A Raisin In The Sun and the Broadway play of the same name, broke new ground in America for African-American playwrights. In fact, her play was the first by an African-American woman to have a run on Broadway. The story of the Younger family has been played out in cities all over the country as people have desired to leave their own communities in search of a better quality of life. The book remains her most popular work but just who was the real Lorraine Hansberry? In this biography, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack tell the story of the playwright’s life from start to finish. And what we see is the formation of the one of the most gifted Americans to have ever lived.
Tupac Shakur had always mentioned Hansberry as one of his idols. The same applies for the myself. Her tragic death at such a young age, is one literature’s and society’s greatest losses. She was born into a family of descendants of slaves on both sides but grew up in a very affluent household. Educated in schools of high prestige and was surrounded by family members committed to excellence who instilled in her from a young age, a commitment to excellence and other traits that remained with her through life as she becomes a playwright and spokeswoman for the growing movement to eradicate Jim Crow and obtain civil rights for all people in the United States.
The Lorraine we come to know as we read through the book, is one who is not afraid to break new ground, challenge social norms and express her thoughts. She remains disturbed by racial prejudice, war and poverty. Writing becomes her outlet and as a result, she produced classic works that have stood the test of time. Her personal life in many ways, made as much of a statement as her works of fiction. She was present at the now famous meeting with then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, in which she and several other activists made their case for civil rights heard. Kennedy came away from the meeting browbeaten but in just a few short years, he would become a candidate for President of the United States and a leading icon of the movement to reshape America through a liberal lens. Her marriage to Robert Nemiroff was a social taboo at the time and illegal in some states. She smoked cigarettes, supported the gay cause, wore long pants and even challenged Malcolm X on his views against interracial marriage during his tenure under the Nation of Islam. Reportedly, the two became friends later on. Never one to be controlled, she lived her life on her own terms and at her own pace. And even as she was dying from terminal cancer, she continued with her work while focusing on the many issues that continued to plague Black Americans. Her vivacious personality, sharp mind and literary skill, earned her the respect, admiration and friendship of an endless list of writers, actors, government officials and activists.
Today I often wonder what would she think if she were alive today, about the current state of America. I think she would ask us if we have learned anything from A Raisin In The Sun. More than fifty-seven years later, America still struggles with acceptance of those of us that come from different countries, speak different languages, eat different foods and worship different gods. We have come a long way since Hansberry’s time and are decades past the inhumane system of Jim Crow. However, we still have a long path in front of us where much work is needed. If she were here with us, she would encourage us to continue to make our voices heard in opposition to injustices afflicted upon anyone of any background. As A Raisin in the Sun continues to be re-made for film, television and Broadway, Hansberry lives on in immortality with her words continuing to remind us of the importance of self-reflection and the struggles we all face.
I highly recommend that anyone who is a fan of Lorraine Hansberry read this biography of her life. She and her family were quite unique in many ways but Lorraine by far was the standout. As a person who loves literature, it would have been a pleasure to just sit and talk with her about a range of topics. Reading through her material, I have become acquainted with a voice that touches deep inside human emotion forcing us to confront the very things we wish did not exist. Had she lived, I believe her career would have reached new heights and Broadway would have been in her debt. This is the life of Lorraine Vivian Hansberry.
“Never be afraid to sit awhile and think”. -Lorraine V. Hansberry