Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry


DJ Name: Don’t Lorraine On My Parade

Happy Pride Month, everyone! In the past we’ve written about Sylvia Rivera, Audre Lorde, Stormé DeLarverie and Bayard Rustin, who all had one thing in common: each was open about their sexuality in different ways, despite the fact that identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community could and did come with a cost. 

But this week we’re going to talk about someone who was pretty much in the closet her whole life. By the time she died at 34, she was just starting to publicly identify as a lesbian, which led her to be posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. This lady is Lorraine Hansberry, best known for writing the play “A Raisin in the Sun.” She serves as a reminder that you can live your life however you want – whether that means sharing your love on social media or keeping your romantic life out of the public eye. 

Before we get into DJ Don’t Lorraine on My Parade’s life story, she asks that you queue up this playlist that she made that includes all of her favorite modern day songs.

Lorraine Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago, to Carl Augustus Hansberry and Nannie Louise. Carl, who was a successful real estate broker, and Nannie, who taught at a driving school, had already had three kiddos by the time Lorraine came around. When LoLo was eight years old, her fam bought a house in the Washington Park subdivision in the South Side of Chicago, which also lists Chief Keef as a one-time resident. 

While moving into a new home should have been cause for celebration and housewarming gifts, the Hansberry family was not welcomed with open arms. Their white neighbors were not thrilled with these new homeowners, and they even initiated legal proceedings to kick the Hansberrys out. This turmoil culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court taking up Hansberry v. Lee in 1940, which ended with the justices deciding that a previous decision that allowed the white homeowners to restrict Black people from buying or leasing land in the area was invalid. 

Outside of court, Papa Carl and Mama Nannie were also active in the Chicago Republican Party, and Carl was a supporter of the Urban League and the NAACP. The Hansberrys also often rubbed shoulders with big celebs of the era, including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois. But when Lorraine was 15, her dad passed away, saying that “American racism helped kill him.”

After graduating from high school in 1948, Lorraine enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took Philosophy 101 and said “Karl Marx my words, I’m going to integrate this dormitory.” OK, maybe she didn’t say those exact words, but she did become aligned with the Communist Party and desegregated a dorm on campus. If there was an injustice on campus, she was the first one there with her homemade picket sign.

But in 1950, Lorraine decided Wisconsin winters were not for her and she upped and moved to the Big Apple. Actually, maybe she liked winter, who’s to say, but she decided to transfer from being a Badger to being a… whatever the mascot is at The New School. She moved to Harlem in 1951 to pursue a career as a writer and advocate with her neighbors against evictions.

That same year, Lorraine joined the staff of the Black newspaper Freedom, which was published by Paul Robeson, a famed athlete and baritone artist of the era who should totally be featured in Historic Shuffle some day. She worked with other pan-Africanists there, including her dad’s ol’ pal W.E.B. DuBois. She also wore many hats, tap-tap-tapping away on the typewriter (?) as a typist, doing her best Pam Beesly impression as the receptionist and also dabbling in writing her own articles and editorials. She also got her first experience writing scripts at the newspaper, including writing one to celebrate the paper’s first birthday on “the history of the Negro newspaper in America and its fighting role in the struggle for a people’s freedom, from 1827 to the birth of FREEDOM.”

Through her involvement with Freedom, Lorraine expanded her social circle which allowed her to collaborate with other creatives on plays and publications. She often wrote about racial injustices that took place not only stateside but also overseas. She traveled near and far, jet setting to a peace conference in Uruguay once which, of course, the FBI just loved to see during the era of the red plague. Hansberry’s fight against white supremacism went hand in hand with her pro-communism lifestyle. Rumor has it good ol’ Joseph McCarthy was her biggest fan. 

On June 20, 1953 Lorraine married Robert Nemiroff, a publisher, songwriter and political activist. Now we know what you’re thinking: wedding band or DJ? Oh, you may also be wondering: “Wait, didn’t they write that she was a lesbian?” Yes, we did. 

But Lorraine spent most of her life in the closet and in the pages of her diary, where she wrote about her attraction to women. Lorraine came out to the public in the best way she knew how, through writing, in 1957 after she and Robert divorced and “A Raisin in the Sun ” shot her into the public spotlight. She penned two letters under her initials “L.H.N.” which were published in the San Francisco-based magazine, The Ladder, which was run by a lesiban rights organization. During their married years, Robert co-authored a Billboard Top Hit titled “Cindy, Oh Cindy” and made big bucks which allowed Lorraine to stay home and dedicate all her time to writing. Although the two divorced, their professional relationship lasted until the end of Lorraine’s life. 

“A Raisin in the Sun” was published in 1957 and opened on Broadway two years later. Just a few years before it was shared, Lorraine tried to burn her draft. Nemiroff walked in on her sitting by the fireplace, pages out and ready to watch it burn but quickly took the pages from her. He gave them back a few days later, and she finished the play. Talk about a close call. For those who haven’t read “A Raisin in the Sun,” it’s about a Black family who lives in the southside of Chicago and faces issues including housing discrimination, racisim and assimilation. Oh, and a major insurance payout after the death of the father of the family which improves their financial situation as they try to figure out how to make money moves. That’s the SparkNotes version because no spoilers here. Click on this link to order the real thang and add it to your summer reading list. 

Lorraine Hansberry became the first Black woman to produce a play on Broadway. She was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and, at 29, was the first African-American, the fifth woman, and the youngest to do so. Allegedly Lorraine was raisin the roof on the dance floor during awards season. “A Raisin in the Sun” was also nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. Though the Tony didn’t go to her, the play went on to be translated into 35 languages and was (and still is) performed all around the world. 

Following the stage success of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Hansberry wrote two screen versions and went to tinsel town to pitch the big wig directors of Hollywood. In 1961, Columbia Pictures released the film which went on to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival. NBC also called and commissioned Lorraine to write a television show about slavery. So she wrote The Drinking Gourd which supposedly had a superb script but was later rejected. 

Lorraine didn’t let a little rejection rain on her parade because writing was just a piece of activism that allowed her to call out discrimination. Lorraine also attended protests and sat in on meetings with important leaders of the time. Writer James Baldwin invited her to attend a meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, who was Attorney General at the time, after the 1963 Birmingham Riot. The goal of this meeting was to discuss ways to improve race relations in America, but it wasn’t successful because no consensus was reached. Outside of politics, Lorraine stayed involved with her community of creatives. She spoke to winners of a creative writing conference, during which she said, “Though it is a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted and black.” 

Unfortunately Lorraine’s life was cut short. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away at the age of 34 on January 12, 1965. Robert Nemiroff  was in charge of her personal and professional belongings and donated them to the New York Public Library. He separated out all of her personal lesbian correspondence, diaries, and manuscripts to restrict access to researchers. But in 2013, more than 20 years after Nemiroff’s death, the new executor released the restricted materials — which we actually used to write this Historic Shuffle. OK, maybe not. 

So we leave you with this, and that is, Lorraine Hansberry lived her life as, “a woman who has adjusted to many things in life and overcome many more, her face is full of strength. She has, we can see, wit and faith of a kind that keep her eyes lit and full of interest and expectancy. She is, in a word, a beautiful woman.” And no, we didn’t write that. Lorraine did, as she reminds us that living your truth takes many different forms. 

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