Time, to the black American, has always been a burden. From 1619 to now, we have played out our drama before a reluctant time. We were either too late or too early. No people on earth, in all her history, has ever produced so many people so generally considered “ahead of their time.”
—Nikki Giovanni, “An Emotional View of Lorraine Hansberry,” 1979
When Lorraine Vivian Hansberry died on January 12, 1965, her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was at the end of a three-month run at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre. It was the second play written by a black woman to appear on Broadway. The first was her groundbreaking drama A Raisin in the Sun. Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, the third, opened in 1976. Remembrances of Shange published last year, after her death, called for colored girls “the second play by an African American woman” to have a Broadway run. In writing my own remembrance of Shange, I nearly made the same mistake. We are prone to myopia when we remember, and it can make inconvenient details difficult to decipher. Jewell Handy Gresham-Nemiroff, in charge of Hansberry’s estate for fourteen years, wrote that Hansberry is “not really credited, to the extent deserved, with being Mother of the modern black drama.” The scholar Margaret Wilkerson called Hansberry one of the “major literary catalysts” of the Black Arts Movement. Both are true, yet The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which Hansberry worked on feverishly during hospital stays at the end of her life, is not a black drama.
Gabriel Dell played Sidney, a Jewish intellectual living in Greenwich Village during the Sixties. He flits like a mosquito between passion projects; for his latest, he has acquired an alt-weekly magazine and thrown his support behind a new local reform candidate. His young wife Iris, played by Rita Moreno, is a disillusioned aspiring actress. Their marriage stagnates, in part because Sidney exoticizes her mixed Greek, Irish and Cherokee heritage. A circle of friends and extended family surrounds the couple, including Iris’s sisters Mavis and Gloria. Frenetic, rapid-fire dialogue (“In order to do things, you have to do things!” Sidney says in Act One), and the scene-setting, nonstop whir of the city imbue the play with vitality. It’s a sprawling mass of ideas about political idealism and disillusionment, marriage and sexual attraction, ambition and thwarted dreams. “It is possible … that The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window attempts to say too much,” Lorraine’s friend James Baldwin wrote in his remembrance, “Sweet Lorraine.” The New York Times called it “uneven,” while the Chicago Tribune said it was “quite desperately dull.”
Kathleen Collins, the writer and filmmaker born a dozen years after Hansberry and one of the first American black women to write and direct a feature-length film, adored it. “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a wonderful, an absolutely brilliant play,” Collins told Black Film Review in 1986. She marveled at the “wide range of experience” Hansberry was bold enough to capture. “Anything in life was accessible for her to write about.” In the same conversation, Collins called Hansberry “ahead of her time” and speculated that the playwright grew ill and died young because she didn’t know how to process success, which came early. Hansberry was only 29 when A Raisin in the Sun debuted. “It is not at all far-fetched,” Baldwin wrote, “to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man.” What level of fame or individual accomplishment can inoculate a black woman’s body from racism? Bodies of work are similarly at risk. In the case of Collins, her two feature films took great effort to produce and won acclaim on the independent film circuit. She died in 1988, at 46, like Hansberry, of cancer. Neither of her films had theatrical releases during her lifetime.
Part of the reason we have forgotten The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is because compared to A Raisin in the Sun, it is rarely performed. Rereading Sidney Brustein, I came to care for Iris, Mavis and Gloria, the play’s chorus, in whom the changes of the Sixties are refracted. I also found it odd and dated in places. Hansberry writes disdainfully of homosexuality, for example, suggesting the queerness of a minor character, the playwright David, is an immature indulgence. It’s also difficult to categorize—is it realist, absurdist or both?—which likely complicates the commercial case for mounting it. Despite these flaws, Sidney Brustein reads as a fiery revelation of an era that was, like ours, at a crossroads between destruction and rebirth. To experience theater on the stage is to preserve it, and preservation requires a consensus among gatekeepers and tastemakers. Kathleen Collins believed in Sidney Brustein, but she is gone. A revival, like any act of preservation, is a chorus in which only the living can perform.
