Hansberry photographed by David Attie

Lorraine Hansberry possessed a distinctive, timeless American voice as a playwright.  Indeed, director Robert O’Hara is directing her A Raisin in the Sun this summer in Williamstown with a cast headed S. Epatha Merkerson as the widowed family matriarch Lena and Francois Battiste as her son Walter Lee Younger.   “In program notes,” Ben Brantley tells us in his enticing review of the production in The New York Times,  [O’Hara]  writes about Hansberry’s prescience in exploring divisive topics that remain of vital relevance: racial assimilation, African heritage, the changing role of women, self-sabotage within African-American communities and the uneasy balance of power among the sexes and generations within the extended black family. This production is devised, above all, to make us listen with new intent to what Hansberry was saying.”

But we seldom listen to Hansberry’s real voice.  Here below is a rare recording of that voice and it is a rather radical one.  She is giving a speech here at Town Hall.

Some background, from American RadioWorks:

Hansberry’s 1959 success with A Raisin in the Sun gave her a prominent voice in the struggle for black liberation. She delivered this speech at the Town Hall forum in 1964. Having tried “respectable” ways to battle injustice, she said, it was time to get radical.

The forum was sponsored by the Association of Artists for Freedom, a loose coalition of well-known black performers and writers that included Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, and actress Ruby Dee. One of the founders, Ossie Davis, told The New York Times, “We meet from time to talk and argue…about what we as artists can do, how we can express the anguish for the moral situation we find in this country, but not as civil rights pleaders.”

The Town Hall forum was designed for white liberals and black activists to have an open conversation about tensions mounting between them in the civil rights movement. Charles Silberman, one of the white panelists, described the strain in a book he published in early 1964: “When the struggle for Negro rights moves into the streets, the majority of [white] liberals are reluctant to move along with it. They are all for the Negroes’ objectives, they say, but they cannot go along with the means.” During the forum Hansberry blasted this reluctance, declaring, “We have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”

Writing in her journal two days later, Hansberry described the event as explosive: “Negroes are so angry and white people are so confused and sensitive to criticism.” The black panelists included writers Paule Marshall, John O. Killens and Leroi Jones, along with actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. James Wechsler, a columnist for the New York Post, was another of the white panelists. He wrote that the Association of Artists for Freedom was “ambushing captive white liberals.” Meanwhile, Nat Hentoff argued in the Village Voice that the white panel members were “estranged from Negro reality.” He said Wechsler “simply did not have the capacity to really listen to what was being said.”

During the Town Hall forum, Lorraine Hansberry was battling more than ideas – she was fighting cancer. Her body was beginning to whither and she was on painkillers. Robert Nemiroff, her former husband, says she “rose from a sickbed,” determined to participate in the forum and “set forth the need for a new militancy and a radically new relationship between Blacks and Whites in the freedom struggle.”

Privately though, Hansberry worried she was becoming a coward. “Do I remain a revolutionary?” she wrote in her journal. “Intellectually – without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts?…Comfort has come to be its own corruption.” In July of 1964, Hansberry wrote that when she regained her health she might travel to the South “to find out what kind of revolutionary I am.”

Hansberry never got the chance. She died on January 12, 1965, at the age of 34.



James Baldwin wrote the below essay, “Sweet Lorraine,” about his dear friend Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer at the age of 34 in 1965, for the November 1969 issue of Esquire magazine.


Photo of Hansberry by David Attie.



That’s the way I always felt about her, and so I won’t apologize for calling her that now. She understood it: in that far too brief a time when we walked and talked and laughed and drank together, sometimes in the streets and bars and restaurants of the Village, sometimes at her house, sometimes at my house, sometimes gracelessly fleeing the houses of others; and sometimes seeming, for anyone who didn’t know us, to be having a knockdown, drag-out battle. We spent a lot of time arguing about history and tremendously related subjects in her Bleecker Street and, later, Waverly Place flats. And often, just when I was certain that she was about to throw me out, as being altogether too rowdy a type, she would stand up, her hands on her hips (for these down-home sessions she always wore slacks), and pick up my empty glass as though she intended to throw it at me. Then she would walk into the kitchen, saying, with a haughty toss of her head, “Really, Jimmy. You ain’t right, child!” With which stern put-down, she would hand me another drink and launch into a brilliant analysis of just why I wasn’t “right.” I would often stagger down her stairs as the sun came up, usually in the middle of a paragraph and always in the middle of a laugh. That marvelous laugh. That marvelous face. I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade. Her going did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were. We had that respect for each other which perhaps is only felt by people on the same side of the barricades, listening to the accumulating thunder of the hooves of horses and the treads of tanks.

