Throughout the month of June, we will be sharing information about historic American figures who were involved in both secular and LGBTQIA+ spheres.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was an award-winning playwright, author, and civil rights activist who is perhaps best known as the playwright of A Raisin in the Sun, which was largely inspired by her and her family’s experiences. She was a nonreligious lesbian woman who embraced her homosexuality in the later years of her life.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Hansberry’s early childhood played a large role in informing her later works. In 1938, her family moved to the all-white Washington Park Subdivision neighborhood of Chicago. The residents attempted to impose a “restrictive covenant” on the neighborhood to keep the area completely white, and went to court to block the Hansberrys’ purchase of the house. When the case, Hansberry v. Lee, ultimately reached the Supreme Court in 1940, the Court ruled in Hansberry’s favor, asserting that the class action lawsuit the residents had filed was contestable but not inherently invalid; racist restrictive covenants would not be deemed unconstitutional until Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948.
Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin for two years, where she was active in progressive and radical political organizations and campaigns. She then moved to New York City in 1950, and began working at the black newspaper Freedom one year later.
In 1953, Hansberry met Jewish songwriter Robert Nemiroff and moved with him to Greenwich Village, where she began writing full-time. Though the two remained close and Nemiroff continued to support Hansberry’s work, the two separated in 1957 and would ultimately divorce in 1964. In 1957, Hansberry anonymously contributed two letters to The Ladder, the publication of the national lesbian organization the Daughters of Bilitis, in which he described herself as a “heterosexually-married lesbian.”
That same year, Hansberry completed A Raisin in the Sun about a black family in Chicago seeking to move to a white neighborhood, largely inspired by her family’s experience in Washington Park. A Raisin in the Sun became the first Broadway play ever written by a black woman in 1959, and instantly received wide acclaim, earning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award that same year. At 29, Hansberry became the youngest American recipient of the award, as well as the first black woman.
The play also discussed themes of religion, largely through the atheist character Beneatha, whom Hansberry described as “me, eight years ago” when the play was staged. “It’s all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don’t accept,” she says, adding that “I get tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort.”
Hansberry would write several more plays over the next few years, including The Sign in Sydney Brustein’s Window, which opened on Broadway in 1964. She also remained active in fighting for civil rights, meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and writing that the fight for liberation necessitated “every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and nonviolent,” remaining a revolutionary to the end. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1964 and died in 1965 at just 34 years old.
After her death, Robert Nemiroff restricted access to Hansberry’s personal writings related to her sexuality, but many of these writings were ultimately released in 2013. In them, Hansberry unambiguously embraces her lesbian identity and details relationships she pursued with women toward the end of her life. “How free I feel today,” she says, deciding to commit to “this homosexuality thing:” “I will create my life—not just accept it.”