Charles Shields is best known to Alabamians for his biography of Nelle Harper Lee, having published “Mockingbird,” the Monroeville native’s first “lifetime,” in 2006 and then a revised biography just after her death in 2016.
Shields had previously written short biographies for young readers, but Lee’s books established him as a major biographer and he has since written the lives of Kurt Vonnegut and John Williams.
Now he has turned to playwright Lorraine Hansberry, whose life was made before, most recently by Imani Perry.
Biographers are drawn to Hansberry because it is a dramatic, even sensational, albeit shortened, life story.
Hansberry’s father was part of the great migration from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, arriving in 1916.
He worked hard and in his own way became a strong example of the American dream, a special variety.
For a time he was a rent collector and he saw great real estate opportunities in Chicago firsthand. He would buy an apartment building and then, using simple plywood partitions, subdivide the apartments into what were called “kitchenettes.” These kitchenettes were famous in Chicago, and not in a good way.
Basically a kitchenette was a 10ft by 10ft one room apartment, with a stove, fridge and sink, the bathrooms down the hall. There was no heat.
African Americans flooding in from the South were restricted, one might even say locked in, to sections of the South Side. Prejudice and housing conventions kept them away from other parts of the city and the suburbs to the west. They needed a place to live and paid top dollar for those horrible, tiny apartments.
Carl Hansberry became wealthy and bought a house in “white” Woodlawn, only to encounter hostility and violence there.
In time, this heavily redesigned experience would become the basis for “A Raisin in the Sun”.
Lorraine, a lively girl, started writing very early, really as a child. She was well-educated, privileged, and in 1948 she went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as one of the few black students.
While there she read extensively, particularly the protest literature of WEB DuBois and Richard Wright, and was permanently enthralled by the work of Irish playwright Sean O’ Casey, particularly ‘Juno and the Paycock “. Shields describes the parallels between family dynamics in “Raisin” and in “Juno.”
Hansberry also became active with the American left, progressive student organizations, supporters of Henry Wallace, the Madison Labor Youth League.
Leaving Madison, she landed in New York and went to work for Paul Robeson’s leftist newspaper “Freedom.”
Robeson, valedictorian at Rutgers University, Columbia Law School graduate, athlete, actor in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” and “Othello,” world-famous singer, was, Shields writes, “the one of the most famous people alive in 1950.”
Hansberry never officially joined the Communist Party USA, but the FBI followed Hansberry throughout his life. She was never arrested or subpoenaed, but her case ultimately ran to 1,000 pages.
There was now a great waste of national resources.
Hansberry wrote leftist articles and went to work on her own play.
His personal life was unusual and diverse. Hansberry married a white man, Robert Nemiroff. They remained married almost until his death at age 35 from pancreatic cancer.
She liked that he was less misogynistic than most. He loved her spirit and herself, just as she was. Nemiroff would become a financially successful songwriter. Eddie Fisher had a hit with his version of “Cindy Oh Cindy”.
However, she became restless in her marriage and was influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s arguments regarding lesbianism in “The Second Sex”, that “homosexuality is no more a deliberate perversion than a fatal curse.” It is an attitude that is chosen in the situation.
Honest feeling, authenticity, was the point, not doctrinaire thinking. For the rest of her life, she would have relationships with women as well as men. Nemiroff understood and accepted. They were still partners.
This element of French existentialism that Hansberry adopted.
Shields is quite eloquent when talking about the strains of expression that Hansberry rejects.
Existential despair, bleak nihilism had come out. As a committed Marxist, she rejected the idea of an irrational and meaningless universe.
She had no use for the Beat Generation and Allen Ginsberg. She felt they were appropriating the pain of black people and never made it clear what they were rebelling against.
The absurd drama, like existentialism was out.
No “Waiting for Godot” or Edward Albee for her.
In painting, abstract expressionist art was rejected.
Art, she thought, like a good 1930s socialist, MUST serve a social cause.
When she finished “Raisin,” it was produced on Broadway, starring Sidney Poitier, to huge acclaim. She was the first black woman to perform a play on Broadway. Hansberry got rich from the movie rights. She received around $1.5 million in today’s money and her share of box office receipts was around $35,000 a week.
The American Marxist had become a millionaire.
There are also wonderful paradoxes in “Raisin” itself, in my opinion.
The decor of the room could have been one of her father’s apartments, a business from which she had received a monthly check all her life.
Critics saw the play as a social protest, of course. The Younger family, with a life insurance payout from the father, wants to escape their oppressive apartment-kitchenette, move to the suburbs, and they encounter racist resistance from their future white neighbors.
Although he was always an art advocate promoting a cause, Hansberry kept the protest/propaganda element in “Raisin”. The characters are living human beings, not representative types, and critics and audiences loved it.
Hansberry will only live five more years. “Raisin in the Sun”, however, is “the most widely anthologized, read and performed play on the American stage and is listed by the National Theater in Washington, D.C. as one of the hundred most important works of the 20th century. . “
Hansberry received invitations to read and speak across the country and, Shields ventures, based on this powerful piece, that she was “arguably the first black intellectual woman to become a national celebrity.”
Don Noble’s latest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson and eleven other Alabama authors.
“Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind “A Raisin in the Sun””
Author: Charles J. Shields
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Price: $29.99 (hardcover)