When Hansberry died at 34, she was gorgeously, extravagantly mourned. Her homegoing at Morningside Park’s Church of the Master drew a crowd of more than seven hundred people—too many to sit in the pews. James Foreman of SNCC and actors Paul Robeson and Ruby Dee gave remarks. Sammy Davis, Jr., Ossie Davis and Rita Moreno were honorary pallbearers. Nina Simone sang two selections. In the face of death threats, about a month before his own assassination, Malcolm X made an appearance. James Baldwin sent a wire from France that read, in part, “I really can’t talk about her or what she meant to me.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wire said Lorraine would “remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
Five decades later, we’re in the midst of what New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal calls “a moment of passionate rediscovery of neglected women writers.” Groundbreaking dead women of various professions, many of them black, such as Hansberry, Collins, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells and blues pianist and singer Gladys Bentley, are now being exhumed and re-eulogized on a grand scale. Institutions like the Times, instrumental in “overlooking” their contributions in the first place, play a prominent role. Hansberry has been the subject of a recent documentary broadcast on PBS, and the biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, written by scholar Imani Perry, was published last year to great acclaim. At least two other Hansberry biographies are forthcoming—one has been in the works since the Eighties.
It’s gratifying to witness this rediscovery. But there are ways of honoring a memory, of passing down a tradition, that exist beyond the official record of any institution. I remember the worn sepia spine of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, slim and snug in the bookshelf of my mother, the first and most important bibliophile of my life. The woman who, at a kitchen table, taught me to read. I remember Lorraine’s elegant headshot reverently printed in a black and white church program for Black History Month. By high school, I’d know A Raisin in the Sun, thanks to a black woman teacher of speech and drama. By college, I’d watch D.C. playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings direct a scene from it while a member of an African-American actors’ troupe.
There was much about Lorraine that I didn’t know then. I didn’t know that to see her, it’s important to see her people. The solitary genius is a white, male archetype; guiding black lights cluster in constellations. Lorraine’s parents Carl and Nannie Perry Hansberry were college-educated strivers one generation removed from slavery. They’d moved to Chicago’s South Side from Tennessee and Mississippi. When Lorraine was seven, Carl bought a house in a neighborhood under a racially restrictive covenant and took a case to the Supreme Court to keep it. I didn’t know that Lorraine studied visual art and stumbled into a career in writing by way of journalism. I didn’t understand how Lorraine’s connections to an older generation of black freedom fighters—Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson—as well as the creative ferment of thirties Chicago undergird her work. I didn’t know how to reconcile Lorraine as a self-identified lesbian woman who married a man, Robert Nemiroff, in 1953. It was Robert who shepherded Lorraine’s writing career, allowing her to focus on short stories and the play that would become A Raisin in the Sun.
A Raisin in the Sun is singular, its legacy large, bright and blinding. It opened sixty years ago this year, on March 11, 1959, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It is Broadway’s first black drama and the first by a black woman playwright. Hansberry became the first black person and the youngest playwright of any race to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best American play. August Wilson, who won in 1985 for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, would follow Hansberry, and Lynn Nottage, who won twice—for Intimate Apparel in 2004 and Ruined in 2009—is to date the only other black woman so honored.
A Raisin in the Sun enjoyed commercial success as well as critical adoration. Its initial run lasted more than a year. It was adapted for film with a screenplay Hansberry wrote and released by Columbia Pictures in 1961. Seemingly overnight, Hansberry became a prominent, highly sought-after voice on the movement unfolding in the South and the unrest of the urban North. Most importantly—for me, and I’d venture to say for Lorraine, too—A Raisin in the Sun played well with black audiences. “I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater,” Baldwin noticed. Years later, Amiri Baraka would echo him: “Raisin lives in large measure because black people have kept it alive.”
