Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
S32 Ep1

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Premiere: 1/19/2018 | 00:02:42 |

Explore the inner life and works of the activist, playwright and author of "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry. Narrated by actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson and featuring the voice of Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose as Hansberry.



About the Episode

On March 11, 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway and changed the face of American theater forever. As the first-ever black woman to author a play performed on Broadway, she did not shy away from richly drawn characters and unprecedented subject matter. The play attracted record crowds and earned the coveted top prize from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. While the play is seen as a groundbreaking work of art, the timely story of Hansberry’s life is far less known.

The documentary Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is the first in-depth presentation of Hansberry’s complex life, using her personal papers and archives, including home movies and rare photos, as source material. The film explores the influences that shaped Hansberry’s childhood, future art and activism. Filmmaker and Peabody Award-winner Tracy Heather Strain (Unnatural Causes, I’ll Make Me a World, American Experience: Building the Alaska Highway) crafts the story of one woman who believed, like many of her generation, that words could change society. Family, friends and colleagues, including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, her sister Mamie Hansberry, Lloyd Richards, Amiri Baraka and Louis Gossett, Jr., share their personal memories of Hansberry, offering an intimate look at a woman who was, as Poitier says in the film, “reaching into the essence of who we were, who we are, and where we came from.”

Narrated by acclaimed actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson (The Fighting Temptations, A Raisin in the Sun) and featuring the voice of Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose (A Raisin in the Sun, Dreamgirls) as Hansberry, the documentary portrays the writer’s lifetime commitment to fighting injustice and how she found her way to art—the theater—as her medium for activism at a crucial time for black civil rights. Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart also explores her concealed identity as a lesbian and the themes of sexual orientation and societal norms in her works. The film title comes from Hansberry’s view that “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.”

"Serious drama - drama that has at least the objective of making a larger statement about life, I think sooner or later has to become involved in its time."

Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is a production of Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project, LLC in co-production with Independent Television Service and Black Public Media in association with The Film Posse, Chiz Schultz Inc. and American Masters Pictures. Materials from the Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust were provided by special consultant Joi Gresham. Tracy Heather Strain is producer, director and writer. Randall MacLowry is producer and editor. Chiz Schultz is the executive producer. Executive producer for ITVS is Sally Jo Fifer, and Jacquie Jones for Black Public Media. Michael Kantor is American Masters series executive producer.

About American Masters
Launched in 1986 on PBS, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 14 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of masters past and present, American Masters offers streaming video of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the American Masters Podcast, educational resources and more. The series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and also seen on the WORLD channel. The series is available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video app, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. PBS station members can view episodes via Passport (contact your local PBS station for details).

About The WNET Group
The WNET Group creates inspiring media content and meaningful experiences for diverse audiences nationwide. It is the community-supported home of New York’s THIRTEEN – America’s flagship PBS station – WLIW21, THIRTEEN PBSKids, WLIW World and Create; NJ PBS, New Jersey’s statewide public television network; Long Island’s only NPR station WLIW-FM; ALL ARTS, the arts and culture media provider; and newsroom NJ Spotlight News. Through these channels and streaming platforms, The WNET Group brings arts, culture, education, news, documentary, entertainment and DIY programming to more than five million viewers each month. The WNET Group’s award-winning productions include signature PBS series Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend and Amanpour and Company and trusted local news programs MetroFocus and NJ Spotlight News with Briana Vannozzi. Inspiring curiosity and nurturing dreams, The WNET Group’s award-winning Kids’ Media and Education team produces the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, interactive Mission US history games, and resources for families, teachers and caregivers. A leading nonprofit public media producer for nearly 60 years, The WNET Group presents and distributes content that fosters lifelong learning, including multiplatform initiatives addressing poverty, jobs, economic opportunity, social justice, understanding and the environment. Through Passport, station members can stream new and archival programming anytime, anywhere. The WNET Group represents the best in public media. Join us.


Funding for Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ford Foundation/JustFilms, National Endowment for the Arts, LEF Foundation, Peter G. Peterson & Joan Ganz Cooney Fund.

Support for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Rosalind P. Walter, Judith & Burton Resnick, The Cheryl & Philip Milstein family, Vital Projects Fund, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Seton J. Melvin, Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen & James S. Marcus, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, The Ambrose Monell Foundation and public television viewers.


♪♪ -My name is Lorraine Hansberry.

I'm a writer.

[ Typewriter keys clacking ] I was born on the South Side of Chicago.

I was born black and a female.

I was born in a depression after one world war and came into my adolescence during another.

I have, like all of you, seen on a thousand occasions indescribable displays of man's very real inhumanity to man.

-Lorraine became a part of my consciousness.

She seemed to know something about everything.

She was a profound thinker.

-The most ordinary human being has within him profound anguish.

You don't have to go to the kings and queens of the earth.

Every human being is in enormous conflict about something, even if it's how you get to work in the morning.

I thought that it would be very interesting to explore the most ordinary man, say, on the South Side of Chicago.

-Son, how come you talk, talk, talk so much about money?! -'Cause it's life.


So now money is life?

Once upon a time, freedom used to be life.

But now it's money.

-Mama, it was always money.

We just didn't know it. -Oh, no.

-She was reaching into the essence of who we were, who we are, where we came from.

-Lorraine was a very political person.

Her plays, that to me is her jumping-off place.

-It really doesn't matter whether you're talking about the oppressed or the oppressor.

An oppressive society will dehumanize and degenerate everyone involved.

-Lorraine had the fire, a fire, an anger, an intelligence.

-She wasn't a conventional Main Street liberal.

Lorraine was a left-wing radical.

-When I think about Hansberry, I think of her intensity and her passion for justice and her really clear-eyed look at racial discrimination and discrimination against women.

-We want total identification on the basis of true and genuine equality.

And if we think that it isn't gonna be painful, we're mistaken.

-Lorraine was this new moment on the horizon.

She set a whole new paradigm, a whole new stage for what we could now begin to expect of America and what we could begin to expect of ourselves.

-One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.

[ Typewriter keys clacking ] ♪♪ Major support for The National Endowment for the Humanities, bringing you the stories that define us.

Additional support provided by: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Ford Foundation Just Films, and others.

A complete list is available from PBS.

[ Big-band music playing ] ♪♪ [ Horns honking ] -My father was typical of a generation of Negroes who believed that the American way could democratize the United States.

He believed in American private enterprise, and by the time I was old enough to be aware of him, amassed a fortune.

-Carl Augustus Hansberry spent his life in hot pursuit of the American dream.

And by the time Lorraine, the youngest of his four children, was born in May of 1930, he was closing in on it.

Mr. Hansberry had studied at Alcorn A&M College in his native Mississippi but joined the great migration to Chicago's South Side, a city within a city on the make.

-Migrants are a particular type of people.

They're people who have the resources, the emotional, psychological resources to start anew.

And Chicago has that energy.

-Chicago, in many ways, was a wonderful city.

Though it was a very segregated city.

-Blacks could work outside the South Side black community, but because of segregation, they couldn't live or spend their money outside.

So they brought their money into the community.

-Carl Hansberry married a college-educated woman up from Tennessee, Nannie Perry, and invested whatever savings he could in local real estate.

He bought and leased single-family homes and apartment buildings vacated by whites fleeing to the suburbs, then cut them into smaller units to rent to the thousands of African-Americans who were still pouring into Chicago.

Carl Hansberry was soon known on the South Side streets as 'The Kitchenette King.'

-Mr. Hansberry and others struggled so that their wives would not have to go and work in domestic life.

Their children would not ever have to do that.

-He represented a kind of expansive rust that characterized this community.

Some people admired him and chose to emulate him.

Others envied him.

Others resented him.

-Carl Hansberry became secretary of the local NAACP chapter, founded civic organizations, funded legal aid for other African-Americans, and donated $10,000 to endow the Hansberry Foundation to fight racial discrimination.

-Those who were fortunate enough to become educated go to college.

They felt it was their duty, their obligation.

The idea was, you are a part of the race.

You are not separate.

-The one thing in life Daddy hated was segregation.

And he spent his money and all of his willpower toward eradicating discrimination.

♪♪ -Lorraine's father was the most significant figure of her life.

She was daddy's girl.

She worshiped her father.

-Sometimes when Chicago nights got too steamy, the whole family got into the car and went to the park and slept out in the open on blankets.

