American Literature Lorraine Hansberry
M. Carmen Gómez-Galisteo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0248


Lorraine Hansberry (19 May 1930–12 January 1965), at twenty-eight years old, became the first female African American playwright who had a drama produced on Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun (1959). A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in March 1959. Hansberry received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and was celebrated as one of the most promising American playwrights. Born of college-educated parents, the youngest of four children, Hansberry was raised in a middle-class family on the South Side of Chicago. Her father combined his career in real estate with civil rights activism while her mother was a teacher. When she was seven, her family moved into a white neighborhood, where they were the victims of abuse and harassment from neighbors who did not want African American residents in their area. This experience would be an inspiration for A Raisin in the Sun. Her father legally fought the existence of neighbors’ covenants that caused housing discrimination against African Americans, winning the case after a several-year fight that reached the Supreme Court, Hansberry v. Lee. Hansberry studied at the University of Wisconsin (1948–1950) but she left before having completed her degree. She enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Roosevelt University and would later study at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She would fix her permanent residence in New York since 1950. Hansberry embraced communism and wrote for several leftist publications. For this political activism, she came under the surveillance of the FBI. A Raisin in the Sun (whose working title had been The Crystal Stair) takes its name from a line in Langston Hughes’s poem, “Harlem” (also known as “A Dream Deferred”). A Raisin in the Sun soon had a movie version (1961) directed by Daniel Petrie and starring Sidney Poitier and Louis Gossett Jr. Her next play to open on Broadway was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, and it would be the last production during her lifetime. It opened on 15 October 1964 and was not so successful (although it had Broadway revivals in 1972 and 2023). Hansberry was already terminally ill at the time and died before its run was over. Despite her homosexuality, in 1953 Hansberry married Jewish political activist and songwriter Robert Nemiroff. At the time, homosexuality was illegal, as was interracial marriage in several states. The marriage ended in divorce in 1964 but they remained close friends. After her death from pancreatic cancer at age thirty-four, he became her literary executor until his death in 1991. He was in charge of the Broadway production of Les Blancs in 1970 and he coauthored with Charlotte Zaltzberg Raisin, a Broadway musical version of A Raisin in the Sun which opened in 1973. In 1986, A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. A television adaptation, starring Danny Glover, followed. In 2008, it became a TV film whose cast and director had already participated in a 2004 Broadway revival.


A number of biographies on Hansberry have been published, some including bibliographies for her works too (Cheney 1984). However, it was not until Colbert 2021 that the first scholarly biography of Hansberry was published. Perry 2018 and Sinnott 1999 pay special attention to Hansberry’s political activism. Carter 1991 is a literary biography exploring the influences in Hansberry.

  • Carter, Steven R. Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment amid Complexity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

    After consulting unpublished manuscripts, this literary biography examines the influences present in Hansberry’s work. Not limited to her already published works, a number of unpublished writings that were in progress at the time of her death are examined, revealing a deeper understanding of Hansberry’s dramatic vision. Recipient of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

  • Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

    The first biography of Hansberry, written twenty years after her death. It not only chronicles her life but it also makes a critical analysis of her dramatic production. The volume contains a chronology as well as a selection of bibliographical references on Hansberry.

  • Colbert, Soyica Diggs. Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1k03g5q

    The latest biography of Hansberry and the first scholarly one. Chronicles Hansberry’s vital trajectory but with an important focus on her activities as political activist and her role as an artist. Explores her advocacy for racial justice in the United States as well as examining how feminism, existentialism, and her homosexuality all played a part in defining both her artistic and her political views. Winner of the 2021 Outstanding Book Award from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

  • Perry, Imani. Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

    Recipient of, among others, the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction, the Shilts-Grahn Triangle Award for Lesbian Nonfiction, the 2019 Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award, and the 2019 PEN/Jacquline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. Explores Hansberry’s activism and her connections with relevant personalities such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, or Duke Ellington. Presents her engagement not only with the civil rights movement but with the incipient lesbian movement (while hiding her own homosexuality).

  • Sinnott, Susan. Lorraine Hansberry: Award-Winning Playwright and Civil Rights Activist. Berkeley: Conari Press, 1999.

    Aimed at teenage readers. Includes a foreword by African American screenwriter and playwright Thulani Davis. Celebrates Hansberry’s pioneering role as an African American and as a woman playwright at a time when theater was not only segregated but dominated by male dramatists, emphasizing her as a role model for younger audiences who are first introduced to her.

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