Happy Birthday, Lorraine Hansberry!


 

Lorraine Hansberry

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Lorraine Hansberry was born at Provident Hospital on the South Side of Chicago on May 19, 1930. She was the youngest of Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl Augustus Hansberry’s four children. Her father founded Lake Street Bank, one of the first banks for blacks in Chicago, and ran a successful real estate business. Her uncle was William Leo Hansberry, a scholar of African studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Many prominent African-American social and political leaders visited the Hansberry household during Lorraine’s childhood including sociology professor W.E.B. DuBois, poet Langston Hughes, actor and political activist Paul Robeson, musician Duke Ellington and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens.

Lorraine Hansberry photoDespite their middle-class status, the Hansberrys were subject to segregation. When she was 8 years old, Hansberry’s family deliberately attempted to move into a restricted neighborhood. Restrictive covenants, in which white property owners agreed not to sell to blacks, created a ghetto known as the “Black Belt” on Chicago’s South Side. Carl Hansberry, with the help of Harry H. Pace, president of the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company and several white realtors, secretly bought property at 413 E. 60th Street and 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue. The Hansberrys moved into the house on Rhodes Avenue in May 1937. The family was threatened by a white mob, which threw a brick through a window, narrowly missing Lorraine. The Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the legality of the restrictive covenant and forced the family to leave the house. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision on a legal technicality. The result was the opening of 30 blocks of South Side Chicago to African Americans. Although the case did not argue that racially restrict covenants were unlawful, it marked the beginning of their end.

Hansberry Decision

Image from Chicago Public Library

Lorraine graduated from Englewood High School in Chicago, where she first became interested in theater. She enrolled in the University of Wisconsin but left before completing her degree. After studying painting in Chicago and Mexico, Hansberry moved to New York in 1950 to begin her career as a writer. She wrote for Paul Robeson’s Freedom, a progressive publication, which put her in contact with other literary and political mentors such as W.E.B. DuBois and Freedom editor Louis Burnham. During a protest against racial discrimination at New York University, she met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish writer who shared her political views. They married on June 20, 1953, at the Hansberrys’ home in Chicago.

In 1956, her husband and Burt D’Lugoff wrote the hit song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” Its profits allowed Hansberry to quit working and devote herself to writing. She then began a play she called The Crystal Stair, from Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.” She later retitled it A Raisin in the Sun from Hughes’ poem, “Harlem: A Dream Deferred.”

A Raisin in the Sun playbillIn A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by an African-American to be produced on Broadway, she drew upon the lives of the working-class black people who rented from her father and who went to school with her on Chicago’s South Side. She also used members of her family as inspiration for her characters. Hansberry noted similarities between Nannie Hansberry and Mama Younger and between Carl Hansberry and Big Walter. Walter Lee, Jr. and Ruth are composites of Hansberry’s brothers, their wives, and her sister, Mamie. In an interview, Hansberry laughingly said, “Beneatha is me, eight years ago.”

Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, about a Jewish intellectual, ran on Broadway for 101 performances. It received mixed reviews. Her friends rallied to keep the play running. It closed on January 12, 1965, the day Hansberry died of cancer at age 35.

Although Hansberry and Nemiroff divorced before her death, he remained dedicated to her work. As literary executor, he edited and published her three unfinished plays: Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd and What Use Are Flowers? He also collected Hansberry’s unpublished writings, speeches, and journal entries and presented them in the autobiographical montage To Be Young, Gifted and Black. The title is taken from a speech given by Hansberry in May 1964 to winners of a United Negro Fund writing competition: “…though it be thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic, to be young, gifted and black!

Young, Gifted, and Black

From Chicago Public Library

 

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Quotable! – Colson Whitehead


Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a New York-based novelist. He is the author of six novels, including his debut work, the 1999 novel The Intuitionist, and the National Book Award-winning novel The Underground Railroad. Image from Princeton.


“What isn’t said is as important as what is said.”

“Write what you know.”

“I’m just trying to keep things rich for me creatively and for the readers who follow me.”

“Early in my career, I figured out that I just have to write the book I have to write at that moment. Whatever else is going on in the culture is just not that important. If you could get the culture to write your book, that would be great. But the culture can’t write your book.”

Quotable! – Langston Hughes 1902-1967


Langston Hughes

James Mercer Langston Hughes – an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry. Image from NYDailynews.


“I swear to the Lord I still can’t see why Democracy means Everybody but me.”

 “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”

 “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

 “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?… Or does it explode?”

 “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

Quotable! – Nikki Giovanni


Nikki Giovanni

Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni, Jr. – poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. Image from Feminine Fusion.


“Nothing is easy to the unwilling.”

“Everything will change. The only question is growing up or decaying.”

“We love because it’s the only true adventure.”

“Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts.”

“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.”

“show me someone not full of herself and I’ll show you a hungry person.”

 

Quotable! – August Wilson


August Wilson

August Wilson – (1945-2005) two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fences, The Piano Lesson, King Hedley II, Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running, Jitney and Radio Golf. Image from the Boston Globe.


“You can put law on paper but that don’t make it right.”

“You got to be right with yourself before you can be right with anybody else.”

 “My early attempts writing plays, which are very poetic, did not use the language that I work in now. I didn’t recognize the poetry in everyday language of black America. I thought I had to change it to create art.”

 “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.”

 “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”

Quotable! – Octavia E. Butler


Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler, (1947-2006) award-winning science fiction author of Kindred, Dawn, Patternmaster and the Parable Series. Image from Stagen Studios.


“Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyze yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.”

“I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.”

“People have the right to call themselves whatever they like. That doesn’t bother me. It’s other people doing the calling that bothers me.”