Daddy would lie on his back and explain about how men thought the stars above us came to be and how far away they were.

I never did learn to believe that anything could be as far away as that -- especially the stars.

♪♪ -The Hansberrys' wealth did not entirely separate young Lorraine from the working-class families who rented apartments from her father.

Segregation in Chicago was enforced by private contract in the '30s.

Strict covenants imposed on property deeds meant black families like the Hansberrys could not buy a nicer home in one of the so-called 'white neighborhoods.'

The Hansberrys typically lived in one of the South Side buildings they owned, where Lorraine, much younger than her three siblings, was left to her own devices most days.

-Lorraine spent a lot of time by herself.

She was doing a lot of thinking, so I called her the little sponge.

She was just soaking up information.

-♪ Brown baby ♪ Brown baby ♪ As you grow up -We live in a ghetto, which automatically means intimacy with all classes and all kinds of experiences.

We are one people.

-♪ I want you to stand up ♪ Tall and proud ♪ I want you to speak up ♪ Clear and loud -All of these people, our parents, us were stressed out because of race.

Anger abounded because people were second-class citizens and reminded of it all the time.

It became a part of our consciousness.

-Our South Side is a place apart.

My people are poor, and they are tired, and they are determined to live.

Each piece of our living is a protest.

-♪ Brown baby -I don't want to make it sound fancier than it is.

It's just a plain little old house.

But it's built good and solid, and it'll be ours.

Walter Lee, it makes a difference to a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him.

-Where is it?

-Clybourne Park.


-4930 Clybourne Street, Clybourne Park.

-Clybourne Park?

Mama, there ain't no colored people living in Clybourne Park.

-Well, there's gonna be some now.

[ Bell tolling ] -In the spring of 1937, Carl Hansberry, backed by prominent legal and political figures on the South Side, decided to take a stand against segregation.

He had bought a house in the nearby white neighborhood of Woodlawn in defiance of a restrictive covenant that barred sales to African-Americans and moved his family there, including 7-year-old Lorraine.

-It was right on the edge of the borderline between black and white in that area and really pushing those boundaries.

Her father believed that the law was sacrosanct.

This was the way that black people would get their rights.

-My memories of this correct way of fighting white supremacy in America included being spat at, cursed, and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.

♪♪ -Our bodyguard came out and got us when he saw the crowd gathering.

Lorraine was sitting on a love seat, and that's when they threw this huge piece of mortar.

[ Glass breaking ] That mortar lodged in the wall and just missed her.

-It's in that moment that she recognizes that notwithstanding her family's prosperity, she was still going to be subject to racial violence like every other black American.

-I remember my desperate and courageous mother patrolling our house all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children.

♪♪ -A court ruling forced the Hansberrys to leave their new home a few months later.

Carl and his attorneys appealed the decision all the way to the highest court in the land.

Three years later, in 1940, in the matter of Hansberry vs. Lee, the Supreme Court gave Lorraine's father a partial victory.

Though restrictive covenants remained in place, the decision opened 500 new properties to black residents.

-My father's enduring image in my mind is that of a man who kings might have imitated, a man who always seemed to be doing something brilliant and/or unusual.

-By 1945, in spite of the Hansberrys' brave stand, little had changed.

Chicago remained a highly segregated city.

Other efforts by the family to tackle segregation in interstate travel and the U.S. military went nowhere.

Lorraine's father had lost faith in America's legal system to guarantee equality to its African-American citizens, and he was worn out from the fight.

Her parents gave up on their native country.

-He bought a beautiful house in Mexico City, and he felt free for the first time in his life.

-15-year-old Lorraine stayed behind in Chicago to finish her sophomore year of high school.

But as she prepared to join her parents in Mexico, she received devastating news.

♪♪ The doctors ruled her father had died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Lorraine thought otherwise.

-The cost in emotional turmoil, time, and money led to my father's early death.

-Hansberry reflects really powerfully on her father's death -- Someone who worked hard, who followed all of the principles of what it meant to be American.

And even for him, this society was closed in so many ways.

I think that pushed her towards a different way of trying to approach the questions of race and justice.

♪♪ [ Horns honking ] -In 1950, after spending just two years at the University of Wisconsin, Hansberry arrived in New York, seeking what she described as an education of another kind.

[ Typewriter keys clacking ] -I work for the new Negro paper, which in its time in history ought to be journal of Negro liberation.

In fact, it will be.

-The 20-year-old college dropout and aspiring journalist wore many hats -- subscription clerk, receptionist, typist, and editorial assistant at the radical new publication on 125th Street.

[ Horn honking ] [ Jazz music playing ] -She is moving, as many Midwestern radicals did, to the mecca, Harlem, a major place of African-American political organizing, of cultural life.

[ Applause ] -She enters the world of the black left, who are concerned not simply with civil rights, but also with economic rights, with a lot of the poor.

-Harlem was a place of enormous expectation.

All the young men and young women at the time were just filled with a sense of hope, a sense of courage and dignity to continue to pursue the downfall of oppression.

Racism was the number-one ingredient in our menu of life.

-I am sick of poverty, lynchings, stupid wars, and the universal maltreatment of my people.

I usher at rallies, make street-corner speeches in Harlem, go for long walks in Harlem and talk to my people about everything on the streets.

-Hansberry was a joiner in New York, an active member of the Communist Party and Labor Youth League.

-Lorraine and I both were youths who came out of the Second World War.

We were fighting fascism and used that occasion to say, okay, we're not gonna allow ourselves to be segregated and oppressed in our own society.

That put us in a mood.

We were primed to be not just conventional radicals.

I mean, we were left wing.

-Hansberry's job at drew her into a sprawling ad hoc family of African-American activists, including the paper's founder, internationally acclaimed singer, actor, and civil rights champion Paul Robeson, the renowned intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, and a trailblazing cadre of African-American women writers.

-At she had a community of radicals on all sides of her that she was learning from, being mentored by, and also being supported by.

The editor, Louis Burnham, was a great supporter of her not only as a radical activist, but as a writer.

-He was so pleased when Lorraine came on the staff.

He said to me, 'Oh, this young woman, she does everything.'

She came on originally just to be in the office and work in the office and help -- help with the other trail work.

And now she's part of the writing staff.

-She is writing about the oppression of women, the fight to have women's equality.

She's fighting against race discrimination.

She's fighting against poverty, class, and she's fighting to have a sense of the way in which imperialism exploits people of color all over the world.

-...federal courthouse comes seven leading Reds.

-The family was pulled closer by shared peril, a peril whose shadow grew darker as paranoia about Soviet-backed Communists infiltrating American institutions gripped the country.

-Prison gates close on the nation's top Reds.

editorial bent caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

For some time, the Bureau had put Robeson and many of and contributors under surveillance.

The paper's recently promoted associate editor made the list, too -- 22-year-old Lorraine Hansberry.

-In those days, people who took a stand against a policy of the United States government risked having the government come down on them with full fury.

-It's hard for us to understand the threat of that period.

It was like a blanket of fear that had spread over the country, over anybody that was associated with Communism.

-Hansberry took note of the surveillance, the travel bans, the arrests, and like the rest of her family, she refused to be intimidated into silence.

-Here's a group of people who are both artists and intellectuals and activists driven by a deep sense of purpose.

Working for gives her this really big vision of who she could be.

-I am obsessed with a rather desperate desire for a new world for me and my brothers.

Spirit happy and defiant.

♪♪ -I've never asked anyone around here to do anything for me.

-Now, the line between asking and just accepting is big and wide.

-Well, what do you want from me? That I quit school -- -I don't want nothing from you but for you to stop acting holy around here.

Now, me and Ruth have made some sacrifices for you.

It's time you do something for this family.

-Walter, don't be dragging me in.

-You are in it. You go out of here, and you work in somebody's kitchen for two, three years to put clothes on her back. -Walter, that's not fair.

-Well, damn it, ain't nobody asking her to get on her knees and say, 'Thank you, Ruth, and thank you, brother, and thank you, Mama, thank you, Travis, for wearing the same pair of shoes for the last two semesters.'

-Well, I do, all right?

Thank everybody, and you just forgive me for ever wanting to be anything at all.

Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me!

If your mama were here -- -Who in the hell told you you had to be a doctor?

