Lorraine Hansberry - A dream
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
--- “Harlem” by Langston Hughes
When I began this homage to Lorraine Hansberry, I knew very little about her except that she’d written one of my favorite plays, A Raisin in the Sun. It pulls at my heart every time, just like Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller does. Why? One play is about a black family that aspires to move out of the ghetto and into their own home in a white neighborhood, and how those plans are thwarted. The other is about a man who has come to his senior years and feels he has not accomplished what he expected for himself and his family. Their significance to me is probably pretty obvious, and I won’t get into it now, because, well, we are here to celebrate the late, great Lorraine Hansberry!
If you remember reading A Raisin in the Sun – or seeing the film and know little else, you may be surprised by a few things I’ve discovered in my LIMITED research of Hansberry. (Volumes have been written on her, so this is just the tip of the ole iceberg.)
For starters, Hansberry was born in 1930 and grew up in Chicago. Her dad was a successful real estate broker, her mom a teacher. She was the granddaughter of a freed slave. When Lorraine was 8-years old (7 in some accounts) her parents moved the family from the south-side to an all-white neighborhood, which had a covenant (WTF?!) against black families purchasing property. Once the Hansberrys moved in, they were subjected to harassment. One night, a mob gathered around their house and someone threw a piece of concrete through the living room window. It narrowly missed Lorraine’s head. Hansberry recalled later that after that incident her mother “patrol[ed] the house all night with a loaded German luger” while her father was off fighting in court for their right to live there. Working closely with the NAACP, her father brought a lawsuit (Hansberry v. Lee), which went to the Supreme Court and was eventually ruled in Hansberry’s favor.
That was the genesis of A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered on Broadway in 1959. Hansberry was the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, and the youngest African American to win the New York Drama Circle Award. She was 29. “A dream deferred?” Not so much.
A Raisin in the Sun ran 19 months and was a huge success. Here’s what James Baldwin had to say about it:
"I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater. And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage. Black people had ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them." (Baldwin, "Sweet Lorraine," (1969) in Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words: To Be Young, Gifted and Black, adapted by Robert Nemiroff).
A Raisin in the Sun was adapted in 1961 for the screen, starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Louis Gossett, Jr. (his screen debut). In my meanderings on the internet, I found this hilarious list that Hansberry wrote in her diary. Note which heading Sidney Poitier is under:
Hansberry, who grew up with W.E.B. Du Bois sitting on the living room sofa, was an activist from a young age (concrete blocks thrown through your window tend to do that). After leaving the U of W – Madison after two years, she moved to NYC, where she worked for Paul Robeson’s (As in “Old Man River” Paul Robeson) progressive newspaper Freedom. You can hear her speak out at a New York Town Hall about her frustration with white liberals who felt there was a right way and a wrong way to protest for Civil Rights (sound familiar, Summer of 2020?). She pointed out that while her father had done everything “by the book,” – taking things through the courts -- segregation was still deeply entrenched in Chicago. “A dream deferred.”
Hansberry’s activism led to her meeting Jewish songwriter Robert Nemiroff on a picket line. The two were married in 1953. In 1964, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window opened in NYC. It centers around a white, Jewish, male intellectual who lives with his wife in the Village. This play received mixed reviews. Hansberry created a gay, male character – considered progressive at the time, but the play was criticized for only having one black character. (In other words, it wasn’t “black enough”). Watch this delightful exchange in Young Gifted and Black about trying to please the theatre critics (start at 11:28).
In 1962, after their divorce, Nemiroff encouraged Hansberry to purchase the building at 112 Waverly Place.
(I lived at 390 Waverly Place, the same block as Frances Perkins had lived, and I never knew that either woman had lived so close to me. PLAQUES, PEOPLE, WE NEED PLAQUES!).
Hansberry fell in love with one of the tenants, Dorothy Secules, who had lived there since the ‘30s. Hansberry had had other relationships with women, and she’d subscribed and written letters under a pseudonym (L.H.N.) to The Ladder, a publication of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the U.S. However, Hansberry did not come out OUT until 2014 when her papers were released, long after her death. (Take another look at her lists of likes and dislikes. It’s a poignant reminder of living in a homophobic world.) “A dream deferred”?
Hansberry remained close friends with Nemiroff, and he and Secules nursed her on her death bed in 1965 when she died of pancreatic cancer. Nemiroff devoted his life to Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy and adapted a collection of her writing and interviews in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, which opened off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre and ran for eight months.
Lorraine Hansberry. She lived a mere 34 years. Surely, she had dreams realized and dreams deferred, as do we all. Yes?
Interested in learning more? This site is a treasure of interesting bits, including an interview she did with Studs Terkel: https://makinggayhistory.com/podcast/lorraine-hansberry/ and https://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/lorraine-hansberry/lesbian-writing
Writing challenge: What dreams have you deferred and why?