This Day in History: May 19th

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Writer and activist Lorraine Hansberry wrote the landmark play “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a Black family in Chicago struggling with racism and segregation, for which she was the youngest and first Black playwright to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in the South Side of Chicago. When she was seven years old, the Hansberry family moved into a white neighborhood despite segregation laws.

The Hansberry’s were met with violence by white neighbors upon moving discreetly into their new property on 413 E. 60th Street and 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue. A white mob attacked their house, throwing a chunk of concrete through their window that barely missed young Lorraine Hansberry.

The abuse climaxed when neighboring white homeowners sued the Hansberrys. The case, Hansberry v. Lee, reached the Supreme Court of Illinois where the judge ruled against the Hansberrys, exiling them from their home, though the decision was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hansberry wrote for the Black newspaper “Freedom,” where she worked with acclaimed writer and founding member of the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois.

Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which was partially inspired by her family’s struggle against segregation laws and racism, debuted on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre to commercial and critical acclaim. She pushed back against claims by white audiences that the play transcended race and did not have a definitely Black identity.

“I believe that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific,” said Hansberry in an interview with Studs Terkel the year “Raisin” debuted.

Hansberry broke barriers as the first Black woman playwright to have her work produced on Broadway. Her personal favorite character, African suitor Asagai, was a composite of the Black intellectuals she met in her studies.

“I was aware that on the Broadway stage they have never seen an African who didn’t have his shoes hanging around his neck and a bone through his ears or something,” said Hansberry in the Terkel interview, “And I thought that even just theatrically speaking this would most certainly be refreshing. Again, it required no departure from truth.”

Hansberry was a left-wing radical, and although she never publicly admitted she was lesbian, she contributed to “The Ladder,” a magazine published by the seminal lesbian rights group Daughters of Bilitis. In the letters, she wrote of the intersectionality between women, Black Americans, and lesbians. Hansberry died in 1965 of pancreatic cancer, though her legacy lives on.

“Though it be a thrilling and marvellous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic—to be young, gifted and Black,” said Hansberry.

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