You're so interested in messing around with sick people, go on out of here and be a nurse like other women or get married and shut up.

♪♪ -[ Singing in French ] -As a middle-class black woman, Hansberry was supposed to live a conventional life, and certainly in her early years in New York, she was not living a conventional life.

-[ Singing in French ] -Those of us coming into youthful maturity in the '50s felt a lot of pressure in the form of expectation that young women would marry.

And there was a lot of pressure for kids.

Everybody thought, if you can achieve that, you've done your family proud, you've done your duty, you're carrying on the next generation.

This is what life's all about.

-Hansberry had been in New York for two years when one of her comrades from the Labor Youth League set his sights on her.

She was not much impressed by the radical Jewish graduate student at first.

For one thing, Robert Nemiroff was already married.

And he struck her as just another wide-eyed, immature, unsophisticated revolutionary.

But he was persistent.

-She made an extraordinary impression on him, but Bobby had to disencumber himself of a wife.

I think on both sides, they were happy to find someone who was politically simpatico, who was interested in the arts.

♪♪ -I finally admitted to myself I do love you.

I thought certain things through to the same basic conclusion.

First about my work.

One, I am a writer.

I am going to write.

Two, I am going to become a writer.

Second, about you.

I love you.

Problem be damned.

Two, I need you.

Three, I am right about those things about you which I have said must change, and I am going to struggle with you.

Four, that you are what I want in a man.

-Bob had very high aspirations himself as a writer, but he was going to be a person who would accommodate and support her.

-He was perfectly comfortable with that, I think, given his own political commitments to the black struggle, his own deep commitments to literature, his own sense that Hansberry was an amazing person that he wanted to help accomplish what she wanted to accomplish.

♪♪ ♪♪ -Both in the wider world and within their own world of the Communist left, interracial marriage, which was illegal in half the states of the Union, was a significant political act.

♪♪ -I wasn't shocked, but surprised because of the times.

It was still a rare thing.

If there was talk and gossip, which there probably was, it was not for all the world to know.

♪♪ ♪♪ -Around the time of her marriage, Hansberry was devouring a book she told people might very well be the most important work of this century.

-She was reading and studying Simone de Beauvoir's 'The Second Sex,' an incredibly strong and vibrant argument documenting women's oppression.

If you are a woman in the 1950s, what is your life going to be like?

It's a book that questions birth, sexual intercourse, marriage -- everything that is expected of women.

-'The desire for a feminine destiny -- a husband, a home, children, and the spell of love -- are not always easily reconcilable with the desire to succeed.'

-Lorraine was always questioning things that she even took for granted the day before.

Among all the women I knew, she was the most exciting.

-'The Second Sex' has a huge impact.

It opens the door to a way of thinking about the world that she doesn't appear to really have had prior to reading it.

-She's thinking about herself in ways that are in tension with the institution of marriage.

♪♪ -Lorraine Hansberry was not going to allow marriage to define her future or to stymie her immediate plan to make the leap from journalism to fiction.

At home in the Greenwich Village apartment she shared with Nemiroff, she spent what free time she had in what she called workshop.

She fleshed out character sketches in little scenarios and began a first attempt at a novel.

-The Bleecker Street apartment was a two-story walk-up with about four or five rooms.

They filled it rapidly with all kinds of newspapers and publications.

-I couldn't come to them and talk about any football game or baseball game.

Theater, books, theater, books, theater, books.

They would talk about plays.

They would sit and argue about literature and politics.

[ Typewriter keys clacking ] -Lorraine was always over her typewriter.

She smoked and drank coffee and just wrote all the time.

I was fascinated by that because I thought, you know, that's what a writer did.

-Hansberry didn't have far to go to find inspiration.

She had only to walk down the stairs of 337 Bleecker and out the front door to enter a village like no other on the American scene.

♪♪ -Greenwich Village just opened my eyes to so many things.

If you were interested in the arts, becoming interested in cultural values and cultural forums.

-I came to Greenwich Village, and I was aspiring to be a writer, and that was the place.

The children of the immigrants were coming together, and that made a kind of a potent mix of folks.

♪♪ -You got a sense of forming.

It was the beginning of jazz for a broader audience, the beginning of folk music, the beginning of off-Broadway.

It was the beginning of alternate journalism.

So it was an enormous broadening of the cultural fabric of the United States.

♪♪ -Any night in the Village in the mid-1950s, on a dozen different small, spare stages, Hansberry could sit and watch dramatists working through the urgent problems of the day.

♪♪ -Hansberry came to New York at a time when American theater was coming into its own with great writers who were taking the American stage and telling American stories.

They were focusing on social issues.

And social issues -- not so much about social protest but critique and commentary on the American society.

-Writers were drawn to the theater because of the fact that it was so dynamic and the fact that the audience had to have a certain level of engagement and that catharsis can occur.

-Exposed to theater as a child, Hansberry was drawn to its power during her brief stay at the University of Wisconsin, particularly by a production of Seán O'Casey's 'Juno and the Paycock.'

'The family drama set during the Irish political uprising of 1922 entered my consciousness,' she would say, 'and stayed there.'

-In the early 1950s, black newspapers are being pushed to be less leftist, and playwrighting affords an opportunity to raise the kind of questions that have been pushed to the side.

And she turns towards art, a form that is supposed to both make people think, but also make them feel and be transformed by that feeling.

-The theater is such a way of expressing yourself and to express yourself eloquently and with imagination.

Not just with power, not just with the physical power of oneself, but with one's mind, one's voice, one's thoughts.

You can fight whatever you wanted to fight in so many different ways.

-Hansberry had left the staff in 1953 and made her first fitful tries at writing for the stage while also working on her novel.

It was hard to get much traction because she still had to make a living.

She did freelance journalism, took temporary work at a school, a magazine, and a furrier.

She even filled in as a waitress and cashier at her in-laws' restaurant.

Robert Nemiroff was earning his share of the family income as a freelance typist and copywriter.

He later worked at a small rhythm and blues label, Glory Records.

And in 1956, in the middle of a national calypso craze, Nemiroff managed to create an unexpected windfall for the couple.

[ Record player clicks ] Using the pseudonyms Bob Barron and Burt Long, Nemiroff and his friend Burt D'Lugoff wrote 'Cindy, Oh Cindy,' set to the melody of a West Indian folk song.

-♪ Cindy, oh Cindy ♪ Cindy don't let me down -I turned the radio on, and there was 'Cindy, Oh Cindy.'

I felt I'd fall out of my chair.

And I called Bobby, and he said, 'Yeah, it's big!'

The biggest record was Eddie Fisher.

It was Billboard Top 10.

The royalties from that on Bob's side was enough to have Lorraine retire from working part-time and to concentrate on what she wanted to do, which was write.

♪♪ -It is only here on paper that I dare say it like that.

My work!

All which I feel I must write has become obsessive.

So many truths seem to be rushing at me as a result of things felt and seen and lived through.

Oh, what I think I must tell this world.

♪♪ -The process of writing a play is really different for every playwright.

Some playwrights begin with an idea, and some playwrights begin with characters that just insist that their stories be told.

-'I'm going to write a social drama about Negroes that will be good art,' Lorraine told her husband.

-She wanted to focus on the working class.

She wanted them to be in struggle against racial discrimination, and she wanted them to come through struggle and to make some kind of heroic choice.

-Hansberry drew on the lives and the personalities she grew up with on the South Side of Chicago for her drama.

She struggled to find the words to capture their hopes, dreams, and frustrations.

[ Glass breaking ] [ Typewriter keys clacking ] [ Paper rustling ] -Oh!

[ Paper fluttering ] -Bob didn't rebuke me at all except with a look.

He just got down on the floor and picked up every sheet of it.

He put it back in order and kept the whole thing out of my sight for several days.

And then one night when I was moping around, he got it out and put it in front of me.

I went to work and finished it.

♪♪ [ Horns honking ] -At one point, she had a dinner at her house and invited Phil Rose and me and Bob, and she read us the first draft of the play.

-We stayed there quite late.

I went home, but I couldn't sleep.

I just kept thinking about this family that I had met in her play.

So I called her the following morning.

[ Telephone ringing ] And I said, 'I want to produce your play.'

She said, 'What?'

I said, 'I want to produce your play.

I want to do it on Broadway.'

