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How Lorraine Hansberry inspired countless Black and LGBTQ+ writers
Lisa Desjardins: For this Pride Month as part of our series hidden histories, Ali Rogin is back with a look at a playwright and civil rights activist who gave new voice to countless marginalized artists who were women black and queer.
Ali Rogin: Her plays told stories of black life hidden in plain sight, and her life continues to inspire LGBTQ writers all across the theater world. Lorraine Hansberry's magnum opus, A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959 when she was just 28 years old, making her the first black woman playwright ever to reach Broadway.
Man: All you got to do is sit down with her one morning.
Ali Rogin: The seminal work was also made into a 1961 film starring Sidney Poitier.
Man: I'm choking to death and obviously the music these eggs.
Ali Rogin: The author James Baldwin once wrote of the production never before in the entire history of the American theater has so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage, and the play was based on Hansberry's own experiences. Like her characters, The Youngers, she grew up in a middle class black family in Chicago. They moved into an all-white neighborhood and were persecuted for it.
Hansberry was born in 1930 on the city south side into a family deeply involved in the fight for civil rights. Her father was a successful realtor who fought for better black housing. He won a case before the Supreme Court that helped end some discriminatory real estate practices, like the ones they endured.
In 1950, Hansberry dropped out of college and moved to Harlem where she continued her family's legacy of activism. She called herself a revolutionary. She spoke at protests gatherings, marched on picket lines, and wrote for a progressive publication called freedom.
But while Hansberry was outspoken on racial justice in America, she reckoned with her sexuality in private. For nine years, she was married to a man Robert Nemeroff, and though she was never out publicly Hansberry privately identified as a lesbian at a time when homosexuality was illegal in New York City, and gays and lesbians were demonized.
She also wrote anonymously to a lesbian magazine, The Ladder. In January 1965 at just 34 years old, Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer. Months before her death, she spoke to six teenage winners of a national Creative Writing Contest. She told them, you are young, gifted and black. I, for one, can think of no more dynamic combination that a person might be, words that Hans Berry's friend, musician Nina Simone would immortalize into song.