Lorraine Vivian Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun exploded onto American theater scene on March 11, 1959, with such force that it garnered for the then-unknown black female playwright the Drama Circle Critics Award for 1958-59 — in spite of such luminous competition as Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet, and Archibald MacLeish's J.B.
Since its Broadway debut, Raisin has been translated into over thirty languages, including the language of the eastern German Sorbische minority, and has been produced in such culturally diverse places as China, the former Czechoslovakia, England, France, and the former Soviet Union. Its universal appeal defies, in retrospect, some of the early critics' views of Raisin as being simply "a play about Negroes." Although Raisin addresses specific problems of a black family in Southside Chicago, it also mirrors the very real problems of all people. In an interview with social historian Studs Terkel, Hansberry explains, ". . . in order to create the universal, you must pay very close attention to the specific."
Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930, the last of four children born to the independent, politically active, Republican, and well-to-do Carl and Nannie Perry Hansberry. Hospitals were required at that time to list the racial identities of newborns; however, upon receiving their daughter's birth certificate, Hansberry's parents crossed out the word "Negro" and wrote "Black," an act of minor significance but certainly a testament to the Afrocentric ideology that the elder Hansberrys bequeathed to their children.
Although 1930 is the year that most Americans associate with the Great Depression, Hansberry's family remained economically solvent through this period. By 1930s standards, the Hansberrys were certainly upper middle class, but by the standards of most Chicago blacks, many of whom lived in abject poverty at this time, they would have been considered "rich."
Hansberry was never comfortable with her "rich girl" status, identifying instead with the "children of the poor." Admiring the feistiness exhibited by these children who were so often left alone, Hansberry often imitated their maturity and independence. They wore housekeys around their necks, symbols of their "latchkey children" status, so Hansberry decided to wear keys around her neck — any keys that she might find, including skate keys — so that she too might be thought of as one of them.
Hansberry never lived in a "Younger" household, although she closely observed such households throughout her childhood. The characters in Raisin do not know the middle-class comforts of the Hansberry family; in her plays, Hansberry focuses on the class of black people whom she cared most about, even though her knowledge of these people was, at best, peripheral.
Hansberry's father, Carl, not only established one of the first black savings banks in Chicago, but he was also a successful real estate businessman. Credited with innovating the concept of the "kitchenette," the studio apartment, he was able to maximize all available space, converting a large area into several smaller areas. Always politically active, Carl challenged a Supreme Court decision against integration and won his right to purchase a house in an exclusive Chicago neighborhood where no other blacks lived.
Shortly afterward, Hansberry herself was nearly killed by a brick hurled through a window by angry whites. Hansberry remembers her mother's "standing guard" many times with a loaded gun in order to protect her family from the violence of racism. Such traumatic memories were probably a part of the reason that Hansberry incorporated into her first play the theme of a black family's courageous decision to move into a hostile and new environment.
When Hansberry enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, she had every intention of remaining there for the four years necessary for graduation. However, after two years, her growing interest in the arts took her other places for brief periods. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago, Roosevelt College, the New School of Social Research in New York, and studied art in Guadalajara, Mexico. In New York, she worked on the staff of Paul Robeson's Freedom magazine, hung around the theater, read plays, and honed her craft. Several critics have noted that Hansberry's artwork, her drawings and sketches, is almost as noteworthy as her writing.
Her father's death at the age of fifty-one touched Hansberry deeply; she often said that it was perhaps her father's constant baffle with the forces of racism that hastened his early death. Interestingly, the cause and effect of much of the action in Raisin evolves as a consequence of the death of Big Walter, a character whom the audience never sees, although much of the dialogue contains references to him.
Hansberry's own untimely death at the age of thirty-four on January 12, 1965, left a void in American theater and in the circle of black writers. Jean Carey Bond, in an article in Freedomways magazine, says of Hansberry: "[Her] brief sojourn was, in one of its dimensions, a study in pure style. Born into material comfort, yet baptized in social responsibility; intensely individual in her attitudes and behavior, yet sensitive to the wills and aspirations of a whole people; a lover of life, yet stalked by death — she deliberately fashioned out of these elements an articulate existence of artistic and political commitment, seasoned with that missionary devotion which often intensifies the labors of the mortally ill."
Hansberry left behind three unfinished plays and an unfinished semi-autobiographical novel.