I didn't know enough to know that that was impossible.

♪♪ -Phil Rose, founder of Glory Records and Nemiroff's employer, was a theater novice, but he had a little money, a lot of energy, and a conviction that his friend Lorraine was onto something entirely new and much needed.

Rose gave Hansberry $500 for the rights to produce her play and encouraged her to keep improving it.

Hansberry dove back into her story of a multi-generational African-American family, the Youngers, living in a cramped kitchenette apartment like the ones Hansberry's father had owned and managed.

Rose went to work selling Hansberry's emerging drama.

One of his first pitches was to a friend who had recently done a spoken-word album for Glory Records, a friend who happened to be the biggest black movie star of the day, 31-year-old Sidney Poitier.

-The material was nothing I had ever read of, nothing that I had ever experienced, even in the theater.

She put together a group of characters that were just unbelievably real.

She was reaching into the essence of who we were, who we are, where we came from.

-Poitier disregarded his agent's advice and signed on to star in Hansberry's play as Walter Lee Younger.

Then for its director, he suggested his friend and former acting teacher.

-The journey of a playwright is a lot of times, they establish a relationship with a trusted director.

And I think that Lorraine Hansberry was very fortunate to have found Lloyd Richards, who was a brilliant director, who was a brilliant African-American director who's very invested in her voice.

-I met Lorraine.

She was very clear in what she thought and what she had to say.

I think we felt that we could work together because we thought about drama in very similar ways.

-When news got out that the respected Richards was casting a new play that might be headed for the Broadway stage, it electrified the black theater community.

It did not matter that the playwright was unknown and unproven.

She had written a drama with 10 leading and feature roles for black actors -- an unprecedented opportunity on the Great White Way.

-There were occasional roles that had been written by white writers.

They were the Dees, Does, and Dem kinds of roles which had no real relationship to the realities of African-American life.

-Nearly 1,000 hopefuls showed up for the open-call auditions, but Lloyd Richards knew who he wanted for another key role, so he sent a script to an actress whose skills and talent he admired greatly, 36-year-old Ruby Dee.

-It was different. It was unique.

I said, 'I would love to do Beneatha.'

This young girl who is the lover of things African.

Lloyd said, 'Oh, no, no, no, Ruby.

That's not the part I wanted you to look at.

It's Ruth, Ruth, the wife.

I want you to be Sidney's wife.'

My chin fell because here I was going to be this wife again because I had played this before a couple of times in my life.

Lloyd said, 'Ruby, I need you to do Ruth.

I need you to do this part.'

I just told Lloyd, whatever part he wanted me to do, 'I would like to be associated with this play.'

-I got a script from my agent. They're trying to do this.

Everybody's trying to get in that play.

They narrowed it down, and I didn't know what part, but they wanted me.

-22-year-old Louis Gossett Jr.

was cast to play Beneatha's wealthy suitor George Murchison.

Ivan Dixon landed the role of Asagai, the African intellectual who also vied for Beneatha's affection.

And for Walter Lee's sister, Beneatha, Richard selected Diana Sands.

The playwright suggested her young neighbor Glynn Turman for the role of Travis, son of Walter Lee and Ruth.

-My mother one day said, 'You know my friend Miss Hansberry?'

I said, 'Yes, the lady with the dog.'

She says yes.

She says, 'She's written a play, and there's a role in it for a little boy.

And she was wondering if you might be interested in trying out for the role.'

And I said, 'Well, when is it going to be?'

I said, 'Because if it's Saturday, I can't do it because I've got a baseball game on Saturday.'

And she said, 'Well, you know, we can work it out.'

-Very hard was finding Mama.

We went out to Hollywood, and we had read the actresses who were out there who had been so trained to play the mammy roles that Hollywood was passing out that they'd forgotten how to be an actor.

It was only perchance that I had happened to see Claudia McNeil in this Langston Hughes play.

I said that I thought she could do it.

-While Richards finalized the cast and started rehearsals, Phil Rose was discovering some hard facts about the business of New York theater in the late '50s.

A total of 10 dramas authored by black playwrights had been produced in the history of Broadway -- all of them written by men, and only Langston Hughes' 'Mulatto' had enjoyed a run that had lasted a year, and that was a quarter century earlier.

-The American theater was not a place where we found much comfort.

We knew the limitations that had to be negotiated.

-The young, unknown, female African-American playwright on an African-American theme, not a musical.

People thought this was the craziest idea in the world.

'What are you talking about?

Investing in this? This is nuts.'

-A serious play on Broadway?-A s Some niggers?

There was no precedent for that.

If you look around -- [ Laughs ] I mean, even the goddamn musical wasn't a sure thing, you know? [ Laughs ] I'll call them big boys -- -- invested in the show.

'Why should I tie my theater up to an audience that isn't going to come?'

There was very little sympathy on Broadway for our plight.

-Friends of mine who were not rich, they would offer me $10 or $15, which was not exactly the kind of investment you're looking for, but I took them.

[ Box rattling ] [ Hammering ] -Dear Mother.

Well, here we are.

I am sitting alone in a nice hotel room in New Haven.

Downstairs next door in the Shubert Theater, technicians are putting the finishing touches on a living room that is supposed to be a Chicago living room.

Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people.

But above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity.

I hope it will make you very proud.

-Hansberry and her husband had some opening-night jitters in the hours before the first public performance of 'A Raisin in the Sun,' and for good reason.

Short on funds and with scant hope of securing a Broadway stage, Phil Rose was risking what little money he had raised on a long shot.

He had scheduled tryouts in two smaller cities in hopes of proving that there was an audience willing to pay to see a drama with African-Americans at the center.

-His thinking was, 'If we get good out-of-town notices and this play is a success, greed will triumph over bigotry.'

-The four-night engagement in New Haven was encouraging but did not land them a New York booking.

When the production moved south to Philadelphia where Poitier's latest film, 'The Defiant Ones,' was still drawing crowds, it was make or break.

-The first night, there were very few blacks in the audience.

The second night, there were more.

[ Applause ] The third night, at least half the audience was black.

I was in the lobby, and I saw this black woman going up to get a ticket.

I said, 'Why are you paying $4.80 to see Sidney Poitier here when you can see him on film for 85 cents?'

She said, 'The word's going around in my neighborhood that there's something going on down here that concerns me.

And so I had to come down here to find out what it was all about.'

'Something that concerns me.'

♪♪ ♪♪ -The central conflict of the play is around the legacy of the father who's passed on and left a $10,000 insurance check.

So the question is, what is the family going to do with that money?

-The introduction of this enormous sum scrambles the family dynamic.

Walter Lee Younger, a chauffeur, wants to use the insurance settlement to open a liquor store so he can be his own boss.

Mama wants to move the family out of their South Side kitchenette into their own home and support her daughter, Beneatha's, dream of becoming a doctor.

-That check coming today? -They said Saturday.

This is just Friday.

And I sure hope you ain't gonna get up here first thing this morning talking to me about no money 'cause I don't want to hear it.

-What's the matter with you this morning?

-I'm just sleepy.

What kind of eggs you want?

-Not scrambled.

-I played that part from beginning to end as the man of the family who was blocked everywhere he turned, even in the family.

-I'm looking in the mirror this morning, and I'm thinking, I'm 35 years old, I'm married 11 years, and I got a boy who's got to sleep in the living room 'cause I got nothing, eh?

Nothing to give him but stories like on how rich white men -- -The early audiences are seeing something they've never seen before on the stage.

It is a play about the interior of black life, and it's also about the interior lives of the characters.

-Listen, I'm gonna be a doctor.

I'm not even worried about who I'm gonna marry yet.

If I ever get married.

-If? -If?

-Oh, now, Benny. -Oh, Mama, I probably will, but first, I'm going to be a doctor.

Now, George, for one, he still thinks that's pretty funny.

I couldn't be bothered with that.

I'm gonna be a doctor, and everybody around here better understand that.

-The play's title, 'A Raisin in the Sun,' was drawn from 'Harlem,' a poem by Langston Hughes.

'What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, or does it explode?'

-Hansberry is telling a story of the limitations of the American dream as experienced by black Americans.

-'Never in the history of the American theater had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage,' wrote her friend writer James Baldwin.

Word of the increasing popularity of 'A Raisin in the Sun' drew a pair of very interested ticker buyers to Philadelphia.

