STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When the playwright Lorraine Hansberry died in 1965, she was only 34, but had already made her mark on American literature. Her play, "A Raisin In The Sun," which tells the story of a black family that tries to move from its South Side Chicago neighborhood into a white neighborhood, that play is an American classic today. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team has been reading a new biography of Lorraine Hansberry.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Lorraine Hansberry was 29 years old when "A Raisin In The Sun" opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 1959. It earned an armload of awards, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for the best play of the year. Hansberry had bested Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill for the prize. Overnight, she was famous, and became even more so a few years later when the movie version of her play was released. Sidney Poitier played Walter Lee Younger, a man all too aware of the cost of racial prejudice.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")
SIDNEY POITIER: (As Walter Lee Younger) 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 because I got nothing, nothing to give him but stories, like on how rich, white people live.
GRIGSBY BATES: "Raisin" remains one of the most produced works by a black American playwright. "Looking For Lorraine: The Radiant And Radical Life Of Lorraine Hansberry" shows she was more than this beloved play, though, says biographer Imani Perry.
IMANI PERRY: She was a feminist before the feminist movement. She was - identified as a lesbian and thought about gay rights organizing before the gay rights movement. She was an anti-colonialist before all of the independences had been won in Africa and the Caribbean.
GRIGSBY BATES: In other words, she was intersectional before that became a thing. And, says Perry...
PERRY: She reveled in her identity, even as she railed against injustice.
GRIGSBY BATES: In the early '60s, black impatience with segregation was growing. Black Americans were trying to gain their rights peacefully, and the national pace felt slow. In 1964, after protesters proposed blocking streets to tie up traffic, some New Yorkers were outraged. At a town hall meeting, Hansberry said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LORRAINE HANSBERRY: It isn't as if we got up today and said, you know, what can we do to irritate America, you know?
HANSBERRY: It's because that since 1619, Negroes have tried every method of communication, of transformation of their situation.
PERRY: She was willing to risk her fame and her recognition for her political convictions. She became more and more outspoken the better she was known.
GRIGSBY BATES: And, says Imani Perry, Hansberry was not afraid of head-on confrontations. In 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy gathered a group of black intellectuals and celebrity activists in a New York living room. Hansberry was there, so were James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Kennedy asked the group to spread the word that the Kennedy Administration had done a lot for civil rights. Lorraine Hansberry told him it wasn't nearly enough.
PERRY: What Hansberry said to RFK is, we want a moral commitment from you...
GRIGSBY BATES: To do the right thing on civil rights. Bobby Kennedy was steamed. Hansberry thought the meeting was a failure, but a few weeks later, in a televised address, Americans heard the president say this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN F. KENNEDY: We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and it's as clear as the American Constitution.
GRIGSBY BATES: Somebody had been listening. Imani Perry says Hansberry's petite stature and royal carriage lulled some people into dismissing her, but she convincingly conveyed the black anger and depression that came from the constant challenges of segregation. Although she'd grown up part of Chicago's Negro elite early on, Hansberry had lived on a ghetto street like the ones her characters in "Raisin" were trying to escape.
PERRY: It's why, as Baldwin said, she was able to give voice to black America with "A Raisin In The Sun." It was a truthful depiction.
GRIGSBY BATES: Although she wrote about loving women in her private papers, Hansberry was married to theater producer Robert Nemiroff for several years, says Perry. They separated before she became famous.
PERRY: But he remained her best friend, her closest confidant.
GRIGSBY BATES: Nemiroff supported her work financially, and it was to him that she gave her drafts for honest criticism. Perry says Hansberry wasn't out in the sense we're familiar with today.
PERRY: She was a member of one of the first lesbian organizations in the country, the Daughters of Bilitis. It would have been very difficult and even dangerous for her to be out in multiple ways.
GRIGSBY BATES: In early 1960s New York, homosexuality was illegal. Gay gathering spots often were raided and the people in them arrested. Hansberry didn't want to upset her proper family, so she and Nemiroff had an unconventional, but very real relationship. They loved each other. She also loved James Baldwin. They enjoyed mutual adoration. Again, Imani Perry.
PERRY: When they met, he was already famous. She was one of the few people who he could turn to in every way.
GRIGSBY BATES: She was close to singer/activist Nina Simone, too. Both women financially supported Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. A few years after Hansberry's death, Simone co-wrote a song to honor her friend, and it became an anthem for young, black America. The title came from a posthumously published book of Hansberry's work.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")
NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Young, gifted and black. Oh, what a lovely, precious dream to be young, gifted and black.
GRIGSBY BATES: Hansberry's work was widely but not universally beloved. Some took exception to her criticism of white allies that needed to be prominently featured in the movement and interpreted that as being anti-white. Imani Perry disagrees.
PERRY: She wasn't anti-white, but she was a very strong proponent of black self-determination.
GRIGSBY BATES: Lorraine Vivian Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer on January 12, 1965. Imani Perry says people focus too much on the wrong aspect of her career.
PERRY: You know, there's been this constant theme for the past several decades. Oh, she died so young. What would she have produced had she lived longer? But the reality is she had produced so much.
GRIGSBY BATES: Which is why Perry thought it was time to bring the overlooked contributions - artistic, social and political - of this young, gifted and proudly black artist to the forefront now. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF AHMAD JAMAL'S "SWAHILILAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.