Lorraine named her play after a line in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem”: What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? … Or does it explode? The play’s essence is in the challenged yet unyielding dreams of the Youngers, a close-knit, multigenerational black family living in a small tenement on Chicago’s South Side in the years after World War II. Their patriarch has died, and the family, led now by Lena Younger (Mama), receives an inheritance. Mama wants to move the family out of the tenement. Her son, Walter Lee, a frustrated chauffeur, wants to use the money for his entrepreneurial dreams. Walter Lee’s baby sister, earnest, college-aged Beneatha, wants to go to medical school.
Hansberry drew characters with masterful specificity—her stage directions are intricate and novelistic. Of Mama, Hansberry writes: “She is a woman in her early sixties, full-bodied and strong. She is one of those women of a certain grace and beauty who wear it so unobtrusively that it takes a while to notice.” It is as much a description of a character’s physicality as it is a mood, an energetic expression. Hansberry was intentional about foregrounding her people’s essential dignity:
I shall set down in these pages what shall seem to be the truth of my life and essences … which are to be found, first of all, on the Southside of Chicago, where I was born…
I think you could find the tempo of my people on their back porches. The honesty of their living is there in the shabbiness. Scrubbed porches that sag and look their danger. Dirty gray wood steps. And always a line of white and pink clothes scrubbed so well, waving in the dirty wind of the city.
The seed of Raisin was planted when Hansberry saw a rehearsal of Irish poet and dramatist Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock during her student days. She thought the everyday acts of heroism of the Doyle family during the Irish Civil War were transcendent, and she wanted to use the tenor of her own people’s lives to similar effect. She borrowed O’Casey’s classical three-act structure, which she connected to its unflinching attitude toward human flaws: “You’ve got the Irish drunkard, the Irish braggart, the Irish liar,” she told Studs Terkel. She drew on events from her father’s Supreme Court case and called her approach realism, because its events could happen, but they were also larger than life. “Imagination has no bounds in a realism,” Lorraine said. It “demands the imposition of a point of view.”
The sweat of the show—the generational tensions between Mama, who came up from the South, and her children Walter Lee and Beneatha, who need more than freedom from slavery or lynching—is where A Raisin in the Sun is most striking and prophetic. Hansberry wrote internal and external conflict with equal urgency. When Walter Lee loses the family’s money and makes the personal decision to integrate the all-white neighborhood where Mama has bought a house, it’s a hard-won moment of dignity—an ending, but also a foreshadowing of the strife that is to come. He has made the choice to fight.
If A Raisin in the Sun captures the civil rights movement’s early stirrings, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window explores second-wave feminism at a similar nascent stage. Its protagonist, Sidney, is male, and like Walter Lee, his personal rejection of apathy drives the play. But the tension of the era is reflected in the lives of his wife, Iris, and her sisters Mavis and Gloria. All three women chafe against norms of femininity in troubled romantic relationships with men. Iris has played the ingénue in her marriage for too long and wants to pursue her career with more verve. Mavis has grown settled in the power that comes from bourgeois respectability but given up on the possibility of happiness with her husband. Gloria, a sex worker who faces judgment from her partner, ultimately commits suicide. Each woman negotiates between the personal and political realms while raging on behalf of her own autonomy.
Hansberry consistently infused her plays with the emerging major issues of her day. Les Blancs delves into the mid-century wave of independence struggles in the global south. What Use Are Flowers? takes on environmental apocalypse. The Drinking Gourd was a teleplay about slavery commissioned by NBC in 1960 to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. Hansberry completed the script after several months of research, and when she delivered it, an executive attached a note of praise and filed it away. Its producer and would-be director lost his contract with the network, and The Drinking Gourd was never shown. Had it aired, it would have preceded ABC’s adaptation of Roots by more than a decade. Its depiction of slavery was free of the euphemism and lost-cause nostalgia that built American cinema. At its ending, an enslaved woman makes the rebellious choice to care for her ailing son rather than her dying master.