♪♪ One was sent by the FBI into a seventh year of compiling a dossier on Hansberry's activities, dispatched to determine if the play was controlled or influenced by the Communist Party.

The other was theater magnate John Shubert, who came down from New York with questions more commercial than political.

-He just watched the audience as they came out during the intermissions.

And he saw this audience come out in Philadelphia, white people and black people, and getting along very well.

Not fighting with each other, which he thought would happen.

And he finally said, 'Okay, I guess I'll have to give you a theater.'

-How Broadway would treat this Hansberry play had us all suspicious as to whether or not white folks would just get it.

♪♪ -[ Coughing ] -I persist in the simple view that all art is ultimately social.

-10 days before she would become the first black female playwright to have a drama performed on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry delivered the keynote address at the first conference of Negro writers in New York.

Langston Hughes was among the notables in the room to hear what the 28-year-old playwright had to say.

-This was the chance for black writers to meet, to debate the purposes of literature and black literature in the struggle for racial equality.

-I have come to maturity, as we all must, knowing that greed and malice and indifference to human misery, bigotry and corruption, brutality, and perhaps above all else, ignorance abound in this world.

One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.

-Hansberry perceives the failure for people to act on questions of injustice as though they're closing their eyes to the world.

She both feels a sense of responsibility, but she also embraces a commitment to radical honesty about this state of the world.

-What I write is not based on the assumption of idyllic possibilities or innocent assessments of the true nature of life.

But rather my personal view that, posing one against the other, the human race does command its own destiny, and that that destiny can eventually embrace the stars.

[ Horns honking ] -On March 11, 1959, in the Ethel Barrymore Theater, the curtain rose for the Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun.'

-This play that was written by a black woman, directed by a black man, filled with black people, and was a drama -- If that didn't hit, then you probably wouldn't see one of these again for a very long time.

The image of a whole race of people was at stake.

-Everybody was nervous.

We really still were frightened to death that when you came to the temple of the theater, somebody's gonna say, 'Well, it's good for New Haven and interesting over there, but it's still not Broadway.'

-All I want is to make a future for this family.

All I want is to be able to stand in front of my boy like my father never was able to do to me and tell him that he'll be somebody in this world besides a servant and a chauffeur.

Huh? You tell me that, hear?

-The son, his skills were insufficient to his dreams.

But he wanted to be a man.

He sought, he felt, he believed he had the wherewithal.

And the mother is saying, 'Easy, son.'

-Walter Lee wanted to break out of it, which was typical of the time.

Young blacks were rebelling, and they wanted more.

They didn't want to just be washing windows and chauffeuring cars and so forth.

-Hansberry had a way of seeing piercingly into human experience and the sense of human character, but also into the dynamics that were wrong within our world.

-The overwhelming majority of people out there feel that, well, that people get along better, take more of a common interest in the life of the community when they share a common background.

Now, wait, believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn't enter into it.

That our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.

-This, friends, is the welcoming committee.

-In the face of all the things I've said, we're prepared to make your family a very generous offer.

-30 pieces, and not a coin less.

-At the end of the play, I said to the gentleman who came, I turn to my son now, my son.

I said to the man, 'This is my son.'

Oh, boy.

-My son, he makes the sixth generation of my family in this country.

And we have all thought about your offer, and we've decided to move into our house because my father, he earned it, brick by brick.

-When Sidney said, 'We're not moving because my father earned every brick,' I always cry at that part because that's very real.

♪♪ -When the curtain came down and it went out, the audience was on its feet.

[ Applause ] -The spontaneousness at which everybody leaped to their feet stunned me.

I wept.

Everybody standing there opening night, bursting with pride.

I really wept unabashedly.

-The audience would not leave the theater.

The actors came up and took their bows, and they kept saying, 'More, more,' and they kept wanting to see the author.

And she refused to get up.

-Ruby said to me, 'Go and get her.'

And I jumped off the stage, and I walked over there, and I took her hand, and she was kind of resistant and shy.

-And Sidney carried her up onto the stage.

And she was blushing and smiling and just almost teary, you know?

It was so wonderful.

-It was like Lorraine was opening a new chapter in theater that included black people.

♪♪ ♪♪ -By the time they gathered at Sardi's after the first week's run, the cast and crew of 'A Raisin in the Sun' had reason to be proud.

The show was beginning to sell out, and rave reviews were pouring in.

'The play has vigor as well as veracity and is likely to destroy the complacency of anyone who sees it,' critic wrote.

'Simple honesty is the most difficult thing in the world and the most illuminating.'

♪♪ Less than a month after it opened, 'A Raisin in the Sun' won the coveted New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play.

Hansberry was the first African-American playwright and the youngest person ever to be so honored.

-She was a sudden celebrity, inundated with invitations to teas, luncheons, dinners, speaking engagements, and media appearances.

-What about success? This little gout of success?

What does it do to you?

Obviously, it deprives you of privacy.

-It does, except that it's wonderful.

I've tried to go to everything I was invited to.

I shouldn't even say this on the air, but so far, I've tried to answer every piece of correspondence I get.

-Everybody wanted to meet Lorraine, wanted to meet the author.

And the surprise and the shock is the fact that she was so young.

-Serious drama -- serious drama, drama that has at least the objective of making a larger statement about life, I think sooner or later has to become involved in its time.

If we could take a lesson from drama, we know that there are conflicts going on.

And the problem in art and pieces of stature of any given time in history have to do with what kind of position you take.

-Hansberry was game for all interviews.

She went toe-to-toe with anybody who invited her, even tough guys like Mike Wallace.

-This is Mike Wallace with another television interview in our gallery of colorful people.

Miss Hansberry, first let me ask you this.

John Chapman, the drama critic for the wrote that perhaps part of the acclaim may be a sentimental reaction.

'An admirable gesture,' I think is the way that he put it, to the fact that you are Negro, and one of the few Negroes ever to have written a good Broadway play.

-I would imagine that if I were given the award because they wanted to give it to a Negro, it'd be the first time in the history of this country that anyone had ever been given anything for being a Negro.

I don't think it's a very complimentary assessment of an honest piece of work.

-Lorraine, we are talking about protests in our time today.

Your play has been sometimes described as a play without protest.

And some people have even tried to compliment you by saying that it's not a Negro play at all, but a play about people.

Do you consider that a compliment?

-It's a misstatement.

It's very much a play about people, but it's also a play about Negroes in the first place.

I've said very often that I think that you achieve the universal through the specifics.

-Yes. -And it certainly is a protest.

Perhaps not in the traditional form.

That's what they mean, I hope.

But it was more than a protest in that I did try to suggest that there is something to do, that it is possible to take principled positions in our life.

-Many white Americans had a hard time hearing the protest message in 'A Raisin in the Sun' because it's not necessarily what they wanted to hear.

It's a much easier play to just read as a kind of neat, tidy story that has a happy ending.

-You had white audiences applauding the Younger family moving into a white neighborhood, and these are the people who would have been appalled had a black family moved in next to them.

-The form in which she wrote the play was very familiar.

You know, it was a family play.

It was set in a living room.

They could embrace the universality of that and sort of overlook the fact that it was about a very specific African-American family that was striving in ways that I don't think you saw a lot of people on the stage doing.

-I deliberately chose the class background of the characters in 'A Raisin in the Sun' because my own particular point of view is that most of what we hope for as a people is going to come from these people who are the base and the backbone of our people.

-Black critics could be just as hard on 'A Raisin in the Sun.'

The 24-year-old poet and playwright LeRoi Jones, for instance, found the play an insufficient answer to American racism.

-In my young militance, I was saying that it was a 'turn the other cheek, we shall overcome' thing.

But then it began to dawn on me that these are the real questions.

Where will we live?

We don't have enough money.

What should we do?

Those are the questions that black people are asking.

She's giving you the whole kind of domestic dimensions of this kind of oppression and resistance to it.

-Hansberry's audience didn't seem to care about carping from the sidelines.

'A Raisin in the Sun' was the hottest ticket on Broadway that season.

When Sidney Poitier left the production to return to Hollywood after 198 performances, Ruby Dee's real-life husband, Ossie Davis, took over the role of Walter Lee and stretched the run another 332 shows.

