We don’t need mysticism to exalt man. Man exalts himself by his achievements . . . and his power to reason.
Editor’s note: Pardon the inadvertent sexism in what follows. Lorraine Hansberry and her biographers followed the practice of her time when referring to humankind as “man.”
Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965) was a believer. She believed in art and that activism and art were inextricably linked. She believed in education and that ignorance was the “prime, ancient, and persistent enemy of man.” She believed in beauty, goodness, truth, and love; but most of all, she believed in humanism.
In her first public address as a writer, in 1959, she illustrated what that belief meant:
Man is unique in the universe, the only creature who has in fact the power to transform the universe. Therefore, it did not seem unthinkable to me that man might just do what the apes never will—impose the reason for life on life. That is what I said to my friend. I wish to live because life has within it that which is so good, that which is beautiful and that which is love. Therefore, since I have known all of these things, I have found them to be reason enough and—I wish to live. Moreover, because this is so, I wish others to live for generations.
January 12, 2014, marks forty-nine years since playwright and activist Hansberry died of cancer at the age of thirty-four. She was born to educated middle-class parents in a South Side Chicago ghetto, where blacks were forced to live regardless of income, due to restrictive covenants. Her father, a realtor and community activist, moved his family to a hostile, predominately white neighborhood so that he could challenge the discriminatory housing laws in court. Eight-year-old Hansberry experienced raw hatred firsthand when a member of what she called a “shrieking racist mob” hurled a brick through the window of their home. It flew past her and lodged in the wall.
The Illinois courts evicted the Hansberrys from that house, but her father took the fight to federal court. His eventual Supreme Court victory came at a high price and had little effect in the short term. However, the Hansberrys took comfort in knowing they were not alone in their fight to alter the fabric of society. Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, and many other visitors provided support, solace, and intellectual stimulation to the family. Influenced by her parents and the artists who respected them, Hansberry grew into a compassionate radical writer. She began her career in Harlem, writing for and then editing Paul Robeson’s newspaper, Freedom. In 1953, she married songwriter Robert Nemiroff. He wrote a hit, thus allowing the fledgling playwright to pursue her passion full-time.
Soon, Hansberry inscribed her provocative prose on the pages of American theater history with her first play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959). It made her the youngest playwright, and the first black playwright, to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Her celebrated, now-classic drama sheds light on the lives of a black South Side Chicago family whose members struggle to achieve their disparate dreams.
Hansberry’s voice of reason resonates in the character of Beneatha, an atheist and feminist who is determined to become a doctor. When her mother intones that she will only do so if God is willing, Beneatha responds, “Mama, you don’t understand. It’s all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don’t accept. . . . I get tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no blasted God—there is only man and it is he who makes miracles!” Her mother slaps her and forces her to repeat the phrase, “In my mother’s house, there is still God,” and exits. The dignified Beneatha declares “All the tyranny in the world will never put a God in the heavens!”
Beneatha echoes her then twenty-eight-year-old creator’s views on religion. In 1961, Hansberry told radio host Studs Terkel, “I have great confidence about what she represents. She doesn’t have a word in the play that I don’t agree with still, today.”
In an audio interview with Patricia Marx, Hansberry explained that Beneatha represented progress as a member of the younger generation: “Her less dependent attitude on providence is a triumph.” When Marx asked about the strength Beneatha’s mother found in faith, Hansberry responded, “I don’t attack people who are religious at all, as you can tell from the play; I rather admire this human quality to make our own crutches as long as we need them. The only thing I am saying is that once we can walk, you know—then drop them.”
In his book Hansberry’s Drama, Steven Carter writes, “Hansberry regarded the crutch of Christianity from a dual perspective—as a prop for holding up weakness and as a club for battering assailants.”
Hansberry used her art to defend blacks, feminists, gays, humanists, and socialists at a time when American society was just waking up to the notion of equality; and she refused to allow her hearers to go back to sleep. She wrote in an unpublished letter, “Men continue to misinterpret the second-rate status of woman as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots. And then, always, comes the reckoning—whether the Bible says so or not. . . .”