In 1962, Lorraine wrote a prospectus for what she called the John Brown Memorial Theatre of Harlem. She wanted to “perfect the idiom, the invention, creativity of the American Negro in drama, dance and song.” Her idea predates by three years Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, whose founding is considered the Black Arts Movement’s beginning. The trouble with thinking about cultural production as a series of movements with precise beginnings and endings is that antecedents are hidden and genealogies become obscured. Hansberry, of course, departs from the leaders of BAM because she, in Wilkerson’s words, “wrote assertively about women before it was popular to do so.” And while leading BAM writer and critic Larry Neal expressed a desire for black art to have a “separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology” from the West, Hansberry believed in a promiscuous syncretism of the best from everywhere. She saw herself as a black writer, but also many other things all at once. The dozens of magazine articles, critical essays, poems, plays and short fiction she left behind are testimony to this broad vision.
We’ve only just begun to recognize Lorraine Hansberry, the preeminent, leading figure of black drama, the respectable, elegantly coiffed arbiter of twentieth-century black womanhood, as a queer, boundary-pushing experimentalist. Part of the reason we misremembered Hansberry for so long is because we became enamored when A Raisin in the Sun made her famous. It is also because, to again look to Wilkerson, “suppression of her other works robbed the public of her insights.” Our collective intelligence suffered when NBC refused to produce The Drinking Gourd, and when she died six years after Raisin’s debut, Robert, whom she divorced in 1962, became executor of her estate. It meant he was in charge of everything—work in various stages of completion, as well as her correspondence and plans for future projects. Adrienne Rich considered Robert’s role “a problem” and pondered the silences his stewardship may have enabled. Hansberry’s letters to the Ladder, for example, the first national lesbian magazine, were long unacknowledged by her estate and largely unknown to the wider public until a few years ago because she signed them with only her initials. Was it old-fashioned privacy, or deference to the prohibitive climate of the Fifties? It’s thrilling to read them now. “I’m glad as heck you exist,” she wrote in May 1957. In a letter the following August, she railed against a writer’s suggestion that lesbians married to men should simply leave their marriages. Hansberry knew, in a way the largely white, upper-class readership of the homophile magazine may not have, that heterosexual marriage was for some lesbian women—especially black, brown or poor ones—an important source of security and social capital.
Also kept from the public: the short stories Hansberry published in the Ladder under the pen name Emily Jones (“The Budget,” “The Anticipation of Eve” and “Renascence”) as well as the Los Angeles gay magazine ONE (“Chanson du Konallis”). They were about same-sex desire, romance and the urgent, suffocating pain of the closet. By the time Lorraine and Robert separated in 1957, she was already aware of her attraction to women. At the opening night party for A Raisin in the Sun at Sardi’s, she began a relationship with Renee Kaplan that lasted two years. She also had significant affairs with Eve Ward, the pseudonym of a writer from Tennessee, and Molly Malone Cook, who later became Mary Oliver’s life partner. Her longest relationship, with Dorothy Secules, an executive at a candy manufacturer, lasted until the end of her life.
What shifts if we consider Lorraine’s queerness to be just as integral to who she was as her blackness? She was part of a milieu of lesbian Manhattan women that included Patricia Highsmith and Edie Windsor. We know that during her lifetime, Lorraine chose to live that part of her life in secret. “Hansberry created a role model version of herself for the media stage,” Elise Harris wrote in an Out magazine profile, sourced from friends and former girlfriends who remembered her. In order to live the public life she did, under FBI surveillance since the early Fifties, she likely had to carefully shroud her intimate life—to dissemble. We cannot know if she wanted to remain partially obscured in death as well.