And afterward she talked to me with a gentleness and generosity never to be forgotten. A small, shy, determined person, with that strength dictated by absolutely impersonal ambition: she was not trying to “make it”—she was trying to keep the faith.

The first time I ever saw Lorraine was at the Actors’ Studio, in the Winter of ’58-’59. She was there as an observer of the Workshop Production of Giovanni’s Boom. She sat way up in the bleachers, taking on some of the biggest names in the American theatre because she had liked the play and they, in the main, hadn’t. I was enormously grateful to her, she seemed to speak for me; and afterward she talked to me with a gentleness and generosity never to be forgotten. A small, shy, determined person, with that strength dictated by absolutely impersonal ambition: she was not trying to “make it”—she was trying to keep the faith.

We really met, however, in Philadelphia, in 1959, when A Raisin In The Sun was at the beginning of its amazing career. Much has been written about this play ; I personally feel that it will demand a far less guilty and constricted people than the present-day Americans to be able to assess it at all; as an historical achievement, anyway, no one can gainsay its importance. What is relevant here is that I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theatre. And the reason was that never in the history of the American theatre had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theatre because the theatre had always ignored them.

But, in Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it—the mother, the son, the daughter and the daughter-in-law—and supplied the play with an interpretative element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. And when the curtain came down, Lorraine and I found ourselves in the backstage alley, where she was immediately mobbed. I produced a pen and Lorraine handed me her handbag and began signing autographs. “It only happens once,” she said. I stood there and watched. I watched the people, who loved Lorraine for what she had brought to them; and watched Lorraine, who loved the people for what they brought to her. It was not, for her, a matter of being admired. She was being corroborated and confirmed. She was wise enough and honest enough to recognize that black American artists are in a very special case. One is not merely an artist and one is not judged merely as an artist: the black people crowding around Lorraine, whether or not they considered her an artist, assuredly considered her a witness. This country’s concept of art and artists has the effect, scarcely worth mentioning by now, of isolating the artist from the people. One can see the effect of this in the irrelevance of so much of the work produced by celebrated white artists; but the effect of this isolation on a black artist is absolutely fatal. He is, already, as a black American citizen, isolated from most of his white countrymen. At the crucial hour, he can hardly look to his artistic peers for help, for they do not know enough about him to be able to correct him. To continue to grow, to remain in touch with himself, he needs the support of that community from which, however, all of the pressures of American life incessantly conspire to remove him. And when he is effectively removed, he falls silent—and the people have lost another hope.

Much of the strain under which Lorraine worked was produced by her knowledge of this reality, and her determined refusal to be destroyed by it. She was a very young woman, with an overpowering vision, and fame had come to her early—she must certainly have wished, often enough, that fame had seen fit to drag its feet a little. For fame and recognition are not synonyms, especially not here, and her fame was to cause her to be criticized very harshly, very loudly, and very often by both black and white people who were unable to believe, apparently, that a really serious intention could be contained in so glamorous a frame. She took it all with a kind of astringent good humor, refusing, for example, even to consider defending herself when she was being accused of being a “slum lord” because of her family’s real-estate holdings in Chicago. I called her during that time, and all she said—with a wry laugh—was, “My God, Jimmy, do you realize you’re only the second person who’s called me today? And you know how my phone kept ringing before!” She was not surprised. She was devoted to the human race, but she was not romantic about it.

