It would seem that Lorraine Hansberry is finally getting the national moment that she has long deserved. While not the most prolific mid-century modern playwright in the American canon, she is certainly one of the most influential. As Charles J. Shields, author of the new biography Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun, points out, “A Raisin in the Sun” is one of the most produced plays from this time period, second only to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” And while “Salesman” has made its way into the American consciousness courtesy of so many high school English classes’ reading lists, it’s probably the rare individual who could tell you much about what is arguably Hansberry’s masterpiece. Works like Shields’ are seeking to right that wrong.
I hesitate to tell you that this biography is well-researched lest you run for the hills, yet it is. But please bear with me. This research is gorgeous and thorough, pulling not only from the events of the times but also, thrillingly, from first-hand material: Hansberry’s letters and musings. And all of this research is meticulously laid out, building into a story as well-plotted as any of Hansberry’s plays.
The Younger family that sits at the beating heart of “A Raisin in the Sun” is so richly and poignantly drawn that it’s tempting to assume they must be ripped from Hansberry’s diary – that Lena Younger, the matriarch, is a direct corollary to Nannie Hansberry and that Beneatha is a self-insert character for the author herself. Shields’ research and, indeed, a quick internet search, will tell you that’s not the case. (Though Beneatha’s frustration with her boyfriends does sound a bit like a letter Hansberry wrote in college to a friend, griping about how sex-addled college boys are.) Hansberry’s family, unlike the Youngers, existed, at least economically, in a comfortable middle- to upper-middle class place. Where Shields’ research triumphs over the internet is the careful threading of research drawn into a narrative tapestry, providing the reader with a fuller picture of Hansberry’s life.
Shields establishes Hansberry as an intelligent child and precocious empath. The Youngers are not her diary pages made manifest, but they are the achings of Hansberry’s heart externalized and crafted into characters and circumstances. While Hansberry’s family would increasingly move up Chicago’s neighborhood ladder, Hansberry herself would always feel a connection to the people of the South Side, where she was born, and where the Youngers reside. And though her family occupied comfortable apartments, Hansberry knew that that comfort was bought by her father’s occupation as a real estate developer – the so-dubbed “King of Kitchenettes,” a developer of the very type of tenement unit the Youngers are trying to escape. As for the Clybourne Park neighborhood covenant that threatens the Younger family’s dream of owning their home, drama strikes closer to the bone of reality: Hansberry’s father won a landmark case against just such a covenant in a 1940 Supreme Court ruling.
The more difficult play to unpack is “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” which premiered in 1964 and was running on Broadway when Hansberry died at the age of 34 of pancreatic cancer. Where “Raisin” exists in a realistic world and therefore not a fair world, the right and wrong of it are clear binaries, and while its characters aren’t perfect, they are relatable and sympathetic. “Sign” lives in a much grayer area, its characters are openly paradoxical, and the most difficult character to like is its protagonist. “Sign” is particularly satisfying to read as Shields builds his research-based narrative around Hansberry’s life in Greenwich Village and her marriage to composer Robert Nemiroff – a marriage that wouldn’t last as Hansberry stepped out of the closet and into her truth as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
I do, however, have a quibble with the author. In his introduction Shields pulls a quote from Hansberry, where she stated she was “not interested in capitalizing the first letters of the expression ‘black race’ any more than I could imagine anyone should wish to suddenly start writing ‘White Race.’” Shields supports this quote from Hansberry with another: “American Negroes take the view that we are specific and not a generality.” For context, these quotes from Hansberry are from 1959. Shields states that in his writing, he will “accede to [Hansberry’s] preference and lowercase black and white throughout the book and rely on Negro now and then.” The latter choice he bolsters with a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois: “’Negro’ is quite as accurate, quite as old and quite as definite as any name of any great people.” A clear choice from the author that is backed by historical research.
But history is not unbiased and in America’s march forward as a society, the invisible cloak hiding systems of oppression is increasingly falling away, revealing and teaching us more each day, perhaps never more so than after the events of 2020. Consequently, I wonder about the choice to honor the perspective of a deceased person expressed 63 years ago over the feelings of living Black readers. As the titular protagonist from “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” asks of his playwright neighbor, “Who’s your audience, man?” On this very topic Columbia Journalism Review contributor Alexandria Neason wrote: “To capitalize Black […] is to acknowledge that slavery ‘deliberately stripped’ people forcibly shipped overseas ‘of all other ethnic/national ties.’” She added, “African American is not wrong, and some prefer it, but if we are going to capitalize Asian and South Asian and Indigenous, for example, groups that include myriad ethnic identities united by shared race and geography and, to some degree, culture, then we also have to capitalize Black.”
Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun
By Charles J. Shields
Published January 22, 2022