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Lorraine Hansberry

In the spirit of the Sesquicentennial (that means 150th) Anniversary of the American Civil War, I’m going to relaunch the blog with a discussion of Lorraine Hansberry’s The Drinking Gourd (1960). Hansberry is known for her most produced and, possibly, the most taught/produced play ever written by a black playwright, A Raisin in the Sun. She was, beyond a serious playwright, a serious historian, particularly of those moments in time that affected the Civil Rights plight of the “American Negro.”

A Raisin in the Sun, the first play produced on Broadway written by an African-American woman, won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Best Play of the Year Award in 1959.

The Drinking Gourd is the exploration of that peculiar domestic institution that was the economic lifeblood of the American South just before the Civil War, slavery. Close on the heels of the Broadway success of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry was commissioned by the television network, NBC, to write a teleplay for the Centennial of the Civil War. She chose for a title a fabled folkloric song that supposedly was used by runaway slaves as a guide to the North and freedom.

 Enslaved people have been escaping their bonds since their deliverance on the shores of the New World.

Slavery was the backbone of the economy of the South and, in spite of the growing popularity for the abolition of slavery as a social and economic solution for America, the Confederate states wanted to protect and expand their rights to trade slaves. They fought the Civil War to guarantee those rights.

The Drinking Gourd allows the audience to view the troubled plantation of the Master, Hiram Sweet, who is usurped of his power by his son, Everett, and whose last days coincide with the advent of the Civil War.

Escaped slave print

Directly affected by these transitions is a young black slave, Hannibal. One of the many ways African Americans were subjugated in slavery was through ignorance. Literacy is an invaluable, but dangerous life-skill for a slave, as Hannibal discovers when his vision is mutilated by the overseer who, poor and white, cannot himself read.

In The Movement Hansberry includes a passage from W.E.B. DuBois that says, while the target of their anger is the black person [because they are accessible], the true source of hatred for the poor white Southerner was toward the system of slavery, which used them and kept them impoverished instead of uplifting them ( The Movement 68).

The slave, cook and right-hand of the old Master is Hannibal’s mother Rissa, who has lost one son already to freedom. She turns her back on her master, Hiram, in his last moments to tend to the wounds of her child because Hannibal’s future matters to her more than her past.

In Act II Hannibal tries to explain to Rissa his liberated mentality and his desire for physical freedom.

…I am the only kind of slave I could stand to be—a bad one! Every day that come and hour that pass that I got sense to make a half step do for a whole…pretend sickness ‘stead of health, to be stupid ‘stead of smart, lazy ‘stead of quick—I aims to do it. And the more pain it give your marster and the more it cost him—the more Hannibal be a man! (Les Blancs 201)

Hansberry, like many playwrights, signifies character through names. For Coffin, the “Uncle Tom” stereotype, living up to his master’s standards as a slave, creates a ghost of a man trapped in the slave body. And Hannibal, defiant to the core, is the epitome of his namesake, the fear-inducing, tenacious Carthaginian general and tormentor of ancient Rome.

Orchestrated mass disobedience is the prime fear of all leadership because their ability to rule is limited by the complicity of the people. Written during the prime time of the American Civil Rights Movement, Lorraine Hansberry also remembered to document the social questions yet unanswered one hundred years after the Civil War. Civil disobedience had taken the spotlight as a means to the end of America’s occlusion of African Americans socially and politically. Even today, the Occupy Movement, seems to have a similar rationale of disrupting the status quo that causes mass economic discontent, by confronting those that benefit most.

Hattie McDaniel (on the right) was the first black actor to win an Oscar.

Lorraine Hansberry’s The Drinking Gourd never aired on NBC or any other television station. Because NBC commissioned the script they maintained the right to film and air it at their discretion and, ultimately, they shelved the entire series of teleplays. One reason may be that The Drinking Gourd forces the audience to recognize the discontent of all Americans of the time, an image contrary to the American film industry’s characterization of slavery, particularly of the “smiling darkies” in Civil War films such as Gone with the Wind. Perhaps Hansberry was not the only writer who submitted a script for the Centennial of the American Civil War which exposed the bitterness of black slaves and poor whites in a society whose destruction was inevitable and completely necessary.  It is possible that NBC realized the Civil War was one of the darkest hours not just in American history, but through all the ages, and that no writer could spin a story to suggest otherwise.

Dearest NBC network, Produce The Drinking Gourd. It’s  time now. We can handle the truth. Thanks.


  • Hansberry, Lorraine. Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays. Ed. Robert Nemiroff.New York: Vintage, 1994.
  • Hansberry, Lorraine. The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality.New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.

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