Hansberry vs. Chicago

March 11: Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun opened on this day in 1959, becoming a popular hit and a historic moment in American theater—530 performances, 6 Tony Awards, the first play by a black woman to run on Broadway. Hansberry was raised in Chicago; when she was two years old, her father made headline news when he won his Supreme Court challenge to the "covenant" agreements which allowed whites to bar blacks from living in their neighborhoods. The climax of A Raisin in the Sun is Walter's struggle to stand by the family's decision to buy a house in a white neighborhood, instead of selling out to the white man who wants to buy them off:

I'm going to look that son-of-a-bitch in the eye and say—(He falters)—and say, "All right, Mr. Lindner—(He falters even more)—that's your neighborhood out there! You got the right to keep it like you want! You got the right to have it like you want! Just write the check and—the house is yours." And—and I am going to say—(His voice almost breaks)—"And you—you people just put the money in my hand and you won't have to live next to this bunch of stinking niggers!..." And maybe—maybe I'll just get down on my black knees… "Captain, Mistuh, Bossman… Oh, yassuh boss! Yasssssuh!..."

In To Be Young, Gifted and Black, her posthumously-published collection of autobiographical writings, Hansberry says that she and her three siblings were raised in a "utilitarian" manner, getting few hugs and kisses but plenty of other nourishment:

We were vaguely taught certain vague absolutes: that we were better than no one but infinitely superior to everyone; that we were the products of the proudest and most mistreated of the races of man; that there was nothing enormously difficult about life; that one succeeded as a matter of course.

Hansberry's parents insisted that their four children put the family principles into practice. Marie Hansberry, interviewed recently when the Hansberry's South Side Chicago home was designated an official landmark, said that she and her siblings were encouraged to eat in discriminatory, white-owned restaurants so that they would be booted out and given the opportunity to sue.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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