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The Many Visions of Lorraine Hansberry

She’s been canonized as a hero of both mainstream literature and radical politics. Who was she really?

With “A Raisin in the Sun,” Hansberry became an emblem of American progress.,Photograph by David Attie / Getty

It is a lonely, wild, and often fatal thing to be Black and brook no compromise. Lorraine Hansberry was rigorous and unyielding in her life, but she was gone too soon and claimed too quickly by those who thought they understood her. Like many other Black giants of her time, her image proved pliable in death. She was turned into a saint so that her life could be turned into a moral. Yet she struggled beneath the weight of her own complexities and sorrows. She achieved literary celebrity but called herself a “literary failure,” was supported in a marriage that ultimately collapsed, resisted her family but didn’t denounce it, became an icon of the civil-rights movement that she relentlessly criticized, and wrote a masterpiece only to watch as it was widely misunderstood.

When I first encountered “A Raisin in the Sun,” I treated the play with suspicion. I was in high school, and thought that any Black writer who received such universal praise must have, in some way, sold out. I followed Hansberry’s protagonist, Walter Younger, Jr., as he confronted the future, “a big, looming blank space—full of nothing.” I watched him try to fill that space, begging and plotting and raging and falling into the abyss of deferred dreams that still swallows people whole. Despite my best efforts, I was moved. Perhaps I had succumbed; perhaps I would sell out, too.

But I had misread Hansberry. She knew all about Black success in America—its rewards, its costs, its limits—and her vision of it was murkier and more unsettling than she is given credit for. “A Raisin in the Sun” was the first play written by a Black woman to appear on Broadway—in 1959, when Hansberry was twenty-eight. It was an instant hit, and Hansberry’s age, race, and gender made her an emblem of American progress. “Raisin” follows the rise and fall and rise again of the Youngers, a Black mid-century family trying to turn its loss into a legacy. Walter Younger, Sr., has died, and the payout from his life-insurance policy promises to transform his family: five people across three generations squeezed into a kitchenette on Chicago’s South Side. Walter’s widow, Lena, uses part of the windfall for a down payment on a home in a white neighborhood. Against her better judgment, she entrusts another part to Walter Younger, Jr., to open up a liquor store, instructing him to set aside enough for his sister Beneatha’s medical-school education.

It is very nearly a tragedy. Walter believes so deeply in the American Dream that he cannot see the traps laid in his path. His business partners swindle him, and he loses everything. He is offered a devil’s bargain to gain a small portion of it back: a white man from the Youngers’ new neighborhood offers to pay them to relinquish their house. Things can be set right if they will give in. But Walter, who has considered his whole life a failure, refuses to say “yes, sir” yet again. The curtain closes as the family prepares to move into their new home.

On its surface, “Raisin” was the perfect play for its time. The Youngers are dignified, working-class folk, hemmed in by injustice, demanding nothing more than their fair share of the national bounty. For liberal white audiences, the play suggested an uplifting moral about universal humanity. For liberal Black audiences, it was consistent with the messaging of the civil-rights movement.

But Hansberry was more radical than her broad appeal would suggest. This was the same playwright who would later insist that it was quite reasonable for Black people to “take to the hills if necessary with some guns and fight back.” As Charles J. Shields writes in his new biography, “Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ ” (Henry Holt), Hansberry’s ex-husband and longtime collaborator “wept with disappointment” over the early reviews. They struck him, Shields explains, as “too mild, and none of the themes or ideas were touched on about Black family life, the stresses of poverty, the conflict of the generations—nothing.”

In recent years, the puzzling paradox of how a Black lesbian Communist became a darling of mainstream America has been explored in multiple biographies, including Imani Perry’s “Looking for Lorraine” and Soyica Diggs Colbert’s “Radical Vision,” and in Tracy Heather Strain’s documentary “Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart.” Shields’s portrait is the latest attempt to expand our sense of the personal struggle behind the public figure, and to illuminate the many contradictions that she sought to live and work through.

Hansberry was not raised to be a radical. She was born in Chicago in 1930, the child of an illustrious family that was well regarded in business and academic circles. Lorraine’s father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a real-estate speculator and a proud race man. When Lorraine was seven years old, the family bought a house in a mostly white neighborhood. Faced with eviction by the local property owners association, Carl fought against racially restrictive housing covenants in court. Shortly before the case was argued, a crowd of white neighbors gathered outside the Hansberry home. Nannie, Lorraine’s mother, stood watch with a gun. Someone hurled a brick through the window, narrowly missing Lorraine’s head. When the police finally arrived, one officer remarked, “Some people throw a rock through your window and you act like it was a bomb.” It was 1937. The bombing of Black families would come.

