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Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and Racial Discrimination


Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun narrates the struggles and prejudices suffered by black families in the America of the 1950s as they endeavor to improve their financial wellbeing. The piercing drama draws its title from Langston Hughes’ poem Montage of a Dream Deferred and follows a lower-class black family, the Youngers, living in Chicago’s Southside. The stage play interrogates the fate of postponed aspirations and reflects Hughes’ caution that a dream deferred weighs heavily on the dreamer since the ambitions never disappear. Hansberry follows how a $10,000 life insurance payout will be divided among various competing interests. The amount is received as a result of Mr. Younger’s death, the family’s patriarch. Each of the household’s members, Beneatha, Walter, and their mother, Lena, has distinctive and incongruous plans for the cash. Consequently, the embrace or approval of any particular expenditure arrangement implies the deferral of all others. For instance, Lena intends to fulfill her late husband’s dream of owning a home in the White-dominated neighborhood, while Walter aspires to invest the funds in a liquor store. Although Lorraine’s play reflects the segregation and odds she faced when growing up in Chicago, society has barely changed.

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Lorraine Hansberry’s Biography

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, a renowned essayist, playwright, and civil rights activist, was born on May 19th, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. She was the youngest and fourth daughter to Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl Augustus Hansberry, a family which was outstandingly active in Chicago’s Black community. Carl was an illustrious real-estate businessperson, while Nannie was a driving school instructor and ward committeewoman. She was the granddaughter of a former slave and was brought up in an environment saturated with intellectual rigor and activism. For instance, her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, was a distinguished professor of African history at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (Tinson). Numerous prominent African American political and social leaders visited Hansberry’s family during Lorraine’s childhood, including poet Langston Hughes, sociology professor W. E. B. Dubois, and political activist and actor Paul Robeson, among many others.

Despite belonging to the middle-class social caste, Hansberry’s family was a subject of racial segregation as they deliberately attempted to relocate into a restricted white-dominated neighborhood. During those years, white property owners entered into restrictive covenants through which they agreed to lock out the blacks from any of their sales, creating the Black Belt, a predominantly black slum on Chicago’s Southside. However, Hansberry’s family eventually moved into the reclusive locality, following a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lorraine Hansberry joined the University of Wisconsin and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. At the latter institution, she undertook painting after graduating from Englewood High School, where she demonstrated a profound interest in theater. However, her desire to study writing and playhouse, her time-hallowed interests, triggered her relocation to New York and enrollment at the New York School for Social Research. She also commenced working for Freedom, Paul Robeson’s progressive Black publication. Loraine started as a writer before becoming an associate editor, which exposed and escalated her contact with other political and literary scholars, such as W.E.B Dubois and Louis Burnham. Alongside Robeson and other civil rights activists, Lorraine acknowledged that challenging white supremacy had to be connected with the Communist Party’s program. Among her initial and widely influential reports documented the Sojourners for the Truth and Justice, an occasion organized and convened by Mary Church Terrell in Washington, D.C. Lorraine traveled from New York to personally cover the story of Willie McGee, a black man accused of rape. McGee’s case inspired her to write the Lynchsong poem.

During an organized protest decrying racial discrimination at the University of New York, Lorraine met Robert Nemiroff, a renowned Jewish writer who shared similar political insights. Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Nemiroff married in 1953 and spent their wedding eve demonstrating against the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiring to leak U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets and were executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining (Lieberman 246). With positive influence and support from Nemiroff, Lorraine vacated her position at Freedom and devoted most of her time to writing and taking temporary jobs. Soon after, she intensified her rights activism and contributed immensely in championing women and gay rights through The Ladder magazine. Lorraine’s works primarily reflected her abhorrence for violence and war and her deep commitment to fighting for peace.

A Raisin in the Sun achieved immense popularity and prominently ranked as the first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. The play also won several awards and has continually been translated into numerous languages and performed worldwide. Her multiple works illustrate a deep-seated belief about the intertwined nature of blacks gaining civil rights in the United States and the independence of colonial Africa. She agitated for the adoption of a multifaceted approach by African Americans, including embracing legal, illegal, violent, non-violent means, boycotts, sit-ins, and strikes to protest segregation and push for racial equality. Hansberry and Nemirroff separated, although they continued working together professionally until her death when Nemiroff became the executor of Lorraine’s unfinished manuscripts. In 1963, Lorraine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and underwent two surgeries in the same year, both of which were unsuccessful in removing cancer. In the subsequent year, Lorraine died, leaving a rich legacy of a woman who profoundly understood the depth of the social issues that confronted the world around her.

Lorraine’s Works

Lorraine was a young, black, and gifted writer who focused on writing penetrating stories that highlighted the daily struggles and challenges experienced by African Americans. Her considerably enormous body of works primarily featured the systemic and institutionalized oppression perpetrated against African Americans in America and the imperial powers in Africa. Although she authored most of her publications, some other articles were pieced together and edited by her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, after passing away before their completion and eventual publication.

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Following the considerable success achieved by A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry proceeded and wrote On Summer, a 1960 essay that aptly symbolized the vibrancy and effervescence of life. In the same year, she wrote The Drinking Gourd, a highly controversial play written for the National Broadcasting Corporation, but which was never produced. According to Hanif, Mohsen, and Jalalifarahani, The Drinking Gourd was initially meant to air as a television drama but was censored since it was deemed too sensitive and challenged America’s political life of the 1960s (2). The play explicitly lays bare the American slavery institution as the foundation on which the country’s economic philosophy and the capitalist establishment was built. Additionally, the play amplified the detrimental physical and psychological ramifications of the slavery institution, both for the slaves and the masters. Considered potentially disruptive, the drama was subjected to systematic censorship and eventually silenced until Robert Nemiroff posthumously published it.

