Young, Gifted, and Black: Remembering Lorraine Hansberry

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Lorraine Hansberry was an extraordinary human being. With A Raisin in the Sun she became the first Black woman ever to have her show produced on Broadway. Aged 29, Lorraine won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award – the first African American and youngest playwright ever to receive this honour. She was also, as suggested by her personal writings and advocacy work, a closeted lesbian.

Born in 1930, Lorraine was the youngest of the four Hansberry children. Her father, Carl Augustus, was a real estate broker. Her mother, Nannie Louise, was a driving instructor and ward committeewoman. When Lorraine was eight years old her parents bought a house in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago. Local white people were immediately hostile. Outraged at having Black neighbours, they began a legal dispute with the goal of forcing the Hansberry family to move elsewhere – allowing the neighbourhood to become all white once more. Hansberry v. Lee went to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Amidst this civil rights case, the Hansberry family attracted support from the great Black thinkers and artists of that era. From an early age, Lorraine mixed with the likes of WEB DuBois and Duke Ellington. Prominent African American cultural figures were regular guests in the Hansberry home. Lorraine was soon to join them and become an icon.

Lorraine studied at the University of Wisconsin–Madison – before graduating, she ran a successful campaign to have the dormitory integrated. In 1951 Lorraine moved to Harlem, the beating heart of the Black cultural renaissance. There, Lorraine threw herself into Black rights activism and joined the staff of the Freedom Newspaper – an African-American periodical. She wrote articles, edited content, worked as a subscription clerk, did admin, and pitched in wherever possible.

Drawing inspiration from her family’s own civil rights case, Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun – a play about a Black family battling against segregation. The curtain went up in 1959. In this production Sidney Poitier made his Broadway debut as Walter Lee, a man whose self-respect has been worn away by repeated acts of racism. The play was a roaring success. After the first performance, the audience called for Lorraine to climb on stage and take a bow. Robert Nemiroff – her husband – was sat in the third row. Behind him, a mixture of her lesbian friends – including Renee Kaplan, the woman Lorraine had fallen for.

The true nature of Lorraine Hansberry’s relationship with Bobby Nemiroff remains shrouded in mystery. Some saw it as a marriage of convenience, which provided Lorraine with the financial security and veneer of respectability she needed to make it as a writer. Others viewed Nemiroff as a source of emotional stability in the life of a temperamental artist; he is reported to have absorbed Lorraine’s outbursts and rages, guiding her towards the completion of her books and plays.

Though Lorraine was never publicly out during her lifetime, she participated in the lesbian community and organizing where possible. Under her initials, L.H.N, Lorraine contributed writing to the Daughters of Bilitis – America’s earliest lesbian rights organization. Her letter to The Ladder was about sex, gender, and sartorial choices. Hansberry was an impeccable dresser who wore slacks even when relaxing at home. Her wardrobe largely consisted of button-down shirts and cardigans, chinos and corduroys – the kind of ensemble that is universally recognized as a lesbian aesthetic when modeled by a white woman.

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart – 78th annual Peabody Awards acceptance speech from Peabody Awards on Vimeo.

At this point, Lorraine separated from her husband. They continued to work together amicably as creatives, but the marriage was over. Lorraine became an active member of the lesbian community. She dated women. She went to parties in Greenwich Village and the affluent Upper East Side. Amongst this set of wealthy lesbians, which included Patricia Highsmith, Lorraine was often the only Black person in the room.

And yet she shared a close friendship with another Black, gay intellectual: James Baldwin, who called her Sweet Lorraine. They joked, theorized, argued, and drank together. Like Baldwin, her sexuality was downplayed so that she might be considered a credit to the race. To this day, certain bits of Lorraine’s writings are kept under wraps so that her image is preserved.

Like too many visionary artists, she died long before her time. Pancreatic cancer claimed Lorraine’s life when she was only 34. Her ex-husband became the executor of her existing and unfinished works. It is impossible to say whether, if Lorraine had lived, she would have felt able to come out publicly. Still, she has since been recognized as a lesbian icon: in 1999, Lorraine Hansberry was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.