In her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964), a Jewish intellectual struggles to renew meaning in his life. His loss of faith in the causes he once fought for forces him to reexamine his values. Hansberry biographer Anne Cheney writes, “Sidney . . . searches for self-reliance and inner strength so that he may use this power to improve society.”
Hansberry’s philosophy rings out in Sidney’s advice to a gay friend, “If you don’t like the sex laws, attack ’em, I think they’re silly. You wanna get up a petition? I’ll sign one.” Cheney concludes, “In The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window then, Lorraine Hansberry pleads for maturity and commitment in sexuality and creativity—whatever form each may take.”
Hansberry deplored the damaging role religion plays in race relations and colonialism. In her third play, Les Blancs, produced posthumously in 1970, the protagonist Tshembe Matoseh, a reluctant revolutionary, explains that for centuries men have been conquering in the name of race or religion, both devices that, though fraudulent, are very dangerous: “A man who has a sword run through him because he will not become a Moslem or a Christian—who is lynched in Zatembe or Mississippi because he is black—is suffering the utter reality of that device of conquest. And it is pointless to pretend it doesn’t exist—merely because it is a lie!” Later, when Tshembe’s brother Abioseh, a Catholic priest, touts the possibility of a black man becoming a bishop, Tshembe chastises him, saying that “it will mean only the swinging jeweled kettle of incense of another cult–which kept the watch fires of our oppressors for three centuries!”
Les Blancs juxtaposes traditional African religious ceremonies with Catholic rituals. Tshembe dons a great garment of animal skins, while his brother Abioseh wears the heavy robes of a Catholic priest. For this scene, Hansberry’s stage direction reads: “the two barbaric religious cries play one against the other in vigorous and desperate counterpoint.” Carter writes, “This is consistent with Hansberry’s skeptical view of nearly all religions and her strong preference for rational humanism.”
In Hansberry’s one-act play What Use Are Flowers?, an intellectual-turned-hermit comes out of self-imposed exile to check on society’s progress. He encounters five pre-lingual children, survivors of a nuclear catastrophe, and prepares them to rebuild civilization. Nemiroff described the play as “a dialogue on the value and purpose of life, which constituted the core of her writing.”
The hermit teaches the children how to make and use tools, how to communicate, how to create art, and how to treat each other with dignity. Finally, he teaches them about death by telling them the truth: “I shall be glad enough to merge, atom for atom, with the earth again. . . . I will stay there forever. For always. Well you’ve seen other things die! The birds, the fish we eat. They don’t come back! Nothing comes back!”
Carter concludes, “As with the qualities of beauty, goodness, and love, Hansberry defended reason and truth for the value they give to life.”
In 1963, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She approached her illness and impending death with rationalism and dignity. Cheney notes, “But for this remarkable woman cancer was a matter of nature in imperfection, implying, as always, work for man to do. It was an enemy, but a palpable one with shape and effect and source; and if it existed it could be destroyed. . . . There was one thing, she felt, which would prove equal to its relentless ravages and that was the genius of man. Not his mysticism, but man with tubes and slides and the stubborn human notion that the stars are very much within our reach.”
When Hansberry discovered that medical science was not yet equal to cancer, she did not revert to religiosity. In his tribute essay Sweet Lorraine, her friend and author James Baldwin wrote, “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.”
After nearly half a century, Hansberry’s work remains radiant, “For all of it” wrote Baldwin, “was suffused with the light which was Lorraine.”
Carter, Steven R. Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment amid Complexity. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Cheney, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Leone, B. and Szumski, B., eds. Readings on A Raisin in the Sun. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001.
Nemiroff, Robert, ed. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1995.
Hansberry, Lorraine. Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry. New York: Random House, 1972.
Tripp, Janet. The Importance of Lorraine Hansberry. California: Lucent Books, 1998.