Lorraine Hansberry: Dreamer Supreme
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in the midst of the New Negro generation and at the beginning of America’s greatest economic collapse.
Politically active, defiant of Jim Crow laws, and affluent even during the Great Depression, few African American families were as New Negro as the Hansberrys.
Yet, the word “negro” is crossed out on Lorraine’s birth certificate and “Black” handwritten over it. Deleting the hospital's classification, Carl and Nannie Hansberry declared their right to give their daughter an identity of their own making. The youngest of four siblings, Lorraine learned that studying, questioning and challenging the system was simply the Hansberry way of life.
In 1938, Lorraine Hansberry’s family moved into a predominantly white Chicago neighborhood. Bricks and broken concrete were thrown at the Hansberrys' house, and barely missed eight year old Lorraine. In 1948 the FBI began tracking her activities as a politically active freshman at the University of Wisconsin. After her sophomore year, she left college and moved to New York to pursue her writing career.
Living on the Lower East Side, she took odd jobs in the garment district before venturing up to Harlem where she began her first writing job for Freedom, an African-American newspaper founded by activist Paul Robeson. In June 1952, she met songwriter Robert Nemiroff, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and a year later they were married in Chicago at a ceremony attended by both families.
Hansberry's first play, A Raisin in the Sun, won popular and critical acclaim when it arrived on Broadway in 1959. She went on to write The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Les Blancs and several other works, including many that related to her life-long commitment to civil rights. On January 12, 1965, she died of cancer at the age of 34.
Hansberry’s former husband, Nemiroff, was a pop song writer and personal family friend. I married one of his favorite actors, Kim Yancey, who often portrayed Beneatha. Divorced before her death, Bob spoke always lovingly and reverently in awe of his late friend, Lorraine Hansberry. She loved art, music and poetry, he said, like the poetry contained in the entire 75 page Montage Of A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes, published in 1951 and dedicated to two of Hughes’s favorite friends, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph and Fanny Ellison. Described by Hughes as a poem on contemporary Harlem, “marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.”—with its concluding Harlem poem and question: What happens to a dream deferred?
The Lorraine Hansberry Collection at the Schomburg Center For Research In Black Culture is a remarkably thorough record of family, personal, and professional papers, letters, manuscripts and photographs documenting her entire life as an artist and activist.