Lorraine Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. Born to activist parents who were often visited by prominent black intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, Hansberry became politicized at an early age. In 1938, Hansberry’s family moved to a white neighborhood in Chicago, where they were physically attacked by their neighbors. Despite being pushed out of their home, they didn’t move until it was ordered by a court that they do so. Their case, Hansberry v. Lee, went on to appear in front of the Supreme Court, where it was ruled that the restrictive covenant barring Black families from the neighborhood could be contested, but was not ultimately invalid.
Hansberry’s family before her had attended Southern black colleges, however she decided to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spent two years changing majors from painting to writing and participating in political action around campus. After two years she dropped out to move to New York City, where she attended the New School for Social Research and later went on to work for Paul Robeson’s progressive Black newspaper, Freedom from 1950 to 1953. In 1957 she joined the Daughters of Bilitis and was a contributing writer for their magazine, The Ladder. The magazine focused on issues of feminism and homophobia, and thus, Hansberry revealed her lesbian identity in her work, however she wrote under her initials, L.H., so as not to be identified.
Soon after she went on to write A Raisin in the Sun, a play about a struggling Black family living in Chicago, which premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959. It was the first play by an African-American woman on Broadway and Hansberry was the first Black woman and youngest person to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. Her play is highly regarded as a staple of American theater and has been reproduced in film, television, and again on the stage as recently as 2014. Hansberry is also the inspiration for her close friend and music icon Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Hansberry died prematurely of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34 on Jan. 12, 1965.
Jean Toomer was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in Washington, D.C. in 1894. Toomer was born to Nathan Toomer, Sr., a mixed-race freedman born into slavery in 1839 and Nina Pinchback, a young, wealthy woman of mixed-race. After his father left them, Toomer and his mother lived with his grandfather, where he adopted a new family name, Eugene. As a child, he attended segregated black schools in D.C., however when his mother remarried they move to suburban New York where he attended an all-white school. He ultimately graduated from a prestigious academic Black high school in Washington D.C. Toomer went on to attend many different institutions of higher education, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He had many different majors, however he never completed a degree.
He then returned to Washington D.C., where he published some short stories. He also published philosophical and political essays, drawn from the socialist and “New Negro” movements of New York. He then took a position as a principal at a new rural agricultural and industrial school for Blacks in Georgia, where he began to make crucial connections with his father’s history. In general, Toomer hesitated to identify as Black or white, and rather considered himself to be part of a new class of mixed-race people. 1920s Georgia and the Great Migration of Black people to the North allowed Toomer to see first-hand the experiences of poor Black people and greatly influenced his later writings. He moved closer towards a Black identity as he saw his connections to the history there.
When he returned to New York, Toomer began writing what would be considered his greatest and best-known work, Cane, a novel inspired by his time in Georgia that consists of short stories told through poetry, prose, and play-like passages of dialogue. It deals with the origins and experiences of African-Americans in the United States. Toomer is remembered as a prominent writer of the Harlem Renaissance and died at the age of 72 on Mar. 30, 1967 in Pennsylvania.