When so bright a light goes out so early, when so gifted an artist goes so soon, we are left with a sorrow and wonder which speculation cannot assuage. One’s filled for a long time with a sense of injustice as futile as it is powerful. And the vanished person fills the mind, in this or that attitude, doing this or that. Sometimes, very briefly, one hears the exact inflection of the voice, the exact timbre of the laugh—as I have, when watching the dramatic presentation, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and in reading through these pages. But I do not have the heart to presume to assess her work, for all of it, for me, was suffused with the light which was Lorraine. It is possible, for example, that The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window attempts to say too much; but it is also exceedingly probable that it makes so loud and uncomfortable a sound because of the surrounding silence; not many plays, presently, risk being accused of attempting to say too much! Again, Brustein is certainly a very willed play, unabashedly didactic: but it cannot, finally, be dismissed or categorized in this way because of the astonishing life of its people. It positively courts being dismissed as old-fashioned and banal and yet has the unmistakable power of turning the viewer’s judgment in on himself. Is all this true or not true? the play rudely demands; and, unforgivably, leaves us squirming before this question. One cannot quite answer the question negatively, one risks being caught in a lie. But an affirmative answer imposes a new level of responsibility, both for one’s conduct and for the fortunes of the American state, and one risks, therefore, the disagreeable necessity of becoming “an insurgent again.” For Lorraine made no bones about asserting that art has a purpose, and that its purpose was action: that it contained the “energy which could change things.”

It would be good, selfishly, to have her around now, that small, dark girl, with her wit, her wonder, and her eloquent compassion. I’ve only met one person Lorraine couldn’t get through to, and that was the late Bobby Kennedy. And, as the years have passed since that stormy meeting—Lorraine talks about it in these pages, so I won’t go into it here—I’ve very often pondered what she then tried to convey—that a holocaust is no respecter of persons; that what, today, seems merely humiliation and injustice for a few can, unchecked, become Terror for the many, snuffing out white lives just as though they were black lives; that if the American state could not protect the lives of black citizens, then, presently, the entire State would find itself engulfed. And the horses and tanks are indeed upon us, and the end is not in sight. Perhaps it is just as well, after all, that she did not live to see with the outward eye what she saw so clearly with the inward one. And it is not at all far-fetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man.

I saw Lorraine in her hospital bed, as she was dying. She tried to speak, she couldn’t. She did not seem frightened or sad, only exasperated that her body no longer obeyed her; she smiled and waved. But I prefer to remember her as she was the last time I saw her on her feet. We wrere at, of all places, the PEN Club, she was seated, talking, dressed all in black, wearing a very handsome wide, black hat, thin, and radiant. I knew she had been ill, but I didn’t know, then, how seriously. I said, “Lorraine, baby, you look beautiful, how in the world do you do it?” She was leaving, I have the impression she was on a staircase, and she turned and smiled that smile and said, “It helps to develop a serious illness, Jimmy!” and waved and disappeared.


And here is Lillian Ross’s impressions of Hansberry in the May 2, 1959, edition of The New Yorker.  The story appeared under the title “Playwright.”

Self-portrait by Hansberry. Pen and Ink on Newspaper. In 1948, Lorraine enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she took art classes. During the summer of 1949 she studied painting at the University of Guadalajara art workshop in Ajijic, Mexico and during the summer of 1950 she studied art at Roosevelt University.


We had a talk recently with Lorraine Hansberry, the twenty-eight-year-old author of the hit play “A Raisin in the Sun.” Miss Hansberry is a relaxed, soft-voiced young lady with an intelligent and pretty face, a particularly vertical hairdo, and large brown eyes, so dark and so deep that you get lost in them. At her request, we met her in a midtown restaurant, so that she could get away from her telephone. “The telephone has become a little strange thing with a life of its own,” she told us, calmly enough. “It’s just incredible! I had the number changed, and gave it to, roughly, twelve people. Then I get a call from a stranger saying ‘This is So-and-So, of the B.B.C.’! It’s the flush of success. Thomas Wolfe wrote a detailed description of it in ‘You Can’t Go Home Again.’ I must say he told the truth. I enjoy it, actually, so much. I’m thrilled, and all of us associated with the play are thrilled. Meanwhile, it does keep you awfully busy. What sort of happens is you just hear from everybody!

