Lesbian African American Playwright and Civil Rights Activist Who Died Too Young
By Bruce Poli
337 Bleecker St. feels like the epicenter of the West Village…and fittingly; it is the building in which the great playwright Lorraine Hansberry had her first apartment (above what is now a hat shop), from 1953-1960. She then bought the townhouse at 112 Waverly Place where she lived for the last five years of her life.
Hansberry is famous for having written A Raisin In the Sun, one of the most consequential plays of the Harlem Renaissance and African American literature of the 20th Century. A civil rights pioneer and close friend of James Baldwin and Nina Simone, her significance in our cultural sphere cannot be overstated.
Born in1930, the trailblazing playwright, activist, and Nina Simone song inspiration was perhaps most closely associated with Chicago, but, in fact, she lived, went to school, and spent much of her life in Greenwich Village. Granddaughter of a freed slave, and the first African American female author to have a play on Broadway, she paved the way for so many writers, actresses, and Black female artists. She was also the first Black playwright, and the youngest American, at age 29, to win a New York Critics Circle Award for Best Play (only the fifth woman to do so).
Hansberry grew up on the segregated South Side of Chicago, the challenges of which she brought to life so memorably in A Raisin In the Sun. The title of the play, which portrays the lives of Black Americans under racial segregation in Chicago, was taken from the poem Harlem written by Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” The film version of A Raisin In the Sun, completed in 1961 and starring Sidney Poitier, received an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but left in 1950 to pursue her career as a writer in New York City. She moved to Harlem in 1951 and became involved in local activist struggles, such as the fight against evictions, while attending The New School in Greenwich Village. She also joined the staff of the progressive Black newspaper Freedom—edited by Louis E. Burnham and published by Paul Robeson—where she worked as a writer and associate editor (and with W.E.B. Du Bois) from 1950-1953.
Although Hansberry had also worked part-time as a waitress and cashier, writing in her spare time, by 1956 she had quit her jobs to commit all of her time to writing.
In 1953, Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff and they moved to Greenwich Village. (It was while living in the Village that she wrote A Raisin In the Sun.) She and Nemiroff quietly separated in 1957 and divorced in 1964, though they remained close until her death in 1965 and he was the executor of her estate. In later years it was revealed that Lorraine Hansberry had joined the early lesbian group the Daughters of Bilitis in 1957, and had written several anonymously published letters to their magazine, The Ladder, in which she discussed feminism, homophobia, and her struggles as a closeted lesbian.
Politics and rallies have always been an integral part of the DNA of Greenwich Village; and Hansberry was a speaker at a particularly significant rally on June 13, 1959. Dubbed “Village Rallies for NAACP,” it took place in Washington Square Park. It was intended to increase membership, raise funds, and start a Greenwich Village NAACP branch, with which Hansberry was intimately involved as the co-chair of the NAACP’s Life Membership Committee.
After the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry used her prominence in myriad ways: challenging President Kennedy and his brother to take bolder stances on civil rights, supporting African anti-colonial leaders, and confronting what was considered to be the “romantic racism” of some of the Beat poets and Village hipsters.
A candle in the wind, Lorraine Hansberry’s range of Village attributes over her short life places her squarely at the forefront of our Greenwich Village legacy and heritage.