By then, touring productions were bringing the Youngers' story to cities and towns across America, and 'A Raisin in the Sun' soon was translated into 30 languages.

-Two days after 'A Raisin in the Sun's' premiere, Hollywood had come knocking on Hansberry's door.

Practically all the major companies, Phil Rose told reporters, have been bidding for the screen rights.

-If there's a motion picture sale, I'll do the script.

I'm adamant on that.

Nobody's going to turn this thing into a minstrel show, as far as I'm concerned.

And if this blocks a sale, then it just won't be sold.

-She was well aware that Hollywood had its own biases and that they would have trouble with a play that didn't have certain kinds of stereotypes in it.

-Miss Scarlett, where are you going without your shawl and the night air fixin' to set in?

-My 20 years of memory of Hollywood treatment of Negro materials led me to visualize split skirts and rolling eyeballs, with the latest nightclub singer playing the family's college daughter.

-Isn't anybody going to introduce us?

-It isn't only that it insults me because it's a degrading concept and a degrading way of looking at people, but it's bad art because it doesn't tell the truth.

-The thing on the handle!

-Columbia Pictures offered Hansberry $300,000 for the movie rights and agreed to pay the untested screenwriter another $50,000 to adapt her play.

Hansberry worked to break the story free from the Youngers' cramped kitchenette and bring the family into the streets of South Side Chicago where she could paint a more vivid and explicit picture of the harsh realities of segregation.

-Hansberry felt that she could do some of the things in the film that she wasn't able to do in the play to tell a more complete story in terms of the dynamics of race and racism in the United States and all that were acting on the Younger family.

-Hansberry's first draft was particularly impressive when one considers that the author had never before written a screenplay, one Columbia executive commented in his notes.

He also wrote, 'It was agreed that the addition of race-issue material in the screenplay should be avoided.

The introduction of further race-issue elements may lessen the sympathy of the audience.

Give the effect of propagandistic writing, and so weaken the story.'

Hansberry refused to water down the so-called race material in her second draft submission.

The result was another set of comments -- 106 numbered notes from the studio's vice president, Sam Briskin.

Number four, 'It was suggested that there are too many 'jive' expressions such as 'man, I mean, like,' and that as many as possible deleted.'

Number 23, 'Mr. Briskin strongly urged that the talk about Africans being revolutionaries be deleted.'

Number 27, 'Lena's second speech: 'He does, child, he does.'

Mr. Briskin's marginal note suggests deletion of 'child.'' -The reviewer of the script could not understand why the family called Walter 'brother,' 'cause he wasn't a brother, he was a son.

They couldn't get just the colloquial -- you know what I mean?

It was that sort of ignorance, if you will.

-Hansberry fought the good fight but lost little battles at every step of production.

The studio forced the director to cut some of the race material from the shooting script on set.

Even more came out in the editing room.

-We were part of a discussion there about how to sell this movie.

And the man in charge at the company said, 'We can't let the people know in advance that it's about Negroes.'

Now, this is after the play had been running for two years, and this is what the play is about.

-Here is entertainment which is rare and unique, vastly different from anything you have experienced.

-The thing about box office and the reception of the public, 'The South will never buy it, and we have to make it palatable.'

That was the fear.

-Marketed as a prestige film, 'A Raisin in the Sun' did modest box office.

The movie was nominated for a few minor awards and won a special humanitarian honor at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hansberry publicly claimed to be pleased with the film.

-I worried about it enormously.

I didn't see it until a few weeks ago, and I'm very grateful.

I think it emerges well.

-She didn't have the kind of control that she had wanted, but I think she did feel that she was successful in not having it really perverted.

♪♪ ♪♪ -Bob and I have been getting divorced for years now.

Meanwhile, we remain the closest friends either of us have, I suppose.

I know what I have always known, before consciousness even, that most important, it has to be her -- I mean, the woman.

It apparently simply will not be the man for me.

-Lorraine and Bob separate around 1957, even before 'Raisin' goes onstage.

She lived this kind of parallel life.

She writes and publishes at least four short stories on lesbians under a pseudonym.

At the same time that she's living this public life in a particular way, she is also living a private life and writing about it.

-It had happened before in life, on the street, parties, and classes in school years back.

The thing of being surrounded by many people and suddenly finding another girl's or woman's eyes commanding one, holding one's own.

It was extraordinary, pleasant, she thought.

No, not pleasant.

Terrifying because of the kind of pleasure it brought.

♪♪ -Around the time she finished her first draft of 'A Raisin in the Sun,' Hansberry had begun supported the Daughters of Bilitis, a national lesbian organization.

And she had sent a series of anonymous letters to its magazine, was one of the first publications for lesbians.

That is the public space, so all these people who might not be able to be public in their lives can read they can write to in political discussions through that format.

-I wanted to leap into the questions raised on heterosexually married lesbians.

I am one of those.

How could we ever begin to guess the numbers of women who are not prepared to risk a life alien to what they have been taught all their lives to believe was their natural destiny?

-I grew up thinking I can only put things right by marrying a nice guy and trying to be good friends with him and giving myself a little part of the world where I look and sound like everybody else, and that I can do my work.

And that will -- that will free me.

♪♪ -Lorraine was dating a friend of mine.

We went to the same parties.

We read a lot of poetry together.

I found Lorraine just delightful.

I really did.

I thought she was smarter than hell, and I thought she was so lovable.

-I am suggesting here that perhaps it is pat and even unfair to suggest that all that remains for the married lesbian is somehow to make a happy marriage without in any way denying her nature.

I'm afraid that homosexuality, whatever its origins, is far more real than that, far more profound in the demands it makes.

♪♪ -I think it's very hard for people today to realize what the atmosphere was like back then, how oppressive it was, how marginalized people felt.

It really was hard for us to feel comfortable or to be open about our lives.

-Hansberry was careful to a fault.

She discussed and analyzed friends, lovers, and crushes mainly in the pages of her private journals, letters, and her annual lists of likes and dislikes.

And with the help of Nemiroff, she was able to keep the details of her sexuality out of the public and her growing FBI file.

-Her life as a lesbian, she never talked about that and yet was so open about everything else, about her politics and her writing and her relationships with other people.

So it must have been quite difficult.

-♪ Come all you fair and tender lady ♪ ♪ If I'd have known before I courted ♪ -I am alone, very, tonight, 7:00, spice, scotch, scotch, and me.

What does one do when a love affair is over, and there's nothing to fill the void?

Worst of all, I am ashamed of being alone.

Or is it my loneliness that I am ashamed of?

-She was an artist, a black, a woman, and a gay person at a time when these groups were not connected.

She didn't have a community where she could just go and, 'Okay, I'm black, I'm an artist, I'm a woman, I'm a gay.'

She didn't really have that.

Most of her gay friends were white women.

So here's this woman trying to resolve and engage and deal with those differences, struggling to be who she was, and maybe that helped to create the brilliant work that we see because that was what she was dealing with.

-Eventually it comes to you, the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is eventually that which must also make you lonely.

[ Birds chirping ] -On New Year's Day, 1963, Lorraine Hansberry made two resolutions for her life.

'I shall write, and I shall train Chaka, my German shepherd puppy.

Beyond these things, let life bring what it will.'

Hansberry had moved the year before to a home in the woods 40 miles north of New York City in the creative enclave Croton-on-Hudson.

The two-acre property she called Chitterling Heights was to be a working retreat.

-One of the reasons she moves to Croton is to have more space to herself.

So it gave her a certain privacy that she needed.

It prevented people from just dropping by and knocking on the door.

-Hansberry had at least four plays underway that winter -- an adaptation of a novel about a white supremacist movement, an examination of colonialism set in Africa, a biographical account of Haiti's liberation leader Toussaint Louverture, and a story fashioned from the lives of an eclectic set of strivers she knew from Greenwich Village.

But for months, debilitating abdominal pain slowed her progress.

-Tuesday had some weird attack. Almost conked out.

Went into doctor on Wednesday.

Results, sick girl, pretty bad anemia, and some bleeding ulcers.

-Hansberry's doctors were concerned enough to admit her to the hospital for a series of tests.

♪♪ At the end of May, she got a call from James Baldwin.

He needed her back in the city to attend a meeting requested by Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general of the United States.

Struggling to tamp down racial tensions, Kennedy wanted insight into what Negroes were thinking.

-Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.

