By Brian Robin
The Impact of a Ground-Breaking Play
Hansberry’s impact and her play’s impact carried far beyond the stage as she kicked open the doors for scores of Black writers and artists to emerge into the American cultural mainstream. Hansberry finished her masterpiece in 1957, right around the time the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was enacted. That, however, was the first tepid steps of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. That movement would need several more years and more emphatic Congressional urging to click into full-gear.
At the same time, part of A Raisin in the Sun’s artistic genius was Hansberry’s ability to foresee the gathering momentum of that movement and articulate it through the story of the Younger family. She tackled the concept of racial segregation seven years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Through the Youngers, Hansberry provided a voice to Black Americans who wanted to assert their identities and simply enjoy the same rights white Americans were granted under the Constitution.
Through the success of A Raisin in the Sun and her speaking engagements, by 1963, Hansberry was recognized as one of the most powerful voices for civil rights. This brought her a seat at the table in a New York hotel room in May 1963, where Hansberry and several other prominent African American leaders met with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who questioned them on how to handle the civil rights protests that were gathering momentum every week.
Hansberry pulled no punches. She told Kennedy “I am very worried … about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton and author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, described what happened next.
“She smiled a cutting smile at the attorney general, turned, and walked out. Most of the others followed.”
RFK got the message. He passed it on to his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who gave a speech a month later laying out the foundation for what would later became LBJ’s Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The fact she was talking to the attorney general of the United States meant nothing to Hansberry. To her, the “dream deferred,” as Langston Hughes’ poem described it, had gone on long enough. It became the inescapable theme of A Raisin in the Sun. That theme called loud and unavoidable attention to the policy and societal changes and inherent injustices Black Americans faced.
And Hansberry knew of what she wrote. While she maintained A Raisin in the Sun wasn’t autobiographical, her childhood growing up in middle class comfort on Chicago’s South Side gave her a personal template for the play’s foundation and theme. In 1937, when Hansberry was 7-years-old, her father, Carl, bought a house in an area of Chicago where restrictive covenants forbade white property owners from selling to blacks.
The response from white mobs in the Woodlawn area was immediate and brutal. Hansberry and her sisters were spit on and cursed at every time they left their house. One night, a chunk of cement crashed through a window and lodged in the living room wall—barely missing Hansberry. Carl Hansberry eventually sued for the right to live where he wanted, taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case, Hansberry v. Lee, was argued by noted civil rights attorney Earl Dickerson, who successfully persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn lower court rulings that the sale was forbidden due to the restrictive covenant. It not only led to such covenants being banned under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, but became a civil procedure bellwether case for law students and attorneys going forward.
In January 1965, Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at 34, prompting the eternal and oft-asked question of where her dynamic voice would have carried next. Hansberry crammed a lot of intellectual firepower into her short life, writing not only plays, but essays and fiction. Many believe that her influence on the Civil Rights Movement of her day carried forward to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.
“Having a role model who was always willing to speak truth to power is really important for us,” Perry told Playbill Magazine. “It’s impossible to know exactly what Hansberry would make of today’s America. But if she were still alive, she’d have a lot to say. That’s for sure.”