Lorraine Hansberry was an award winning playwright and the first African American woman to have a play performed on Broadway. Her play Raisin in the Sun (1959) was a big success. The story is about the life of a working class African American family in Chicago. The themes are segregation, restricted opportunities for African Americans, and dreams deferred (which the title hints at, a poem of Langston Hughes.)
The writer was born into a middle class Black family in Chicago in 1930. Ms. Hansberry’s father was successful in real estate and helped open the first Black owned bank in Chicago. In an important series of events, her father bought a house in a white neighborhood to work against segregation and racial clauses in real estate. He took it to court, all the way up to the Supreme Court. Although he won, there was no lasting social change that eliminated housing covenants. He left for Mexico, since his country denied him his freedom to live where he chose. He died there before the family joined him. As a middle class African American man, race struggles did not elude him. This was a cornerstone of his children’s formations.
Although her family members had traditionally attended Black colleges, Hansberry decided on the University of Wisconsin (Madison) She began by studying art then switched to writing. After two years, she quit school and left for New York City. Hansberry and her husband Robert Nemiroff met in 1952 while protesting NYU basketball team segregation. They were a mixed race couple, he was of Russian Jewish ancestry. After they married, Robert supported her financially while she worked on the play. They were married until 1964, shortly before her death. At the end of her life, she began to date girlfriends. Sadly, she lived only 34 years until she passed away from pancreatic cancer. She appointed Nemiroff executor of her literary estate.
My review of Conversations with Lorraine Hansberry edited by Mollie Godfrey:
When Ms. Hansberry’s first play was such a big hit, TV and radio shows clamored to interview her. She was a lively participant in discussions on the air; kept her head, didn’t seem nervous and expressed herself easily, as one of the foremost intellectuals of her day. She did not appear to be new to the game of publicity and public speaking. Hansberry was funny, personable, and insightful. Today, if she were still with us, she would be invited to star on Trevor Noah, Colbert, and James Corden. She would shine like Amanda Gorman has this year when Cooper then Corden were in awe of her.
The collection of interviews brought together by Godfrey brings alive Hansberry’s wit and wisdom. I felt I could hear her speaking and get a sense of who she was. It also showed the personalities of interviewers and assorted guests as the sometimes flawed and domineering stuffed shirts that they can be. One Brit in particular was so caught up in saying whatever came into his head that he scarcely gave air space to the other 5 guests! LH took it in stride and spoke when she had a point to make, interrupting if that’s what it took to get her opinion heard. I admired the way she navigated the power dynamics.
In my opinion, the two best interviews of the book were those by Studs Terkel and Patricia Marx. Both interviewers were the best prepared and the most respectful of Ms. Hansberry. Terkel made an error about Sidney Poitier’s role, but he was ready to listen to the playwright’s point of view about the play. He asked permission to use Lorraine’s first name, which I thought was a nice touch. He gives Hansberry the space to talk about her work in a way no other White male does in the book.
Patricia Marx is one of only two women interviewers. She shows the artist respect by asking probing questions about creating theater. Hansberry compliments her at one point, when Marx says, “How do you stage a dramatic moment?” because no one has ever asked her this before. The question I found the most profound was, “Miss Hansberry, what are you trying to achieve through your own writing?” How does she respond? I recommend you read this wonderful set of interviews to find out!
Have you seen the play or the film Raisin in the Sun?
Thank you for reading Fake Flamenco! –Rebecca