[ Cheers and applause ] -Alabama governor George Wallace had been standing in defiance of the Kennedy administration's civil rights directives that entire year.

On the ground in Birmingham, the state's largest city, African-Americans had taken their destiny into their own hands.

The Kennedys had feared they were losing control of the situation.

[ Dogs barking ] -1963 shocked the conscience of this country.

Those pictures, front-page picture -- police dogs snapping, high-powered fire hoses, slamming up against the wall.

It's just naked brutality against children.

-May 19, 1963.

Read sweared at Kennedy, made speeches against him and the rest of the white people.

Am not too depressed.

Other birthdays have been worse, I suppose.

-The Kennedys' principle strategic reaction was accommodations.

Their initial response to Birmingham was not moral indignation but 'how do we contain this,' or 'how do we politically manage this?'

-On May 24, 1963, Lorraine Hansberry found herself in the living room of the Kennedy family apartment in Manhattan facing the nation's highest legal official and two of his aides.

Baldwin's other hand-picked visitors included Harry Belafonte, performer Lena Horne, actor Rip Torn, Clarence Jones, attorney for Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr., psychologist Kenneth Clark, and 25-year-old Jerome Smith.

-The beginning of the evening was really set in rather polite, civil conditions.

We're talking around issues.

We're talking around ideas.

And in the midst of this tête-à-tête, Jerome Smith, he just broke the moment.

-Jerome Smith had just come back from what I would call the front lines, the trenches of fighting for civil rights.

-He'd been beaten severely, but in a frequency to give him no room for pleasantries.

He just bared his soul and all his pain, and then said very aggressively, 'Let me tell you something.

In the midst of our oppression, you expect to find us giddily going off to fight a war that's your war.

It's unjust, unfair, and so dishonorable, it should shame you.

I wouldn't pick up a gun to fight for this country.

I'd die first.'

-When Jerome makes this statement, Robert Kennedy turns his body slightly away from Jerome, and this movement was not lost on Lorraine.

-There was an aspect of Lorraine on certain fundamental questions of simple elementary justice that she took no prisoners.

She was -- she didn't equivocate.

-Lorraine piped in and said, 'Yeah, let's get to it.

That's exactly what you need to hear, and I feel that way, too.'

-And she says, 'Mr. Attorney General, you have a number of very accomplished people here in the room, but the one person whose voice you should listen to is that man,' and she points to Jerome.

And Kennedy is shocked by that.

-The evening imploded.

It was so nakedly honest and so raw.

-One of the things that she says, 'You are the best of what white America can offer us.

If you can't understand this, you who are elected representatives, and you with your privilege and liberal possibilities, if you can't hear what we're saying, then we don't have any hope.'

To visit the seats of power and see that lack of understanding that she could speak the words, but he couldn't hear it at all, that was what was so devastating.

♪♪ -When I got up to leave, everyone got up, said goodbye, and left.

I had a feeling of complete futility.

And as we got on the elevator, I wondered if there is any way to make the white people in this country understand.

♪♪ [ Crowd singing indistinctly ] -Hansberry's celebrity and incisive rhetoric made her a desirable advocate for the Movement.

-My name is Lorraine Hansberry.

I am a writer, and it's my privilege to be the chairman of this meeting this afternoon.

-A few weeks after the Kennedy encounter, Hansberry hosted a fundraiser for civil rights groups in Croton.

-We are not remotely interested in the old insulting concept of the exceptional Negro.

But what we are interested in is making perfectly clear that between the Negro intelligentsia and the Negro middle class and the Negro this and that, that we are one people.

And as far as we are concerned, we are represented by the Negroes in the streets of Birmingham.

[ Applause ] -The highly successful event raised $5,000.

Some of the proceeds allowed CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, to purchase a Ford station wagon for civil rights workers in Mississippi.

Days later, with her friend singer Nina Simone, she helped SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, promote its Carnegie Hall fundraiser.

-Civil rights was a pressure.

She was confronted with the importance of saying something about it and doing something about it and getting it out there where it could be of some effect.

-Hansberry was just as determined to finish a new draft of what would become her second play, 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window,' but her work was interrupted by an operation she was told would deal with her painful bleeding ulcers.

-Bob called up and said she was in the hospital.

I was in California at that time, and I was on the next plane to be with her.

I wish I could have taken some of her pain.

I prayed a lot for her.

-Major surgery.


Still bleeding.

Could die, I guess.

Due to go to Boston August 5th for more doctors.

Don't know if I will or not.

I've had enough.

No tobacco, no liquor -- five weeks.

♪♪ ♪♪ -I didn't die, and it was successful, and I will be well again.

Today, naturally, I'm watching the march on Washington on TV like a good invalid and being melancholy about all those who didn't live to see America awaken.

[ Cheers and applause ] -I imagine she's thinking of her father, a man who spent his life fighting for civil and political rights for the broader community.

-Two weeks after the march on Washington, Hansberry was beginning to feel like her old self again.

Nemiroff and D'Lugoff, who were producing 'Sidney Brustein,' had begun auditions for the new play, but Hansberry was ignoring Nemiroff's many requests for revisions.

Instead, she focused on recuperating.

Ample doses of Darvon kept the pain in her abdomen at bay.

'I can hardly contain myself with appreciation of life,' she wrote on September 13, 1963.

[ Glass breaking ] [ Screaming ] -The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham shattered Hansberry's momentary sense of calm.

Klansmen had murdered four innocent black girls.

-My heart is filled with passion for sheer vengeance.

Most of all, I think of the heartbreak of the Negro mothers on television yesterday.

♪♪ September 19, 1963.

Bob, quite annoying last night, harassing me about revisions.

Why can't people leave me the hell alone?

I shall work when I can and feel that I must.

♪♪ December 23, 1963.

I begin to think more and more of doing something else with my life while I am still young.

I mean, almost anything else like going to Angola and driving an ambulance or running a ski lodge in upstate New York in the mountains.

Then summers I could do useful things and retire from writing altogether.

-The ball has started to move.

Listen to that crowd!

The ball is moving, moving.

There it is, 1964!

[ 'Auld Lang Syne' playing ] ♪♪ -January 1, 1964.

Not a single drink and alone and hard at work.

That is how I began the year.

The work goes superbly.

1964 will be work, glorious work.

I will finish 'Sidney,' the 'Les Blancs,' then 'Toussaint,' and then 'Laughing Boy.'

The writing urge is on.

[ Birds chirping ] -January 4th, sitting here, trying like hell to get up the steam to work.

I am sure I have never hated anything as much as I hate this play.

January 9th.

I am drunk on Canadian Club and Darvon.

Have been wrestling with the third act for days now.

It is a stone wall.

Have been seeing D.S.

She was here, made soup for me, love to me, but no matter what, did not finish the play.

I really must concentrate on it with all my might.

It is so terribly hard.

[ Monitor beeping ] -In March, Hansberry's health began declining again, landing her in and out of the hospital for treatments.

She worked sporadically on a new set of revisions for 'Sidney Brustein' and spent much of her dwindling energy speaking out about the issues that had always animated her.

-♪ Hold on, hold on ♪ Hold on, hold on -On May 1st, a few weeks before her 34th birthday, Hansberry left the hospital to speak to the six teenage winners of a national creative writing contest.

-I wanted to be able to come here and speak with you on this occasion because you are young, gifted, and black.

In the year 1964, I for one can think of no more dynamic combination that a person might be.

-It is really before people have largely adopted the designation black, and she makes it into something that is powerful and beautiful.

-Look at the work that awaits you.

Write if you will, but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be.

Work hard at it.

Care about it.

Write about our people.

Tell their story.

♪♪ ♪♪ -Asked to write the text for 'The Movement,' a book of photographs documenting the freedom struggle that would serve as a fundraising vehicle for SNCC, Hansberry never hesitated.

♪♪ -She is pulling together all the resources she has to add her voice and her perspective to help support the new momentum in 1964.

-♪ Mm, mm, mm, mm -Writing 'The Movement' is important in Hansberry's life because it gives her a voice in the Movement at a time when she can't physically go down and participate.

-Whatever else she wanted to write, she won't be able to write as she focuses on that.

And that's an incredible commitment on her part.

