(Blair McClendon’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 1/17/22; Photo: With “A Raisin in the Sun,” Hansberry became an emblem of American progress. Photograph by David Attie / Getty.)
She’s been canonized as a hero of both mainstream literature and radical politics. Who was she really?
It is a lonely, wild, and often fatal thing to be Black and brook no compromise. Lorraine Hansberry was rigorous and unyielding in her life, but she was gone too soon and claimed too quickly by those who thought they understood her. Like many other Black giants of her time, her image proved pliable in death. She was turned into a saint so that her life could be turned into a moral. Yet she struggled beneath the weight of her own complexities and sorrows. She achieved literary celebrity but called herself a “literary failure,” was supported in a marriage that ultimately collapsed, resisted her family but didn’t denounce it, became an icon of the civil-rights movement that she relentlessly criticized, and wrote a masterpiece only to watch as it was widely misunderstood.
When I first encountered “A Raisin in the Sun,” I treated the play with suspicion. I was in high school, and thought that any Black writer who received such universal praise must have, in some way, sold out. I followed Hansberry’s protagonist, Walter Younger, Jr., as he confronted the future, “a big, looming blank space—full of nothing.” I watched him try to fill that space, begging and plotting and raging and falling into the abyss of deferred dreams that still swallows people whole. Despite my best efforts, I was moved. Perhaps I had succumbed; perhaps I would sell out, too.
But I had misread Hansberry. She knew all about Black success in America—its rewards, its costs, its limits—and her vision of it was murkier and more unsettling than she is given credit for. “A Raisin in the Sun” was the first play written by a Black woman to appear on Broadway—in 1959, when Hansberry was twenty-eight. It was an instant hit, and Hansberry’s age, race, and gender made her an emblem of American progress. “Raisin” follows the rise and fall and rise again of the Youngers, a Black mid-century family trying to turn its loss into a legacy. Walter Younger, Sr., has died, and the payout from his life-insurance policy promises to transform his family: five people across three generations squeezed into a kitchenette on Chicago’s South Side. Walter’s widow, Lena, uses part of the windfall for a down payment on a home in a white neighborhood. Against her better judgment, she entrusts another part to Walter Younger, Jr., to open up a liquor store, instructing him to set aside enough for his sister Beneatha’s medical-school education.
It is very nearly a tragedy. Walter believes so deeply in the American Dream that he cannot see the traps laid in his path. His business partners swindle him, and he loses everything. He is offered a devil’s bargain to gain a small portion of it back: a white man from the Youngers’ new neighborhood offers to pay them to relinquish their house. Things can be set right if they will give in. But Walter, who has considered his whole life a failure, refuses to say “yes, sir” yet again. The curtain closes as the family prepares to move into their new home.
On its surface, “Raisin” was the perfect play for its time. The Youngers are dignified, working-class folk, hemmed in by injustice, demanding nothing more than their fair share of the national bounty. For liberal white audiences, the play suggested an uplifting moral about universal humanity. For liberal Black audiences, it was consistent with the messaging of the civil-rights movement.
But Hansberry was more radical than her broad appeal would suggest. This was the same playwright who would later insist that it was quite reasonable for Black people to “take to the hills if necessary with some guns and fight back.” As Charles J. Shields writes in his new biography, “Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ ” (Henry Holt), Hansberry’s ex-husband and longtime collaborator “wept with disappointment” over the early reviews. They struck him, Shields explains, as “too mild, and none of the themes or ideas were touched on about Black family life, the stresses of poverty, the conflict of the generations—nothing.”
In recent years, the puzzling paradox of how a Black lesbian Communist became a darling of mainstream America has been explored in multiple biographies, including Imani Perry’s “Looking for Lorraine” and Soyica Diggs Colbert’s “Radical Vision,” and in Tracy Heather Strain’s documentary “Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart.” Shields’s portrait is the latest attempt to expand our sense of the personal struggle behind the public figure, and to illuminate the many contradictions that she sought to live and work through.
Hansberry was not raised to be a radical. She was born in Chicago in 1930, the child of an illustrious family that was well regarded in business and academic circles. Lorraine’s father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a real-estate speculator and a proud race man. When Lorraine was seven years old, the family bought a house in a mostly white neighborhood. Faced with eviction by the local property owners association, Carl fought against racially restrictive housing covenants in court. Shortly before the case was argued, a crowd of white neighbors gathered outside the Hansberry home. Nannie, Lorraine’s mother, stood watch with a gun. Someone hurled a brick through the window, narrowly missing Lorraine’s head. When the police finally arrived, one officer remarked, “Some people throw a rock through your window and you act like it was a bomb.” It was 1937. The bombing of Black families would come.
Carl Hansberry’s fight wound up before the Supreme Court, where he won his suit; Lorraine, perhaps, learned something about the need to stay and fight for what you deserve. Or at least that’s the neatest version of the story. Shields’s biography lays out a more complex narrative of political inheritance. Carl was not just a warrior against housing segregation. He was also, Shields says, the “king of kitchenettes,” a businessman who spotted an opportunity in Chicago’s rapidly growing Black population. Urban housing was scarce, in part because white landlords refused to rent apartments to Black families. Carl, through a few intermediaries, set about “blockbusting”—getting white families to sell cheaply by moving Black residents into their neighborhoods. He’d buy a building, then erect flimsy, flammable partitions dividing the apartments into cramped kitchenettes—like the one that the Youngers yearn to escape. “When a decent return on rental property was 6 percent, Hansberry was making 40,” Shields writes. This unseemly fact has been glossed over by some biographers, who have described Carl Hansberry as an entrepreneur. The complaints from his renters make clear that “slumlord” is a more accurate description.
For Lorraine, being the daughter of a kitchenette king was a problem from the start. Shields describes her being sent to kindergarten in an expensive white ermine coat, then shoved to the ground by her classmates, leaving the fur stained. As she grew up, she drifted away from the politics of her parents, who remained committed Republicans even as most Black voters were shifting their party allegiance; at the University of Wisconsin, she began campaigning for Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party. After the police turned up at a local protest that Hansberry attended, her parents forbade her to continue supporting the insurgent candidate. “I am quite sick about it,” she wrote to a close friend. “They are afraid Little Lorraine will call up one night from the police station and ask for her pajamas.” She kept volunteering for Wallace.