Perhaps Robert’s most enduring contribution to Hansberry’s legacy was assembling To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a collage work that incorporated bits of Lorraine’s fiction, scenes from plays and memoiristic pieces about coming up on the South Side to tell a story of her life. He took the title from an address Lorraine gave a gathering of black teenagers who’d won a creative writing contest. The speech echoed the race pride of her parents and mentors, but reimagined it for the future:
You are young, gifted and black. In the month of May in the year 1964, I, for one, can think of no more dynamic combination that a person might be. … Look at the work that awaits you! … Write about our people. Tell their story. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention.
Before it became a book, To Be Young, Gifted and Black was staged off-Broadway for many months in the 1968-69 season. After attending a performance, Lorraine’s friend Nina Simone (with assistance from her bandleader Weldon Irvine) wrote the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” The soul generation, those coming up behind Lorraine, ran with it. Donny Hathaway recorded it for his first solo album, Everything Is Everything; Aretha Franklin recorded it for her eighteenth studio album along with career-making compositions “Rock Steady” and “Day Dreaming.” It has become a standard among contemporary artists too, an affirmation of the preciousness of black childhood, and part of a subgenre of compositions such as “Brown Baby,” “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Little Ghetto Boy” that draw on the centuries to mend, gather and fortify young black spirits. When Lorraine delivered the speech in 1964, she was 33 and dying; “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is a mourning song. In the dusk of her own life, though, she was preoccupied with posterity: Yours is a quest that’s just begun.
It was late 2013 when digital images of Lorraine’s personal writings began traveling around social media: yearly lists of likes, dislikes, wants, hates and regrets tailor-made, it seems, for Instagram and Twitter. Among her likes at age 28: “conversations with James Baldwin” and “to be alone when I want to.” At 29, she hates “her homosexuality.” She says she likes “the first scotch” and “the inside of a lovely woman’s mouth” at 32, and that she is “proud … of my people.” The intimate handwritten notes were from the collection of papers managed by the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust and became the emotional center of the exhibition “Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to ‘The Ladder,’” which showed at the Brooklyn Museum for nearly six months in 2013 and 2014. I’m drawn to Lorraine’s ambivalence about her success—she’s “bored to death” with A Raisin in the Sun, she writes—and to her trembling, human longing. She wants to be “in love,” she says, yet sex bores her. It is only from across the gulf of fifty years that Lorraine’s unruly multitudes, her inconsistencies, can be legible.
I’ll always remember 2013 as the year George Zimmerman stood trial for killing seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin. Trayvon’s school friend Rachel Jeantel took the stand because she’d been on the phone with Trayvon when Zimmerman began following him. The way she spoke seemed mystifying to some: she said “aks” instead of “ask”; she was visibly irritated by the defense’s questioning; she seemed confused, or perhaps just ruffled. There was no mercy granted a grieving black girl who seemed to have lost her composure. She sounded like just another Southern girl to me. And she was talking about her friend, who’d died of a gunshot wound shortly after their phone call. In the American imagination, a chasm remains—between the ways in which we tolerate black girls on the screen or stage and the ways we tolerate them in real life. After Zimmerman’s acquittal, my sister told me she laid out on her bed to cry. Queer black women organized the first massive grassroots effort against systemic racism in America since the civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter made the news and created a language that has endured and filtered into the talking points and policy agendas of mainstream political candidates. Community organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi got to be visible while also claiming, publicly, many parts of who they were in a way that Lorraine was never able to in life.
In the impressionistic, PEN-award-winning biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, Imani Perry says she is trying to “catch a likeness of her.” It seems that Perry felt, despite the kind of access to an archive that was not possible twenty years before, that Lorraine Hansberry was difficult to grasp. It’s a feeling I share after reading more about Hansberry, and one that Joi Gresham, Robert’s daughter and current executor of Hansberry’s estate, understands, despite growing up in Lorraine’s house surrounded by her papers and effects. It’s as if Hansberry resists our comprehension or lives somewhere just beyond it. Perry’s is an elegiac, carefully researched project—in its most engrossing pages, she illuminates Lorraine’s friendships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone and pulls back a curtain on her emotional life, including her sometimes turbulent romances. I loved Perry’s rendering, but I also found myself craving something steady to ground me in Hansberry’s oeuvre: a full list of works, published and unpublished, perhaps, or a timeline. Some of Perry’s brushstrokes felt like elegant suggestions. The problem lies in how little has been written about Hansberry in relation to how important she was in creating and building upon numerous motifs that undergird black American (and therefore American) artistic production.
