May 19th in (Feminist) History

2013_lorraine_hansberry_lorrainehansberry_headshot_5048929u_428wThis day in 1930 saw the birth of Lorraine Hansberry, an American writer and playwright who was the first black woman to have one of her plays performed on Broadway. She was born in 1930, to parents who provoked ire when they bought a home in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago, a traditionally white area. The drawn-out legal fight by their white neighbors– on the basis of a covenant that banned African-Americans from buying or leasing land in that neighborhood– eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who rejected that specific covenant while at the same time not ruling on the constitutionality of said covenants in general.

Lorraine’s experiences with segregation as a child directly influenced her and her writing. Her most well-known play, A Raisin in the Sun, is about the lives of black Americans living in Chicago and dealing with the same racial segregation that she did. (The play’s title was taken from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem”, from a line that reads: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”) Her play was the first written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. At 29 years old, she was the youngest American playwright as of that time, and went on to be the fifth woman ever to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

Though she married a Jewish man, Lorraine was believed to be a closeted lesbian. This is presumably not just speculation or negative gossip, but rather something supported by her personal notebooks and private letters. She wrote about feminism and homophobia, was a gay rights activist, and joined the Daughters of Bilitis; the first lesbian civil rights group in the U.S. Her only other play to be produced while she was alive was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which ran for 101 performances and closed the night she died of cancer, at only age 35.

Also on this day…

• Google has you covered with their Doodle celebrating the birth of Yuri Kochiyama on this day in 1921. From Google’s post: “Born in California, Kochiyama spent her early twenties in a Japanese American internment camp in Arkansas during WWII. She and her family would later move to Harlem, where she became deeply involved in African American, Latino, and Asian American liberation and empowerment movements.” She was present at the assassination of her friend, Malcolm X, and held him in her arms as he died.
• In 1800, the birth of Sara Miriam Peale, an American portrait painter who painted primarily politicians and military figures, such as Lafayette, who sat for her four times. (Thought you Hamil-toasties would like that.)
• In 1879, the birth of Nancy Astor, the Viscountess Astor, an American-born British politician, who was the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons.

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