Carl Hansberry’s fight wound up before the Supreme Court, where he won his suit; Lorraine, perhaps, learned something about the need to stay and fight for what you deserve. Or at least that’s the neatest version of the story. Shields’s biography lays out a more complex narrative of political inheritance. Carl was not just a warrior against housing segregation. He was also, Shields says, the “king of kitchenettes,” a businessman who spotted an opportunity in Chicago’s rapidly growing Black population. Urban housing was scarce, in part because white landlords refused to rent apartments to Black families. Carl, through a few intermediaries, set about “blockbusting”—getting white families to sell cheaply by moving Black residents into their neighborhoods. He’d buy a building, then erect flimsy, flammable partitions dividing the apartments into cramped kitchenettes—like the one that the Youngers yearn to escape. “When a decent return on rental property was 6 percent, Hansberry was making 40,” Shields writes. This unseemly fact has been glossed over by some biographers, who have described Carl Hansberry as an entrepreneur. The complaints from his renters make clear that “slumlord” is a more accurate description.

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For Lorraine, being the daughter of a kitchenette king was a problem from the start. Shields describes her being sent to kindergarten in an expensive white ermine coat, then shoved to the ground by her classmates, leaving the fur stained. As she grew up, she drifted away from the politics of her parents, who remained committed Republicans even as most Black voters were shifting their party allegiance; at the University of Wisconsin, she began campaigning for Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party. After the police turned up at a local protest that Hansberry attended, her parents forbade her to continue supporting the insurgent candidate. “I am quite sick about it,” she wrote to a close friend. “They are afraid Little Lorraine will call up one night from the police station and ask for her pajamas.” She kept volunteering for Wallace.

Hansberry also got involved in student theatre, and her nascent political and artistic aspirations fed off each other. In another letter, she wrote, “One either writes, paints, composes or otherwise engages in creative enterprises . . . on behalf of humanity—or against humanity.” Never a strong student, Hansberry left school during her sophomore year and moved to New York. She took a job as an assistant at Freedom, the Harlem-based leftist newspaper run by Paul Robeson, and was immediately thrust into the city’s political ferment. The names that crop up in Shields’s biography—Robeson, Julian Mayfield, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alice Childress, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Claudia Jones (Hansberry’s erstwhile roommate)—read like a Who’s Who of the postwar Black intelligentsia, which is to say, it reads like a list of F.B.I. surveillance targets.

Whether she knew it or not, Hansberry was already one of them. She had been identified by an F.B.I. informant at a meeting of a leftist college group; by the time she died, in 1965, the Bureau’s file on her was a thousand pages long. In 1952, when Robeson was unable to attend an international peace conference in Uruguay—the State Department had cancelled his passport—Hansberry went in his place. She wrote an article describing the trip, in which she referred to the Korean War as “the murder in Korea” and denounced U.S. domination of Latin American economies. If she wasn’t yet a revolutionary, she was certainly talking like one.

But Freedom was falling apart. As the civil-rights movement shunned many of the leftists with whom it had once made common cause, fault lines among Black activists became unbridgeable divides. The vice-president of the New York chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., buckling under anti-Communist pressure, shouted down Robeson during a panel on helping Black people find jobs in radio and television. Many prominent intellectuals disavowed their old allegiances, but Hansberry, whose fealty to the Communist cause endured, later called the N.A.A.C.P. “outmoded.”

Through her political circles, Hansberry had met Robert Nemiroff, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and the two became a couple. Hansberry called him, with a certain fondness, a “wide-eyed, immature, unsophisticated revolutionary.” On the eve of their wedding, in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. The fiancés slipped out of a party at the Hansberry family home to attend a candlelight vigil. In an unpublished short story based on the event, Hansberry evoked her outrage that night, a “desire to fling the glass into the flowers, to thrust one’s arms into the air and run out of the house screaming at one’s countrymen to come down out of the apartments.” In college, Hansberry had said that artists had to be for or against humanity. The narrator of her story looks at the moral disaster and wonders, “What shall I say to my children?”

Hansberry and Nemiroff shared political commitments, but “desire” in a deeper sense was missing from their marriage. Hansberry wrote to her husband obliquely about her attraction to women: “I want one or two things which you simply cannot give.” In letters, she seems torn between her radicalism and the social conservatism of her upbringing. Intellectually, she had reservations about marriage—“I know, for instance, that one does not go on loving people because one says meaningless vows”—but she struggled to see the alternative: “What then? Promiscuity? Revolting.”

The internal conflict between Lorraine the Village radical and Lorraine the daughter of the Chicago bourgeoisie would become a familiar and painful one. She believed that homophobia was a “philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.” She subscribed to The Ladder, the “first national lesbian publication,” and when it ran a piece about “how lesbians should dress and act” she dashed off a characteristically emphatic letter to the editor. As a child of the Black élite, she wrote, she had been taught how to dress and act for the “dominant social group.” It had not changed which hotels would deny her entrance, or stopped the cops from sneering at her mother when a brick shattered her window. Appeasement, Hansberry believed, wouldn’t get you very far. Her demand was freedom, nothing less.