Because America is still America and blackness is still an existential dilemma, we have never stopped looking for Lorraine. In her final chapter, Imani Perry, like Alice Walker before her, searching for the unmarked burial site of Zora Neale Hurston, visits Lorraine’s former apartment building on Waverly Place. She also goes to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where A Raisin in the Sun first ran, and Lorraine’s home in Croton-on-Hudson, as well as, finally, Lorraine’s grave site at Bethel Cemetery. I’m reminded of what I have heard Baptist pastors say at funerals about the remains of the dead: Your loved one isn’t there. In Walker’s words, “the center of anything can be very large, and a grave is not a pinpoint.”
We wouldn’t have the plays of Adrienne Kennedy, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Dominique Morisseau or Lynn Nottage, or the films of Kathleen Collins, Julie Dash, Cheryl Dunye, Ava DuVernay or Spike Lee without her. They’re all artists who dive into the crevices and sweat of ordinary black life and surface resonant beauty. They’re also very different from one another. Lorraine, in her defiant multiplicity, lives through them. She is at once in the crowded audience of Slave Play and in the saturated colors and poignant intimacy of a film by Barry Jenkins.
Some misrememberings of Hansberry are more pointed. Last November, the New York Times’s style magazine produced a short film accompanying a feature written by the novelist Ayana Mathis about leading black male writers of the present day. In an early shot, poet Danez Smith gets a shape-up as Hansberry appears, in voiceover, explaining how black writers are “doubly aware” that the artist’s duty is to challenge society. Her voice is crisp, unwavering. It’s from a 1961 talk that she gave on Pacifica Radio with Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Alfred Kazin and Emile Capouya. She was the only woman speaker in the segment, a singular race leader who’d transcended her gender’s conscriptions. In the Times short, her thoughts are truncated and isolated, her body replaced by the bodies of men. Later, we see James McBride’s and Jericho Brown’s bodies as we hear the voices of Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou, like Hansberry’s, in the background. It’s a mistake of background and foreground, of light and shadow, and it blurs the truth: black creative ferment is capacious, as vast as the world itself. With bodies of all genders and expressions reading, writing, singing, dancing and painting in concert.
Bodies—especially the ghastly image of a body that’s gone—can trouble us. Nina Simone often had difficulty with live performances of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” because she was still grieving the loss of her friend. At a performance at Morehouse, she mentioned a photograph of Lorraine in a magazine that flooded her with memory. At Philharmonic Hall in 1969, she told the audience:
It seems that she comes alive more and more every day, for there are all kinds of things written about her more and more, and I’m talking about Lorraine Hansberry. In this month’s Esquire you will find two articles about her … I think that very soon now, maybe four or five weeks, I won’t be able to sing it anymore, for each time I do it, she comes a little closer…
In another moment, ours, when there are “all kinds of things written about her,” there is still something frightening about Lorraine Hansberry coming into view. It frightens me to face the fact that she could be so singular in her accomplishments and contributions and still not live free. That she couldn’t escape an early, grisly death. What does it mean for us if an iconic, respectable race woman, on whom the entirety of black drama was founded, was queer and ambivalent about what she’d achieved in both her personal and professional lives? We’re left with the queerness of all of black history, and our reluctance to abide our own contradictions. At least we have the living memory of Lorraine Hansberry, “ahead of her time” in her time, to keep us company in ours.