In 1962, Hansberry wrote What Use are Flowers? followed by The Arrival of Mr. Todog, an unpublished and un-staged parody of Waiting for Godot. In 1964, a documentary is known as The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equity was produced, followed by The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. The latter was a satirical, provocative, and political drama exploring the fragility of ethics, morality, and love in the face of rebellion, conformity, and interracial relationships. A more in-depth analysis of the staged play reflects multiple cultural disputes which characterized the America of the 1960s, including women’s struggle for equality. The women in the drama agitate to be recognized in a predominantly male world. In 1969, Nemiroff adapted and produced To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, a collection of Hansberry’s interviews, journal entries, and letters. The play commences at the start of Lorraine’s early life, highlighting her upbringing in a Chicago ghetto, college years, later life, and the creation and inspiration for her reputed play A Raisin in the Sun.

Les Blancs (‘The Whites’) was Lorraine Hansberry’s final work, which debuted on Broadway in November 1970. The English-language drama takes place in Africa and integrates music and dance as signifiers of the black and African cultures to depict the plights of colonialism. The play extensively explores the experience of natives, settlers, and the American journalist in an unidentified African country at a time when imperial control was waning in the continent. The Toussaint, a fragment of Hansberry’s work, which was unfinished when she died, features the story of a wealthy Haitian plantation proprietor and his wife. Their lives are to be drastically changed following the successful revolution against the French and which was led by Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture.

Principal Themes in Lorraine Hansberry’s Works

Lorraine’s works revolve around the issues she experienced as she grew up, including segregation and agitation of interracial and extra-racial gender equality. Her plays and publications reflect an intense and passionate voice on social issues, which were structured to disadvantage any particular segment of society. More specifically, she disproportionately devotes her efforts to criticizing America’s slave system and its destructive impacts on the perpetrators and victims, moral choices, and African countries’ self-determination. Additionally, Hansberry explores the wasted dreams of blacks as a direct outcome of the structural odds and obstacles imposed by the system to impede their advancement, progress, or improvement. For instance, A Raisin in the Sun is a classic example of how African Americans struggle to fit into white society, while The Drinking Gourd illustrates the turmoil and chaos of slavery in the Southern United States.

Further, Lorraine’s works traverse the prevalent injustices and deprivation experienced by African Americans because of racism and the ability to steer one’s destiny. In To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words accentuates the essence of recognizing that everyone is responsible for building their life along the course they have chosen. The autobiography illuminates the obstacles and impediments she had faced as she struggled through the arduous journey to success. Moreover, she warns about the potentially corrosive effects of voguish movements and the relationship between men and women as they coexist in society. For example, A Raisin in the Sun demonstrates how women are socially compelled to hold subordinate or inferior positions and are always expected to suspend their interests in favor of the men’s wishes. The dramatic expressions depict a realistic illustration of the black person’s experience in America of the 1950s and 1960s. However, Lorraine’s work is considered a broad-sweeping broom on various prominent issues which defined the United States at the time. The major personal and historically significant aspects in Hansberry’s publication are civil rights, slavery, segregation, and social injustices.

Literary Movement and Genre

Lorraine Hansberry belongs to the literary movement of the Contemporary Period. The history of American literature transcends over more than four centuries, with each epoch being dominated by notable authors with unique characteristics and representative works. The modern phase is characterized by intense political fusion, which shaped both local and global affairs. In the United States, the contemporary period triggered multiple cultural shifts initiated by civil rights and women’s movements. Previously, American literature was primarily dominated by white men, which was upended by the turn of the 21st century. Progressively, the literal works were becoming more complex, inclusive, and accommodative as stories were being written by people from different backgrounds.

Additionally, the literature became more reality-based with passionately developed and believable stories and robust characters. Although the stories may be ironic and satirical, they are overwhelmingly devoted to the current personal, social, and political issues. For instance, Lorraine’s works are primarily constructed around the real-life stories which dominated the United States during the civil rights movements. There is an outstanding prominence accorded to the struggles experienced by black Americans, the fight for equality, and segregation. These issues are featured in many of her plays, including A Raisin in the Sun, The Movement, The Drinking Gourd, and Les Blancs. During this time, Lorraine intended to illuminate and amplify society’s problems as they emerged from the catastrophically destructive World War II. Overall, the genres of her plays were political and epic since they revolved around the prevailing sociopolitical events and ideas which dominated America during the 1950s and 1960s.

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Lorraine Hansberry is a revered and celebrated playwright with numerous influential publications highlighting African Americans’ lives and plight during the civil rights movements. Her publications were connected by political, economic, and social themes, which generally called for the redesign of American society to be more equitable than the previous slave and master relationship. Lorraine’s work inspires the black community to aggressively push for abolishing segregationist policies by adopting and utilizing all available options. Also, she encourages African Americans to take responsibility for their lives and work towards self-improvements. By passionately exploring the subjects of gender and racial equality, colonial rule, the turmoil of slavery, and assimilation, Lorraine’s publications were integral in reinvigorating the civil rights movements. Her upbringing in a politically infused environment and interactions with renowned figures of civil rights movements were critical in sharpening her focus and voice on the issues which impeded the blacks’ progress. Although Hansberry died at the prime age of 35 years, her works have been immensely influential in inspiring people to push for the changes they intend to see in society.

Works Cited

Hanif, Mohsen, and Maryam Jalalifarahani. “The Rhetoric of Freedom in Lorraine Hansberry’s Play.” Cogent Arts & Humanities, vol. 7, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–13.

Lieberman, Robbie. “Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World.” Journal of American History, vol. 104, no. 1, 2017, pp. 246–246.

Tinson, Christopher. “Solidarity and Excellence: W. E. B. Du Bois and William Leo Hansberry. Black Perspectives.” Black Perspectives, 2018, Web.

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