Miss Hansberry gave a soft, pleased laugh. “I’m going to have some scrambled eggs, medium, because, as far as I know, I haven’t had my breakfast yet,” she went on. “I live in the Village, and the way it’s been, people sort of drop in on me and my husband. My husband is Robert Nemiroff, and he, too, is a writer. Yesterday, I got back to writing, and I wrote all day long. For the first time in weeks. It was wonderful. We have a ramshackle Village walkup apartment, quiteramshackle, with living room, bedroom, kitchen, bath, and a little back workroom, and I just stayed in that little old room all day and wrote. I may even get time now to do some of my housework. I don’t want to have anyone else to do my housework. I’ve always done it myself. I believe you should do it yourself. I feel very strongly about that.”

The medium scrambled eggs arrived, and Miss Hansberry sampled them vaguely and went on to tell us something of what life has been like since her play opened, a few weeks ago. “I now get twenty to thirty pieces of mail a day,” she said. “Invitations to teas, invitations to lunches, invitation to dinners, invitations to write books, to adapt mystery stories for the movies, to adapt novels for Broadway musicals. I feel I have to answer them, because I owe the people who wrote them the courtesy of explaining that this is not my type of thing. Then, there are so many organizations that want you to come to their meetings. You don’t feel silly or bothered, because, my God, they’re all doing such important work, and you’re just delighted to go. But you’re awfully busy, because there are an awful lot of organizations. The other morning, I came downstairs to walk my dog—he’s sort of a collie, and he’ll be six in September—and there, downstairs, were the two most charming people, a middle-aged couple who wanted me to have dinner with the New Rochelle Urban League before it went to see the play. I just couldn’t say no. Meanwhile, I’d been getting telegrams from Roosevelt University, in Chicago, which is a very wonderful institution back home, asking me to come and speak. I kept sending telegrams back saying I couldn’t come, and then they got me on the phone, and they had me. Once I’m on the phone, I just can’t say no. I sometimes find myself doing things for three or four organizations in one day. The other morning, I started the day by taping a television program. Then I went to the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Founders’ Day Tea, at the Waldorf, where they were giving out Sojourner Truth Awards—awards named for Sojourner Truth, who was a very colorful orator who went up and down New England and the South speaking against slavery. Then I went home and went to the Square with my dog. When I got back home, I fed the dog and put on a cocktail dress, and my husband and I had dinner in a new Village steak house. Then we went to a reception for a young Negro actor named Harold Scott, who had just made a record album of readings from the works of James Weldon Johnson. A very beautiful album. Then we went home and had banana cream pie and milk and watched television—a program with me on it, as a matter of fact. It was terrifying to see. I had no idea I used my face so much when I talked, and I decided that that was the end of my going on television. The next day was quiet. I had only one visitor—a young Negro writer who wanted to drop off a manuscript for me to read. We had a drink and a quick conversation, and he was off. I actually got to cook dinner—a pretty good one, with fried pork chops, broccoli au gratin, salad, and banana cream pie. I’m mad for banana cream pie. Fortunately, there’s a place in the neighborhood that makes marvellous ones.”

Miss Hansberry told us that she had written her play between her twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh birthdays, and that it had taken her eight months. “I’d beenwriting an awful lot of plays—about three, I guess–and this happened to be one of them,” she told us. “We all know now that people like the play, including the critics. Most of what was written about the play was reasonable and fine, but I don’t agree that this play, as some people have assumed, has turned out the way it has because just about everybody associated with it was a Negro. I’m pleased to say that we went to great pains to get the best director and the best actors for this particular play. And I like to think I wrote the play out of a specific intellectual point of view. I’m aware of the existence of Anouilh, Beckett, Dürrenmatt, and Brecht, but I believe, with O’Casey, that real drama has to do with audience involvement and achieving the emotional transformation of people on the stage. I believe that ideas can be transmitted emotionally.”

“Agreed,” we said, and asked Miss Hansberry for some autobiography.

