Lorraine’s work has made a significant contribution to the artistic and political expression of the African American people in their struggle against national oppression and economic exploitation. Her writings and social activism will inevitably be studied by generations to come.
January 12 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), a renowned playwright who was also a political activist on the Left.
Her death at the age of 34 took place during a period of transition in the African American liberation movement of the mid-1960s. Hansberry’s life was a full one that drew on and intervened in many of the significant developments taking place over the course of a lifetime.
Born in Chicago during the Great Depression to an activist father who played a pivotal role in the struggle to end restrictive housing covenants in the United States, Hansberry grew up in a relatively vibrant African American cultural and political milieu. Despite the viability of African American communities under legalized segregation the objective conditions of the majority of the people required a struggle for civil and human rights.
Carl Hansberry was a successful businessman who purchased a home in a previously all-white neighborhood in Chicago. A group of white residents organized mobs and legal challenges to overturn the acquisition based upon the existence of restrictive covenants.
These covenants were written into deeds that prohibited the sale of houses to African Americans, Jews and other national groups in the U.S. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War which ostensibly provided citizenship rights to African people as well as provisions to guard against discrimination in housing, the law was largely ignored for decades leading into the 20th century.
Hansberry filed a lawsuit against the practice and won a favorable ruling in 1940 from the U.S. Supreme Court. The Hansberry v. Lee decision constituted the beginning of the end of restrictive covenants which were not fully declared unconstitutional until 1948 when the Supreme Court rendered decisions in the Shelly v. Kraemer and Hurd v. Dodge cases that sought fair housing.
According to the Howard University School of Law Fair Housing Clinic, “In dual opinions in the cases of Shelly v. Kraemer and Hurd v. Dodge, the U.S. Supreme Court declares the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants by the state to be a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Any enforcement therefore is unconstitutional. The decision finally corrects the Corrigan v. Buckley case of 1926 that set back the cause of fair housing decades.”
HANSBERRY’S WORK ON THE LEFT
During the late 1940s Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin and while there joined the Young Progressives of America (YPA) and the Labor Youth League (LYL). These organizations were committed to ending the Cold War through their work for world peace and racial equality.
Hansberry also developed an interest in African affairs and later studied African Culture and History with W.E.B. DuBois at the Jefferson School for Social Sciences in New York. While taking a class at the Jefferson School, she met legendary artist, actor, social scientist and activist Paul Robeson.
All three of these organizations, the YPA, LYL and the Jefferson School were established by the Communist Party and had close links to its mass activities. During the early 1950s, Hansberry joined the staff of Freedom newspaper, another CP-oriented initiative that was headed by Paul Robeson based in Harlem.
As part of her contributions to the course instructed by DuBois, Hansberry wrote a paper entitled “The Belgian Congo: A Preliminary Report on Its Land, Its History, and Its People," illustrating her burgeoning consciousness related to African affairs and anti-colonialism.
A website published by Columbia University’s Social Justice Movement project says of her involvement with Freedom newspaper that “she received her initial political and professional apprenticeship (or what came to be known as her college education). She began as a subscription clerk, receptionist, typist, and editorial assistant, and was quickly promoted to associate editor.”
This same article continues saying Hansberry was “Regularly in contact with Robeson and DuBois and used the opportunity to expand her understanding of race, politics, and culture. She authored several articles for Freedom. Within its pages she celebrated victories of newly independent nations against their former European colonizers, explored the origins of American political economy, delineated the expression of the American political economy in its maintenance of racially-based ghettoes, dealt with cultural structures and institutions that preserved racism, and defended colleagues under ideological attack from the FBI and anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy.”
In 1953 Hansberry met Jewish songwriter and activist Robert Nimeroff on a picket line in New York City. The two were married but later divorced in 1962, although they continued to work together.
Freedom newspaper along with other progressive and Left institutions came under attack during the Cold War and eventually forced out of existence. Hansberry would enter the literary and theater scene with great and pioneering achievements during the late 1950s.
HANSBERRY MAKES MARK ON BROADWAY
Her play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” took Broadway by storm in 1959, being the first of such productions authored by an African American woman. The play was made into a film starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.
This theatrical production was based on the struggle of an African American working class family’s attempt to advance their social status within society. The multi-generational family debates what to do with an inheritance from the deceased husband of the matriarch.
A decision is made to divide the money between purchasing a home in an all-white neighborhood, the mother’s preference, and the purported acquisition of a liquor license by the son played by Sidney Poitier. The son is swindled by his partners but the family moves into the white neighborhood.
The play won the New York Critics’ Circle Award and the film earned the same recognition from the Cannes Film Festival. In addition to the successful play she wrote extensively on issues of race, gender and sexuality.
As early as 1957 she joined the Daughters of Bilitis and contributed letters to their magazine, The Ladder, about feminism and homophobia. In 1964 she presented another play, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” which received a considerably less enthusiastic reception on Broadway.
ESCALATION OF ACTIVISM AND MILITANCY
After 1963 Hansberry moved further to the left with her intervention in the Civil Rights Movement. She participated in a meeting with the-then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy during 1963 where she questioned the administration’s commitment to racial equality.
In an address delivered at a public meeting in New York on June 15, 1964, she stated that we have “to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical." Nonetheless, she also stated "some of the first people who have died so far in this struggle have been white men."
Hansberry tragically died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34 in early 1965. Her works during this period were consolidated into other productions by her former husband and were later released including “Les Blancs” (1970) and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1968-69).
Hansberry’s work has made a significant contribution to the artistic and political expression of the African American people in their struggle against national oppression and economic exploitation. Her writings and social activism will inevitably be studied by generations to come.
* Abayomi Azikiwe is Editor, Pan-African News Wire.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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