♪♪ ♪♪ -On June 15th, as hundreds of civil rights volunteers begin pouring into Mississippi to work on a highly publicized voter registration campaign, Hansberry rose again from her sick bed in New York to lend her voice to the struggle.

She joined Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, LeRoi Jones, and other writers at the forum Black Revolution and White Backlash.

Hansberry felt duty-bound to express the frustrations of African-Americans witnessing time and again violence directed at those working to end segregation and discrimination.

-This is 1964, man.

I mean, to be in Mississippi in 1964, you know, or Alabama is to be in danger.

-The problem is, we have to find some way to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.

[ Applause ] -Hansberry's furious about the forms of backlash and the forms of equivocation -- white liberals who say wait or go slow, that progress is being made if you just go carefully.

♪♪ -My father, for instance, was the sort of American who put a great deal of money and a great deal of passion into everything that we say is the American way of going after gold.

But the problem is that Negroes are just as segregated in the city of Chicago now as they were then.

And my father died a disillusioned exile in another country.

That is the reality that I am faced with when I get up, and I read that some Negroes my own age and younger say that we must do whatever we can, take to the hills if necessary with some guns and fight back.

-It's a really bold statement in this period where nonviolent resistance is seen as the only acceptable form of protest.

Hansberry rejects the idea of there being a right way to do things.

That what is right is freedom and liberation, period.

-Lorraine was an open mouth, and she told the truth whether you liked it or not.

-It isn't as if we got up today and said, 'You know, what can we do to irritate America,' you know.

It's because that since 1619, Negroes have tried every method of communication of transformation of their situation from petition to the vote -- everything.

We've tried it all.

There isn't anything that hasn't been exhausted.

And now the charge of impatience is simply unbearable.

The whole idea of debating whether or not Negroes should defend themselves is an insult.

If anybody does ill in your home or your community, obviously, you try your best to kill 'em.

[ Applause ] -Back home, Hansberry wrote in her journal, 'Negroes are so angry, and white people so confused and sensitive to criticism.'

And she wondered if she was doing enough, if mere words were enough.

-Do I remain a revolutionary?

Intellectually without a doubt, but am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts?

I think when I get my health back, I shall go into the South to find out what kind of revolutionary I am.

-More disheartening news came just a few days later.

-The three civil rights workers who disappeared in Mississippi last Sunday night still have not been heard from.

A search has thus far produced only one clue -- the burned-out station wagon in which the three were last seen riding.

-It was the Ford station wagon purchased with proceeds from Hansberry's fundraiser in Croton.

It took federal authorities over a month to find the bodies.

The three young men had been shot dead by locals and buried in a shallow grave.

♪♪ -I rather looked forward to going to jail once.

Now I can hardly imagine surviving it at all.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window' opened at Broadway's Longacre Theater on the night of October 15, 1964.

Hansberry had not been physically capable of completing all of the revisions she had felt necessary, and she was too weak to attend preparations.

But she managed to slip into the theater for opening night with Nemiroff, officially her ex-husband of seven months.

'I love you, Lorraine, for everything you are and this play is,' Nemiroff had telegrammed her from the theater earlier that day.

'You are tough, Lorraine Hansberry.

The great sunflower on top of the stem, even racked with pain as now, is tough and stronger and more beautiful than any of us.'

-The play presumes to try and examine some of the nature of commitment, all kinds of commitment -- what to identify with, what to become involved in, what to take a stand on, what, if you will, even to believe in at all.

-Hansberry set the play in another world she knew well -- Greenwich Village.

It explores an ethnically and racially mixed group of artists and activists.

The lead character is Sidney Brustein, a Jewish intellectual, a would-by revolutionary, and a hopeful romantic.

'I hurt terribly today,' declares Brustein, 'and that hurt is desperation, and desperation is energy, and energy can move things.'

-Sidney Brustein represents someone who seems committed, but really isn't at the full level of commitment he ought to be.

She saw this basically as a transformation of the white liberal into a radical, which she wanted to see happen in society, too.

-The critical reaction to 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window' was something entirely new for Hansberry.

'Stinking triviality with extremely poor writing' read one review.

'Dreadful, lacks concision and cohesion.

Too much talk.'

-I was incensed that the critics gave her such a hard time.

I was so impressed with the fact that she began to write about the complexity of interrelations racially and socially and culturally.

-I loved it, but I knew that they wouldn't accept it.

They, the powers, would say, 'Well, you may have had success with that, but now don't think you can write anything.'

-There was an expectation that she was going to write a sequel to 'A Raisin in the Sun,' and I think that many people were expecting her to stay in her lane.

She's looking at race.

She's looking at sexual orientation.

She's looking at class politics.

And she's juggling these things, and I think that the critics simply did not know how to talk about her work in that context.

-And it raises questions about what constitutes a black play.

Is a black play a play that has black characters, or that's just written by a black author, or features stories of African-American life?

This question of what kind of plays African-Americans should write, could write, are expected to write.

-Some persons ask how it is that I have 'left the Negro question' in the writing of this latest play.

I hardly know how to answer as it seems to me I have never written about the Negro question.

I write plays about various matters that have both Negro and white characters in them, and there is really nothing else I can think of to say about the matter.

♪♪ -A few days after the opening, Hansberry suffered convulsions, lost her sight, then fell into a coma.

She did regain her sight and her consciousness, but doctors told family and friends there was little more they could do for her.

-And that was the worst day of my life.

I broke completely down.

I thought we could beat it.

♪♪ -Hansberry may have begun to intuit that her illness was terminal.

The hospital tests back in April 1963 had indicated that she had cancer in her small intestine, and as was commonly done in the early 1960s, her doctors and husband did not tell her.

-I was involved very early in the diagnosis, and we kind of pawned it off as being a serious but not lethal disease called sarcoid.

This is regarded as patriarchal, but I thought that that maintained her.

I may be totally wrong, but I never thought that people do well faced with cancer, the big C, or death.

♪♪ -Nina Simone brought her record player to the hospital so Lorraine could hear her music.

-♪ Brown baby -She was so brave.

And she tried hard. -♪ Brown baby ♪ As you grow up -My Lord, he calls me.

He calls me by the thunder.

Steal away.

Steal away, steal away to Jesus.

Steal away, steal away home.

I ain't got long to stay here.

-James Baldwin would later reflect on his friend's life.

'Every artist, every writer goes under the hammer.

But the black writer lives under something much worse.

The strain can kill you.'

Lorraine Hansberry, just 34 years old, died on January 12, 1965.

'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window' never reopened.

♪♪ Over 600 mourners braved a blizzard to attend Lorraine Hansberry's funeral in Harlem.

-I was watching those who were coming in -- Sammy Davis Jr., Malcolm X, and a whole string of other name people who were there to honor Lorraine.

-A SNCC leader expressed gratitude for Hansberry's dedicated support of the Civil Rights Movement.

Nina Simone sang.

Actors Shelley Winters and Ruby Dee mourned on behalf of the creative community.

Paul Robeson paid tribute to an artist he had helped to nurture.

-I was struck by her understanding of the world around her.

She had her roots deep in her people.

It was remarkable in one so young.

♪♪ -The officiating pastor read a telegram from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

-If I may paraphrase the words of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet,' 'If she would die, take her and cut her into little stars, and she will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night.'

-Lorraine was a true artist.

And to lose a true artist is a major loss for the world.

♪♪ -What would she have been at the age of 54?

What volumes of work would have been yielded that grew and matured, based upon the success of what she was doing?

And she never got a chance to go there.

♪♪ -She's left us a road map for how to think about our society as we try to pursue something deeply egalitarian and sensitive and recognizes people at every level of who they are.

-We had her voice for as long as we really needed it, if we're wise enough to listen.

♪♪ -At this particular moment in our country, as backward and as depressed as I, for instance, am about so much of it, there's a new mood and a feeling like make new sounds, and I'm glad I was here to make one.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ -How do you reach for success?

Find out from our Web series, 'Inspiring Woman,' where you'll meet accomplished women... -Black and brown women, queer women, young women.

-...with good ideas about achieving your goals.

-They have a story. They have an experience.

-And they just may motivate you.

-To really contribute to, like, the greater good.

-Develop my voice as a black woman writer.

-If a woman in your life has inspired you, we invite you to share her story with us.

-How do we constantly inspire?

-Look for 'Inspiring Woman' online at

♪♪ ♪♪


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.