Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930, and was the youngest of four children. Her father was a real estate broker, and her mother a schoolteacher Her parents publicly fought discrimination against Black people. When Hansberry was a child, she and her family lived in a Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. During this era, segregation was still legal and widespread throughout the South. Northern states, including Hansberry’s own Illinois, had no official policy of segregation, but they were generally self-segregated along racial and economic lines. Chicago was a striking example of a city carved into strictly racially divided neighborhoods. Hansberry’s family became one of the first to move into a white neighborhood, but Hansberry still attended a segregated public school for Blacks. When neighbors struck at them with threats of violence and legal action, the Hansberrys defended themselves. Hansberry’s father filed a lawsuit and successfully brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Hansberry initially attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, before moving to New York City and transferring to the New School. She was involved in civil rights activism for her whole adult life, including working as a writer for the Freedom newspaper, alongside W.E.B. Du Bois. In addition to Black civil rights, Hansberry advocated for gay rights and was a vocal feminist. Although she was married to a man, it is widely believed that she was herself a lesbian.
Hansberry wrote her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, in 1957. She was one of the first playwrights to create realistic portraits of African-American life. Arguably the first mainstream play to portray Black characters, themes, and conflicts in a natural and realistic manner, A Raisin in the Sun received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Hansberry was the youngest playwright, the fifth woman, and the only Black writer at that point to win the award. She used her new fame to help bring attention to the American Civil Rights Movement as well as African struggles for independence from colonialism. Her promising career was cut short when she died from cancer in 1965, at the age of thirty-four.