Lorraine Hansberry

Invariably, most writers write about their own experiences, their own environment, or their own interests. For example, John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath from his California inheritance; Flannery O’Connor wrote short stories like “Good Country People” from her experience in the South; and Lorraine Hansberry wrote the drama, A Raisin in the Sun, knowing a Chicago background as an African American. Hansberry’s drama parallels a true episode from her life.

Lorraine Hansberry was born in 1930 and was forced to live in a South Side ghetto in Chicago in her childhood. Her father became a successful real estate agent and a banker. He founded the first African American bank in Chicago. When Hansberry was eight, her father advanced his career and bought a home in a white neighborhood. After the family moved in, a mob of thugs threw bricks through the window and barely missed Lorraine. Even this violence did not detour her father. He continued to claim his right to live in their house among white residents. Thereupon, he began a civil rights suit to test the law that restricted Blacks from living in white neighborhoods. He lost in the Illinois Court. Therefore, he applied to the United States Supreme Court. After two years, the court overruled the Illinois Court, revised the code, and the family continued to live in that integrated community.

At seventeen, Hansberry was involved in a race riot in her Englewood High School. White students went on a strike against Blacks. A carload of students with bats and slogans drove close to her as she was walking home, but no violence erupted and the matter was settled peacefully. Hansberry entered the University of Wisconsin for two years and pursued a career in journalism. She moved to New York to study and become a reporter for the publication, FREEDOM. In 1953, she married a playwright and began writing dramas. Her prize drama, A Raisin in. the Sun, appeared on Broadway in 1959. According to The New York Times, “The play…changed the American theatre forever.” The drama was wildly successful for all audiences. At the age of twenty-nine, Hansberry became the first and youngest Black woman to produce a play on Broadway. She was the first Back woman to have the best American play in the Cannes Festival in 1961. Unfortunately for the drama world, Hansberry died at the age of thirty-five from cancer. But her success dwells forever in A Raisin in the Sun.

Lena is seated in an armchair, with Walter standing behind her, leaning towards Beneatha, who's looking up at him.
From a 1959 production of the play.

A parallel setting of Lorraine Hansberry’s life opens in her drama with the Younger family in Chicago’s Southside in A Raison in the Sun. They live in a crowded, two-bedroom apartment, well-ordered, furnished in antique pieces from Mama’s past. Five persons live here. Travis, the grandson of Mama, sleeps on the couch; Mama and Beneatha, her daughter, share a bedroom; Ruth and Walter, married, occupy the other bedroom. The story begins with a happy, resilient, ethically sound, hard-working family, strapped in low paying service jobs, but not diluted by money. Intervening conversations between family members in this drama are rich with wisdom, opinions, ideas, conflict, and loving gestures. A plot develops. A $10,000 insurance check arrives for Mama who lost her husband. In the 1950s, that was a large sum of money. Walter wants to invest the money in a business venture: a liquor store. Mama secretly makes a down payment of $3,500 on a modern home in a white neighborhood. She entrusts Walter with the other $6,500 which he gives to Bobo in a business deal. All is fine until Mr. Lindner, the representative of the Clybourne Park Community Committee appears at the apartment. He claims that “for the happiness of all concerned… Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities…. A man, right or wrong, has the right to want to have a neighborhood he lives in a certain way.” So, Mr. Lindner offers to buy Mama’s house for a higher price than she paid. The Younger family considers this option, the chance to get out of this rat-trap apartment where they must share the single bathroom with all second-floor residents. Furthermore, Ruth is pregnant with plans for an abortion. To complete the crisis, Walter lost all the money he invested in Bobo’s scheme. The family dreams collapse at this moment. Beneatha was studying to be a doctor and the $3,000 Mama asked Walter to deposit in the bank for Beneatha’s education is gone. The family is helplessly furious at Walter’s judgement. The weight of the loss of money is in fact the weight of death for dreams. Mama remarks, “Sometimes you just got to know when to give up some things…and hold on to what you got.” To sooth Beneatha’s anger, Mama makes this elegant speech: “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him; what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most; when they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so. When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

The ending is momentous. As a hint, Walter confronts Mr. Lindner and refuses to sell. Walter is caught in the sweet essence of human dignity with these words: “We are a proud family. This is my son, who makes the sixth generation of our family in this country, and we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it. We don’t want to make trouble for nobody or fight no causes—but we will try to be good neighbors…. We don’t want your money.”

Personally, I am always inspired by this account of a family in this drama. In this American dream, we see ourselves. The old ways of Mama come into conflict with the new ways of her children. Individual fulfillment, recognition, and liberation are acknowledged for each member of this family, but there is a concerted effort to satisfy the common good for everyone. Finally, love is the legitimate basis for living.