This Day In Literary History
On May 19th, 1930, the famous African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Carl Hansberry, was a prominent real estate broker.
In 1938, when Lorraine was eight years old, her father moved the family to an all-white neighborhood where a majority of homeowners had formed a covenant that banned blacks from buying homes in the neighborhood. So, he had a white friend buy the house for him.
After the Hansberrys moved into their new home, they were attacked by an angry mob. A brick was thrown through Lorraine's bedroom window, and she just barely avoided being struck by it.
Her father later sued the white homeowners for discrimination, and in the case of Hansberry v. Lee, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision banning homeowners' associations from discriminating against home buyers and renters on the basis of their race.
Although Lorraine's father had prevailed in court, the family was still subjected to harassment from their racist white neighbors. She later quipped that she had lived in a typical "warm and cuddly white neighborhood."
Ironically, after her death, her family home would be designated by the city of Chicago as a historical landmark. The climate of racism she grew up with would inspire her to write her first and most famous play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959).
The title comes from a line in the poem Harlem by legendary African-American poet Langston Hughes. Set in the 1940s, A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of the Youngers, a poor black family living in a small apartment in Chicago's South Side.
The family patriarch has died, and his survivors will soon receive an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. His widow, Mama, wants to fulfill the dream she shared with her husband and buy a house.
Her grown son, Walter, wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends - an investment he believes will provide the whole family with long term financial security. Beneatha, Walter's sister, wants to use the money to pay for her medical school tuition.
Walter's wife, Ruth, agrees with Mama, believing that a new house would provide more living space for themselves and their son, Travis. As the play progresses, the Youngers fight over their conflicting dreams.
When Ruth becomes pregnant, she considers having an abortion, as she and Walter really can't afford another child. Walter doesn't object, which drives Mama to put a down payment on a nice house in a white neighborhood.
Beneatha is not happy about her family mixing with whites. She's not the only one. When the Youngers' soon-to-be new neighbors find out that the black family is moving in, they send Mr. Lindner from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association to bribe them to stay out of the neighborhood.
They refuse the deal, even after Walter loses the rest of the insurance money when his friend Willy runs off with it instead of investing it in the liquor store. In the play's third act, Beneatha's Nigerian boyfriend wants her to move to Africa with him after she graduates.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family prepares to move out of their apartment and into their new house, fulfilling their dream but also exposing them to a dangerously racist environment. When A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959, it became the first play written by an African-American to be produced for the Broadway stage.
The original cast featured Sidney Poitier as Walter, Ruby Dee as Ruth, and Claudia McNeil as Mama. It would be adapted as an acclaimed feature film in 1961, with the entire original Broadway cast reprising their roles - including a young Louis Gossett, Jr. as George Murchison.
The play would also be adapted as a hit Broadway musical called Raisin in 1973. The musical would be nominated for nine Tony awards and run for 847 performances. Original cast members included Joe Morton as Walter, Debbie Allen as Beneatha, Ernestine Jackson as Ruth, Ralph Carter as Travis, and Virginia Capers as Mama.
Lorraine Hansberry wrote several other plays, including her second most famous play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. After 110 performances, the play closed on the day she died, January 12th, 1965. She was 34 years old and had lost a long battle with cancer.
Despite her illness, she continued to work as an activist for civil rights, women's rights, and other causes. Her other writings were turned into an acclaimed play called To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. It would be the longest running off Broadway play of the 1968-69 season.
Quote Of The Day
"Write if you will: but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be — if there is to be a world. Write about all the things that men have written about since the beginning of writing and talking — but write to a point. Work hard at it, care about it. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention. Don’t pass it up. Use it." - Lorraine Hansberry
Today's video features a rare recording of Lorraine Hansberry speaking in New York City, circa 1964. Enjoy!