Black History Month

7 Reminders That Playwright Lorraine Hansberry Was A Radical And Fearless Black Woman

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Malaika Jabali
Feb, 12, 2018 9:09 AM UTC

Whenever Black History Month rolls around, there is often a focus on the palatable histories of mainstream civil rights leaders. Whether they are depictions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that laud his 1963 I Have a Dream speech instead of his biting critiques of capitalism and militarism or stories about Rosa Parks that disregard her affiliation with the Black Power movement and militancy of the 1970s, our freedom fighters have been whitewashed and gentrified for popular consumption.

For this year’s celebration of Black History Month, ESSENCE is highlighting the lesser known details of groundbreaking Black leaders and creatives. Among them is acclaimed playwright Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun made her the first Black woman playwright on Broadway when she was only 28 years old.

While Hansberry’s landmark play is her most revered accomplishment, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart makes it clear that her art was merely one extension of her radical commitments to the Black liberation struggle and economic justice for the masses of people oppressed by capitalist greed, racism, and imperialism.

A new PBS documentary on Lorraine’s life titled Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart reveals several ways that both her historic play — which was set in the South Side of Chicago and illustrated the struggles of a working-class Black family challenged by racism and a sudden financial windfall — and her own politics were rooted in an unconventional radicalism.

Here are just seven ways in which Hansberry’s legacy continues to be radical and essential for our liberation today.

When 'A Raisin in the Sun' debuted, Black people in film and theater were portrayed as mammies and jesters, entertainers and dancers. Not only was the decision to produce a drama featuring the multifaceted emotions of Black people unheard of, but theater financiers deemed it an outlandish endeavor doomed to failure. Hansberry remarkably proved Broadway wrong. To test the potential for a Broadway run, the play opened in the smaller markets of New Haven and Philadelphia. As the reputation of the play spread in Philly, it drew both Black and white attendees in an integrated environment. Its success led to an offer to run on Broadway, upon which 'A Raisin the Sun' was awarded the top prize in the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. 

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The play cast Black women in a particularly new light. The director Lloyd Richards, whose work with the renowned play made him the first Black person to direct on Broadway, noted in 'Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart' that auditioning Hollywood actresses for the role of mother Lena Younger was disappointing, because Black women were “so trained for mammy roles that...they’d forgotten how to be an actor.” Richards happened upon the New York City-based actress Claudia McNeil from a Langston Hughes musical and cast her to portray the matriarch of the family. McNeil's commanding performance won her critical praise.

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Hanbserry never separated her art from social commentary. In fact, her art appeared to be an extension of her commitment to social and political change. At a conference of Black writers in New York City, Hansberry remarked: “all art is ultimately social; that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber.” She added, “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.” 

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Hansberry’s politics were influenced by observing the life of her father, a wealthy Black real estate investor and civil rights activist who she deeply admired and considered to have done everything right to fulfill the “American Dream.” Nevertheless, he was blocked by the courts from desegregating neighborhoods in Chicago. Disillusioned, he expatriated to Mexico with their family. Hansberry stayed in the U.S., and noted that his economic success and ambition could not prevent him from being seen as a second-class citizen. Before she could reunite with her family, Hansberry learned that her father died from health complications, which the playwright felt was due to stress from his failed battles with institutional racism. This steered Hansberry away from conventional civil rights activism towards socialism and far left ideology. 

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Among the attendees of the play’s Philadelphia run were spies from the FBI, who wanted to determine if 'A Raisin in the Sun' invoked Communist messaging. Before becoming a playwright, Hansberry was a journalist who opined on politics, economic justice, and American imperialism that oppressed people of color around the world. Hanbserry once stated, “I am sick of poverty, lynching, stupid wars, and the universal maltreatment of my people.” As a member of the Communist party, her political critiques and affiliation with the radical left made her a subject of FBI surveillance and J. Edgar Hoover’s “red list.”

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The feminist work 'The Second Sex,' which criticizes gender norms that made a woman’s attainment of a husband and child the ultimate reward, shifted her worldview and heavily influenced the young playwright. The documentary reveals that Lorraine married her husband for companionship, but that she developed romantic relationships with women and wrote under a pen name in a lesbian magazine titled The Ladder. 

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Lorraine died at a young age of 34 from cancer. While she struggled privately to maintain her health, Lorraine never quelled her radicalism and role in the liberation movement. In journal entries, Lorraine pondered if she was prepared to give her body to the struggle and questioned if “mere words were enough.”  In 1964, the year she died, Hansberry spoke at a town hall titled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” in which she told the audience that “the problem is, we have to find some way to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a white liberal and become an American radical.” With fire in her voice, the playwright pronounced “the whole idea of debating whether Negroes should defend themselves is an insult. If anyone does ill in your home or your community, obviously, you try your best to kill them.” Like her Harlem contemporary Malcolm X, Hansberry advocated for self-defense and Black liberation that countered the nonviolent rhetoric of many Black activists.

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