Chicago-born author Lorraine Hansberry was one of the most significant playwrights of the twentieth century. In 1959, her work A Raisin in the Sun became the first play written by a Black woman to be performed on Broadway. Its brilliance has never dimmed: the play continues to be performed regularly on both professional and amateur stages, and the text of Hansberry’s script is widely read in high schools and colleges throughout America. In the past few years, Hansberry’s life history has received increasing attention, spawning publications including Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind a Raisin in the Sun, a sparkling new biography by the acclaimed literary biographer Charles J. Shields.
Shields has carefully sifted through not only Hansberry’s play scripts but a wide array of her personal correspondence, allowing him to focus attention on aspects of the playwright’s life analyzed less rigorously in previous scholarship. The biographer’s framing of Hansberry’s life history within its historical context is one of the strongest features of the book. In early chapters, Shields explores the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans escaped the violent racism of the rural South in hopes of finding increased freedom and increased economic opportunities in the urban North. In later chapters, Shields considers how Hansberry’s personal experiences fit into larger movements of her day, from anti-nuclear activism to the politics of interracial marriage, from lesbian visibility to controversies about the portrayal of Black folk culture.
When Hansberry was young, her family lived on the South Side of Chicago where Lorraine’s father worked in the residential real estate business. After a period of collecting rent from black tenants, he eventually became a speculator, purchasing old buildings and subdividing the floor plans in order to create small “kitchenettes” with only one bathroom per thirty or more residents. This division scheme meant that Hansberry earned triple or quadruple the amount of rent than the previous layout would bring in. “The flood of black newcomers seeking shelter meant that just about anything habitable would be snapped up,” explains Shields. “Tenements that formerly held sixty families now held three hundred.”
When a teacher asked the young Lorraine what her father did, she answered that he was a real estate “magnet.” The teacher, knowing how much residential speculators had harmed their community, corrected her: instead of a magnate, he was “a maggot.” This kind of rejection by her teacher and classmates left Lorraine in tears, unsure of her place in society.
One of the most brilliant aspects of Shields’s study is its nuance, a tone that is possible primarily because of the author’s willingness to grapple with the inconsistencies and even contradictions he finds threaded through his subject’s life. For example, Shields explores the complicated analysis of class throughout the playwright’s life. Hansberry’s upbringing among the Black elite—possible only because of her father’s profits from speculation—allowed her access to advanced education and even her eventual move to New York. Shields suggests that while Hansberry remained personally aligned to a culture of middle-class respectability, she eventually realized that respectability was an ineffective way to achieve justice. Although she continued for the rest of her life to receive benefits from her economic status, she came to understand that capitalism was an “unjust economic system,” as she said, that degraded Black people as well as all other human beings. Radical action was necessary, Hansberry believed. She became an active proponent of socialism and a participant in various activities of the Communist Party.
In the heyday of her involvement with protest movements, Hansberry wrote scripts that seemed to be “trying to fashion an argument into a play”—that is, “to shine a light on a controversial topic.” Hansberry herself was more caustic about the goal: the way she had written her early plays was by “putting picket signs on the stage,” and none of her readers “got anything out of it.”
A Raisin in the Sun, she decided, would be different. This time, she wanted to create a realistic story about the limited choices of Black families, full of characters the audience would care about. She wanted to write about people living in poverty, but she didn’t have much personal experience of their lives: “I have never wanted for anything,” she admitted. She decided to write the story of “an American family’s conflict with certain of the mercenary values of its society”—a theme she knew all too well from her own childhood. Shields suggests that Raisin was perhaps a kind of atonement for Lorraine: an effort to “humaniz[e] the people whom Hansberry Enterprises dehumanized in the kitchenettes.”
Lorraine Hansberry recognized that fundamentally the only way to resist injustice was to recognize the dignity of all fellow human beings and to understand that dignity is what unifies us even when we seem to be separated by race or class or gender or sexuality. Theatre, she knew, was one tool to help us see that dignity in each other. Shields portrays Hansberry as a woman who was very much of her time and situation, but who was also a true visionary.
by Charles J. Shields
Published on January 18, 2022
Hannah Joyner is a freelance critic and an independent historian who holds a PhD in history. Her academic work includes Unspeakable (with Susan Burch) and From Pity to Pride. Her book criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in the Women's Review of Books, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Harvard Review, On the Seawall, the Washington Independent Review of Books, the Chicago Review of Books, Deep South Magazine, Open Letters Review, and the Chicago Review of Books. You can find more of her bookish conversations on her YouTube channel Hannah’s Books.