The New York Times reported today that the great African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry was working on a play about the massacre of black citizens in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898 when she died, far too young, of pancreatic cancer in 1965.
The news took my breath away. Though she was only 34 years old when she died, Hansberry—“Sweet Lorraine,” James Baldwin called her—was one of the great voices in American letters at that time.
She was audaciously talented, insightful and courageous. As Baldwin said of her in a prologue that he wrote for a posthumous collection of her writings called To Be Young, Gifted and Black, she was also full of light.
Hansberry’s most famous play was A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway in 1959. The play featured an all-star cast including Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.
By the age of 29, Hansberry had already become the first African American playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, given every year to the best new play on Broadway. At the time, she was the youngest playwright of any race to win the award.
By the time that Hansberry was 31, A Raisin in the Sun had been translated into 35 languages and was being performed around the world.
She was also a civil rights activist, a campaigner for human rights and a brave voice for feminist and queer politics.
According to The Times’ story, Hansberry had begun writing a play about the Wilmington massacre in 1955. Though she struggled with what she called “first draft-itis,” she had not given up on finishing it at the time of her death a decade later.
She based the play loosely on a long out-of-print novel called The Marrow of Tradition.
The author of that novel was an extraordinary black writer from Fayetteville, N.C., Charles W. Chestnutt. He had written his fictional account of the Wilmington massacre only two years after 1898.
Over time, Chestnutt’s novel and the massacre largely faded from white America’s memory.
In the play’s script, Hansberry sought to pay homage to Chestnutt, but she clearly brought her own artistry and vision to the historical events in Wilmington as well.
“If I finish it, it won’t be Chestnutt at all, but me,” The Times quoted a newspaper reporter who interviewed Hansberry a couple weeks after A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway.
In that interview, Hansberry also said: “But I hope to feature him somehow with my dramatization and make people wonder who the hell was this Negro doing all this writing before the turn of the century?”
When she died in 1965, Hansberry left more than 300 pages of drafts of her play on Wilmington.
Now preserved at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the play’s script has recently been drawing the attention of a new generation of literary scholars who have been exploring both Hansberry’s literary work and her social justice work.
They have included Stephanie Bower, the general editor of the upcoming Oxford Complete Works of Charles Chestnut and Imani Perry, a Princeton professor who is the author of a book I love, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.
The story in The New York Times really sent me reeling. Oh how much I would have loved to see the finished play on Wilmington. And oh how I would have loved to see it performed!
She was so far ahead of her time.
Even the first nonfiction book that focused explicitly on the racial massacre— Professor H. Leon Prather, Sr.’s vastly underrated We Have Taken A City: The Wilmington Racial Massacre and Coup of 1898—did not appear until 1984, almost three decades after Hansberry began to write her play.
In my eyes, The New York Times story could not have come at a better time.
I read the story early this morning, just as thousands of mourners were gathering for George Floyd’s funeral in Raeford, N.C., the small town 100 miles north of Wilmington where he was born in 1973.
It was a good time to be reminded of Lorraine Hansberry, her courage and her dedication to understanding America’s history and why we are so divided and how we might find our way to the light.