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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry

The youngest of four children, Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Carl Augustus and Nannie (Perry) Hansberry. Her parents had migrated from the South to Chicago where her father founded a bank and a real estate firm. The family lived a comfortable life, and such eminent blacks as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and Duke Ellington were guests in their home. But in 1938, when the family moved into a house in a white neighborhood, violence erupted against them, and the temper of the Hansberry life changed. Lorraine, then eight, remembered her mother patrolling the house with a loaded German Luger while Carl was in Washington protesting the racial restrictive covenant law in Illinois. By 1940, when the Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants illegal (Hansberry v. Lee 311 U.S. 32), Carl was psychologically and financially damaged so much that he planned to become an expatriate to Mexico. He died in self-exile in 1946.

Educated in the racially segregated Chicago public schools, Lorraine graduated from Englewood High in 1948 and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin for two years, studying art, stage design, geology, and English. In 1950 she moved to New York City where she attended classes at the New School for Social Research and worked as a typist, teacher, reporter, and as associate editor on Freedom, Paul Robeson’s Harlem-based monthly magazine. She also became an activist in the Civil Rights movement.

In 1953 she married Robert Nemiroff, whom she had met on a picket line at New York University, which he attended. In 1956 she began writing A Raisin in the Sun. That play’s successful production three years later on Broadway catapulted her into national and international prominence. An extremely promising career ended when she died of cancer at the age of 34.

Hansberry’s artistic vision was optimistic; she believed firmly that people could “impose the reason for life on life.” She knew the tensions implicit in being born both black and female, and never accepted the notion that either characteristic was limiting, but she was never bound by narrow or parochial concerns. She learned a great deal from Sean O’Casey and other modern playwrights, and used her voice as a black to transform academic techniques in her own art. A Raisin in the Sun won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best play of the 1958–1959 theater season.

Jeanne-Marie A. Miller
Howard University

In the Heath Anthology
A Raisin in the Sun (1959)

Other Works
The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964)
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1965)
To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969)

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American Scenes
Several student essays on different aspects of A Raisin in the Sun.

Voices from the Gaps
A biography, criticism, list of primary works, and a few links.

Secondary Sources