How much do you know about Lorraine Hansberry?“I wish to live because life has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful, and that which is love. Therefore, since I have known all of these things, I have found them to be reason enough and – I wish to live. Moreover, because this is so, I wish others to live for generations and generations and generations and generations.” – Lorraine Hansberry, at a conference in 1959
As a theatre artist, I’ve always known that she was the author of A Raisin in the Sun, of course, and of the film version of the play, as well as a couple of other rarely produced plays. I knew that this made her the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. I knew that the play was slightly autobiographical – although Hansberry’s family was fairly well off, her family moved into a white neighborhood in Chicago in the 1950’s, and faced the kind of violence and racism that the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun are afraid of. And I knew that she died very young, losing a battle to cancer at the age of 34.
But I didn’t know much about her life beyond those few tidbits.
Her own words, at a 1959 conference called “The Negro Writer and His Roots,” speak to her history far more compellingly than anything I might hope to compile:
“I was born on the Southside of Chicago. I was born black and a female. I was born in a depression after one world war, and came into adolescence during another. While I was still in my teens the first atom bombs were dropped on human beings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and by the time I was twenty-three years old my government and that of the Soviet Union had entered actively into the worst conflict of nerves in human history – the Cold War.
I have lost friends and relatives through cancer, lynching and war. I have been personally the victim of physical attack which was the offspring of racial and political hysteria. I have worked with the handicapped and seen the ravages of congenital diseases that we have not yet conquered because we spend our time and ingenuity in far less purposeful wars. I see daily on the streets of New York, street gangs and prostitutes and beggars; I have, like all of you, on a thousand occasions seen indescribable displays of man’s very real inhumanity to man; and I have come to maturity, as we all must, knowing that greed and malice, indifference to human misery and perhaps, above all else, ignorance – the prime ancient and persistent enemy of man – abound in this world.
I say all of this to say that one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know and react to the miseries which afflict this world.
I have given you this account so that you know that what I write is not based on the assumption of idyllic possibilities or innocent assessments of the true nature of life – but, rather, my own personal view that, posing one against the other, I think that the human race does command its own destiny, and that that destiny can eventually embrace the stars…”
From To be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (adapted by Robert Nemiroff)..