But living freely could be nearly impossible. Even when Hansberry’s marriage began to dissolve and she started dating women, she and Nemiroff continued living together. (They would divorce a year before her death.) Her sexuality was well known in the Village, where she could be seen driving a convertible with a girlfriend, but it was never a public matter in her lifetime. When “A Raisin in the Sun” made her a celebrity, the editors of The Ladder tried to persuade her to come out publicly. Hansberry said that, as a Black lesbian Communist, she had been forced to decide “which of the closets was most important to her.”

It is hardly surprising, then, to encounter Hansberry writing to Nemiroff, in 1956, that she was “terribly lonely, almost to the point of madness.” Adding to her despair was the torture of writing. In her early twenties, she had finished several plays and staged readings with her friends, but she considered the work inadequate. In a letter, Nemiroff wrote, “You are so obviously grappling with yourself, uncertain, unresolved about many things.” What she needed was “a little more self-confidence; a little more self-honesty and self-criticism.” He continued to champion her after their marriage ended, managing her career and prodding her to write through bouts of depression.

In her journals, Hansberry described an ordinary day in the fall of 1956: she thawed a chicken for dinner; a “very dull” friend came over; she “smoked cigarettes and longed to be quite dead.” She was unmoored, unable to finish her play. In a beautiful and harrowing passage, she writes, “Outside it is already deep autumn again and I am twenty-six and somehow there are leaves, the brown, unhappy, useless ones on the sidewalks of the streets outside—even though there are no trees. . . . If such emptiness only had a shape.” The anguish generated by her torpor calls ahead to the fear of a big nothing that threatens to consume Walter Younger, Jr.

Only two years before “Raisin” opened, Lorraine gathered all her material for the play in the fireplace and prepared to burn it. Nemiroff took the pages away. A few days later, he put the script in front of her and she went back to work.

Success tends to make itself seem inevitable, but at every stage “A Raisin in the Sun” was an unlikely prospect. The initial producers were record-label owners who knew little about developing a Broadway show. Fund-raising stalled, and there were disputes over who should direct. In January, 1959, after stops and starts, the play premièred in New Haven, with Sidney Poitier starring as Walter Younger, Jr. On March 11th, it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, in New York.

“Raisin” is a naturalist drama, sliding coolly between despair and hope, often by way of bitter jokes. In the opening act, when the life-insurance check arrives, Walter, Jr.,’s wife, Ruth, tells Lena that she ought to go to Europe. After all, she points out, “rich white women . . . don’t think nothing of packing up they suitcases and piling on one of them big steamships and—swoosh!—they gone, child.” Lena simply laughs: “Something always told me I wasn’t no rich white woman.” It’s a funny retort, but Hansberry lets the meaning hang in the air. Her entire play revolves around that “something”—the forces that withhold simple dignity from Black Americans.

For some critics, the play was a triumphant story of overcoming these forces. In the final scene, Lena says proudly, of her son, “He finally come into his manhood, today, didn’t he?” The seemingly happy ending, which some audiences considered a quasi-revolutionary act, was easy to rally around. One critic applauded the show for displaying Black people’s ability to “come up with a song and hum their troubles away.” It no doubt helped that all the Youngers want is to own a business and a home. Walter is not staging a sit-in, staring down the police, or seizing the means of production. He wants to get rich. He wants to own property. And who out there beyond the stage lights didn’t?

For starters, Black radicals even younger than Hansberry. Amiri Baraka later recalled thinking that the play was “middle class”; the Youngers’ fixation on “moving into white folks’ neighborhoods” looked like an endorsement of an assimilationist agenda. But this was never Hansberry’s intent. Of the critic who understood her characters to be carefree, she wrote, in the Village Voice, “It did not disturb the writer that there is no such implication in the entire three acts.” Hansberry’s play is a masterpiece because it pushes ideas until they mutate; what might read at first as a moral triumph is too complex, too enmeshed in the compromises of American life to be so easily summed up.

Reducing “Raisin” to the standoff between the Youngers and their bigoted neighbors ignores the play’s clashes within its Black world—between genders, generations, and classes. The class conflict is perhaps best captured by Walter’s sister, Beneatha, and her rich suitor, George Murchison, whom she insists she’ll never marry. The Murchisons, she explains, are “honest-to-God-real-live-rich colored people, and the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich colored people.” When her mother admonishes her not to hate the rich for being rich, Beneatha responds that plenty of people hate the poor for being poor.