“I was born May 19, 1930, in Chicago,” she told us. “I have two brothers and one sister. I’m the baby of the family. My sister Mamie is thirty-five and has a three-year-old daughter, Nantille, who is divine and a character. She was named for my mother, whose name is Nannie, and her other grandmother, Tillie. My older brother, Carl, Jr., is forty, and my other brother, Perry, Sr., is thirty-eight and has an eighteen-year-old daughter, who is starting college and is very beautiful. Carl, Perry, and Mamie run my father’s real-estate business, Hansberry Enterprises, in Chicago. My father, who is dead now, was born in Gloster, Mississippi, which you can’t find on the map, it’s so small. My mother comes from Columbia, Tennessee, which is on the map, but just about. My father left the South as a young man, and then he went back there and got himself an education. He was a wonderful and very special kind of man. He died in 1945, at the age of fifty-one—of a cerebral hemorrhage, supposedly, but American racism helped kill him. He died in Mexico, where he was making preparations to move all of us out of the United States. My brother Carl had just come back from Europe, where he fought with Patton’s army. My father wanted to leave this country because, although he had tried to do everything in his power to make it otherwise, he felt he still didn’t have his freedom. He was a very successful and very wealthy businessman. He had been a U. S. marshal. He had founded one of the first Negro banks in Chicago. He had fought a very famous civil-rights case on restricted covenants which he fought all the way up to the Supreme Court, and which he won after the expenditure of a great deal of money and emotional strength. The case is studied today in the law schools. Anyway, Daddy felt that this country was hopeless in its treatment of Negroes. So he became a refugee from America. He bought a house in Polanco, a suburb of Mexico City, and we were planning to move there when he died. I was fourteen at the time. I’m afraid I have to agree with Daddy’s assessment of this country. But I don’t agree with the leaving part. I don’t feel defensive. Daddy really belonged to a different age, a different period. He didn’t feel free. One of the reasons I feel so free is that I feel I belong to a world majority, and a very assertive one. I’m not really writing about my own family in the play. We were more typical of the bourgeois Negro exemplified by the Murchison family that is referred to in the play. I’m too close to my own family to be able to write about them.

“I mostly went to Jim Crow schools, on the South Side of Chicago, which meant half-day schools, and to this day I can’t count. My parents were some peculiar kind of democrats. They could afford to send us to private schools, but they didn’t believe in it. I went to three grade schools—Felsenthal, Betsy Ross, and A. O. Sexton, the last of them in a white neighborhood, where Daddy bought a house when I was eight. My mother is a remarkable woman, with great courage. She sat in that house for eight months with us—while Daddy spent most of his time in Washington fighting his case—in what was, to put it mildly, a very hostile neighborhood. I was on the porch one day with my sister, swinging my legs, when a mob gathered. We went inside, and while we were in our living room, a brick came crashing through the window with such force it embedded itself in the opposite wall. I was the one the brick almost hit. I went to Englewood High School and then to the University of Wisconsin for two years. Then I just got tired of going to school and quit and came to New York, in the summer of 1950. The theatre came into my life like k-pow!” Miss Hansberry knocked a fist into the palm of her other hand. “In Chicago, on my early dates, I was taken to see shows like ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Othello,’ and ‘Dark of the Moon,’ which absolutely flipped me, with all that witch-doctor stuff, which I still adore. In college, I saw plays by Strindberg and Ibsen for the first time, and they were important to me. I was intrigued by the theatre. Mine was the same old story—sort of hanging around little acting groups, and developing the feeling that the theatre embraces everything I like all at one time. I’ve always assumed I had something to tell people. Now I think of myself as a playwright.”

At the Obie Awards. 1959 .


At her desk at Freedom magazine. From 1951–1953, Hansberry worked in Harlem at the weekly black newspaper, Freedom, founded by Paul Robeson and Louis E. Burnham. At the newspaper, Hansberry started as a “subscription clerk, receptionist, typist and editorial assistant” in addition to writing news articles and editorials. She soon became associate editor, working closely with Louis Burnham, who became her mentor.


  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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