The Crystal Stair: Lorraine Hansberry’s Gifts

In spite of her privileged background, Lorraine Hansberry’s all too brief life was devoted to fighting prejudice and the injustices suffered by many on account of their gender, sexuality, or the colour of their skin. Born in Chicago on 19th May 1930, Hansberry came from a prominent African American family; her father Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a prosperous real-estate broker and her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, a highly respected academic at Howard University. In 1938, the Hansberrys moved to an area of Chicago where there was a restrictive covenant on African American property owners, and in 1940, Carl Augustus Hansberry went before the U.S. Supreme Court to contest the discrimination in a case known as Hansberry v. Lee. The family were also subjected to shocking and bigoted attacks from some of their neighbours, with bricks being frequently thrown through their windows.

Her father’s experience was to have a lasting impact upon Hansberry and following his death in 1946, she became more politically-minded and socially aware, involving herself with campus concerns after starting a course in art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she joined the Young Progressives of America as well as the Labor Youth League. Spending the summer of 1949 in Mexico, studying at the University of Guadalajara, Hanberry decided to quit her formal education and dropped out of university in 1950, leaving for New York with dreams of becoming a writer.

In New York, Hansberry enrolled at The New School for Social Research and worked as the associate editor for Freedom, a radical newspaper founded by the singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, who had been a friend of her father’s.  Whilst participating in a protest against racial inequality, Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, and the two were married in 1953. Only a few years after her marriage, Hansberry began to question her sexuality and in 1957, wrote several letters which were published in The Ladder, a national magazine with a predominantly lesbian readership. However, Hansberry remained cautious about revealing her identity and signed the letters using only her initials.

Hansberry had also begun working on a play about the lives and struggles of the Youngers, an African American family in Chicago. Originally called The Crystal Stair, a line from the poem Mother to Son, by Langston Hughes, she finally settled on the title A Raisin in the Sun, taken from A Dream Deferred, by the same author. The play opened on 11th March 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway and starred Sidney Poitier as the central character, Walter Lee Younger.

It proved to be immensely popular with audiences and lasted for a run of 530 performances; A Raisin in the Sun was the first play by an African American woman to appear on Broadway and earned Hansberry a coveted New York Critics’ Circle award. Utilising her new-found status to speak for those without a voice, Hansberry told Studs Terkel during an interview in May 1959,‘the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, obviously,’ yet she took solace from the idea that any group who were ‘twice oppressed’ could potentially be ‘twice militant.’

Although they had separated in the late 1950s, Hansberry and Nemiroff remained close and even collaborated on The Drinking Gourd, a television series Hansberry wrote for NBC in 1960 which was never screened as it dealt with issues relating to slavery and the American Civil War.

In 1961, Guy Green directed the film version of A Raisin in the Sun, in which Sidney Poitier reprised his Broadway role. The play’s success was repeated in cinemas and the film received much critical acclaim, winning an award at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival and Golden Globe nominations for Poitier and Claudia McNeil.

Above: Original trailer for A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

By 1963, Hansberry had become established as a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement and met with Robert Kennedy, along with other notable supporters such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. A year later, her second play, co-produced by Nemiroff, opened at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway, but The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window only ran for 101 performances and received less enthusiastic reviews than A Raisin in the SunSidney Brustein, the play’s main protagonist, is a Jewish intellectual, dealing with a complicated personal life and thwarted aspirations, who nevertheless ‘believes that death is waste and love is sweet and that the earth turn and men change every day and that rivers run and that people wanna be better than they are.’ 

Just as her career and public profile appeared to be at their peak, Hansberry received the devastating news that she had pancreatic cancer. She underwent several rounds of treatment, but they proved to be unsuccessful and soon her health began to worsen dramatically, often leaving her too weak to work and having to use a wheelchair. On 12th January 1965, Hansberry died and her funeral, which took place in Harlem three days later, was attended by an enormous crowd who wished to pay their respects to a woman who had highlighted and addressed the problems and inequities that blighted so many lives.

At the service, a message from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was read aloud, in which he proclaimed that Hansberry’s ‘creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.’ Hansberry was laid to rest at the Asbury United Methodist Church and Bethel Chapel and Cemetery in New York, the inscription on her headstone a line from her second and final play, ‘I care. I care about it all. It takes too much energy not to care…The why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents; the how is what must command the living. Which is why I have lately become an insurgent again.’

Despite their divorce in March 1964, Nemiroff continued to support his former wife’s work and beliefs after her death by becoming her literary executor. Editing the vast collection of notes and writings Hansberry had left behind, he produced the play To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and dramatic account of her life, and it ran from 1968 to 1969 at the Cherry Lane Theatre off Broadway. In 1970, Nemiroff adapted Hansberry’s unfinished play Les Blancs, which enjoyed a short stint on Broadway. Nemiroff remarried in 1967 and died of cancer himself in 1991, at the age of 61.

To honour the memory of her friend, Nina Simone, along with the lyricist Weldon Irvine, wrote the song To Be Young, Gifted and Black for Hansberry in 1970. It became a hit and has since been covered by numerous recording artists including Aretha Franklin and Elton John.

Above: Nina Simone – To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1970)

Shortly after her diagnosis with the illness that would kill her, Hansberry wrote, ‘I wish to live because life has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful, and that which is love. Therefore, since I have known all of these things, I have found them to be reason enough and – I wish to live. Moreover, because this is so, I wish others to live for generations and generations and generations and generations.’ As Dr King, Jr. observed, Lorraine Hansberry’s extraordinary gift for understanding and describing the human condition, has granted her wish.

Selected Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorraine_Hansberry

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Lorraine_Hansberry

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Be_Young,_Gifted_and_Black

http://www.biography.com/people/lorraine-hansberry-9327823#personal-life

http://www.legacy.com/news/legends-and-legacies/lorraine-hansberry-young-gifted-and-black/616/

http://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/19/obituaries/robert-nemiroff-61-champion-of-lorraine-hansberry-s-works.html