Lorraine Hansberry: 1960s-era Black radical and artist

Lorraine Hansberry poses with her typewriter. PHOTO: David Attie
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When Lorraine Hansberry was just seven years old, her family moved to an all-white community outside Chicago. News spread fast and they were soon beset by a mob of whites. Someone fire-bombed the house. The family stayed, and Lorraine’s father fought for integrated housing in the courts. Though he finally won some victories, his experience left him profoundly disillusioned and he lived the later part of his life in Mexico.

The new documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, produced, directed and written by Tracy Heather Strain, demonstrates how this early experience and her father’s ultimate disgust with the system formed the base of Hansberry’s radicalism. She saw her father working within the system to advance Black liberation and making little progress. From this, she concluded that the system cannot be reformed and should be replaced with a one that does not breed racism and oppression.

Early days. Hansberry attended college for two years, then moved to New York City. There she wrote for the Black journal, Freedom, from 1951 to 1953. The magazine was a project of the Communist Party and had grown out of the anti-fascist movement of the World War II era.

For the three years Hansberry wrote for Freedom, she would have found herself in a vibrant mix of socialists, communists, artists and civil rights activists. But the documentary, unfortunately, does not give us many details about her deeply political life.

Hansberry also wrote for The Ladder, a magazine published by an early lesbian rights organization known as the Daughters of Billitis. She wrote under her initials, to avoid being exposed during the depths of the far-right McCarthy period.

A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry is best known for her seminal play A Raisin in the Sun. The title is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes:

What happens to a dream deferred
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore
And then run? …

The play, written when Hansberry was still in her twenties, was the first drama by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway, and the first to have an almost all-Black cast. It was ground-breaking as the first Black-themed work that did not feature music, and it dealt with the interior life of an ordinary working-class Black family. Hansberry said she chose these folks because they form the base of the Black community.

As Raisin in the Sun opens, the family is waiting for a $10,000 insurance check. They argue about how to use the money. The son wants to buy and run his own little business. The daughter wants to go to medical school. The son’s wife and mother both want a decent house. Throughout the play, each of them confronts the limitations, the lack of opportunity, the ever-blocked dreams of being Black in racist USA.

In the end, the mother puts some of the money down on a house in a white neighborhood and the family moves in and stays, in spite of efforts by the whites to force them out. The theme — that only through fighting will the family endure and not be crushed by bigotry.

Raisin opened on Broadway in 1959 and had an unprecedented run of over 500 shows. A film version was made in 1961. Said Hansberry before the filming: “No one is going to change this play into a damn minstrel show!”

Life of a Black radical. From her days with Freedom, Lorraine Hansberry was under surveillance by the FBI. She was well known among leftists and civil rights activists for her opposition to the Vietnam War.

Black liberation, she believed, is not possible under the current system. Only revolution will transform conditions so that Blacks can live lives of dignity and purpose. She was impatient with white liberals and exhorted them to become radicals to struggle alongside Blacks.

A meeting of Black artists and writers with Bobby Kennedy in 1963 illustrates Hansberry’s convictions and leadership. Along with James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte and others was a young, bandaged civil rights worker named Jerome Smith. He wept describing being brutalized by Southern cops. And he declared he would never pick up a gun to fight for his country because of its racism. Hansberry then confronted Kennedy for the government’s lack of response to the intense Civil Rights battles in the South. And then she led a walk-out of the meeting.

A legacy of struggle. Hansberry said, “One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.” She was a leftist, artist, revolutionary and feminist. Hansberry died at 34 from pancreatic cancer. Her story very much needs to be told and absorbed today.


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