Hansberry admitted that her family was more like the Murchisons than the Youngers. When “Raisin” premièred in Chicago, what should have been a momentous homecoming turned into a fiasco. The city had doggedly pursued the Hansberry company over unpaid fines and the poor living conditions at its properties, issuing arrest warrants for all proprietors of the business, including Lorraine. On opening night, she had to flee Chicago—shadowed by the very class divide that her play so sharply portrays.

Shields holds up this apparent contradiction as proof of Hansberry’s inconsistency. How, he wonders, could she endorse “economic justice for Black Americans that would give them access to better opportunities and a standard of living consistent with the pursuit of happiness” and also oppose capitalism, which had made her family—and then her—rich? “She never seemed to understand the complex ways aspiration, democracy, and an advanced market economy can go hand in hand,” Shields writes.

But this was exactly what Hansberry did understand. Walter, Jr., is sick with aspiration and capitalism, and all that democracy talk flitting around the country isn’t helping him get well. “Raisin” punctures the American Dream, but takes seriously the question of why it has such power in the first place. Lena puts it starkly:

Lena: Son—how come you talk so much ’bout money?
Walter: Because it is life, Mama!
Lena: So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . .
Walter: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.

Absent a political education, Walter demands the best thing he can imagine, which is the right to be a boss. Who can say that he is wrong? Money is life. People die for a lack of it every day. Yet Hansberry puts the line into the mouth of a man descended from people who were made into capital. Money is life has historically been a reality too literal to bear. Walter thinks that he’s taking a step up, but listen closely and it sounds like he’s giving in to a darker idea. Hansberry knew that dreams like Walter’s were lodged deep in the breasts of their dreamers. What she doubted was whether they were worth it. She had always had what the Youngers wanted. It did not keep the despair at bay, nor had it set the world free.

Hansberry had been intoxicated by the idea of public renown long before she achieved it. When she was twenty-five, she wrote, “Fame. It has become a sweet promise, hiding, whispering to me daily. . . . I shock myself with such thought and shake my head with embarrassment—fame!” “Raisin” depends on the tension produced by such a shock. It admits a fact denied by people of many races and politics: what a particular Black person wants may not always be consonant with freedom. American history has placed such weight on the meaning of those wants that it can be hard to look at them straight on. Hansberry didn’t turn away.

After “Raisin,” writing was still a struggle; depression was still stifling. Even as the play received widespread acclaim—or perhaps precisely because it did—Hansberry considered it dramatically flawed. When adapting it for the screen, she set about trying to make improvements, adding new scenes with more obviously political material. They never made it into the film.

Her next play—she didn’t know it would be her last—was “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” about Village intellectuals whose artistic careers are floundering and whose love lives are a mess. In the opening scene, Sidney, a pretentious newspaper editor, advises a protégé to “presume no commitment, disavow all engagement, mock all great expectations”—a succinct summary of the kind of writing that Hansberry despised. The play opened to unenthusiastic reviews. One, Shields notes, deemed it “an unresolved chaos of liberalistic political and sexual ideas.”

Through it all, Hansberry was sick and getting sicker. She had ulcers, anemia, and calcium deposits. She visited doctors and underwent exploratory surgery. The truth was that she had pancreatic cancer, but she was never told; Nemiroff concluded that it would be better if she didn’t know how dire the state of her health was. Their friends took up a collection while she was in the hospital, not to pay for her care but to keep “Sidney Brustein” running. The play closed on January 12, 1965, the night Hansberry died. She was thirty-four years old.

In a speech a few weeks before “Raisin” débuted in New York, Hansberry said it was a Black writer’s duty to join “the wars against one’s time and culture.” One can barely imagine what she would have achieved had she been able to stay in the wars longer, through the terrible, astonishing years that followed. Instead, she was drafted into the culture in ways that likely would have discomfited her. She became a star—bright but distant.

Years ago, in my first Brooklyn apartment, I cut out of a magazine a photograph of Hansberry and taped it to my wall. In the picture, she is twenty-nine or thirty, her hair high and tousled. A cigarette hangs between her fingers. Her eyes are fiery, focussed just beyond the frame. Her mouth is open, but her jaw is set. She appears like a dream of this city: a writer in pitched combat over ideas. Many of us have tried to look like this and failed.

This vision, of course, doesn’t capture her in full. Her passion could be countered by inhibition, her tenacity by trepidation. The year before she died, she questioned whether her success had made her too comfortable. She worried about having “sold my soul.” All her pretty words paled in comparison with what was being done at lunch counters, on buses, and in streets around the country. In her journal, she made a note: “I think when I get my health back I shall go into the South to find out what kind of revolutionary I am.”

Blair McClendon, a writer, an editor, and a filmmaker, is based in New York City.

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