Lorraine Hansberry is largely known as the playwright of A Raisin in the Sun who tragically died young. Recent scholarship by Imani Perry and Soyica Diggs Colbert and others has uncovered Hansberry’s devotion to radical politics and her circle of friends and artists in and around the American Communist Party. While popular culture might remember her as a writer committed to civil rights, the FBI saw her as a national security threat. The Bureau opened its file on Hansberry in 1948; that year Hansberry worked on the Henry Wallace presidential campaign, a campaign the Bureau was convinced was communist dominated. For the next seventeen years the FBI monitored Hansberry’s movements, friendships, relationships, and creative work; it was committed to the belief that Hansberry was both a communist and a troublemaker. Her success with A Raisin in the Sun prompted the Bureau to try and uncover whether her play was Soviet propaganda, but its success also meant that its surveillance of Hansberry had to be more surreptitious to avoid embarrassment.
The Bureau’s committed belief in Hansberry’s treasonous intentions demonstrates what scholars like Gerald Horne and Charisse Burden-Stelly describe as the racism of American anticommunism. Horne has argued that the state allowed for limited concessions to the civil rights movement; but calls for economic justice were dismissed as communist plots and the movement’s communist allies were silenced through imprisonment, harassment, and deportation. For Charisse Burden-Stelly it was criticism of the growing war state that prompted targeted legal harassment and exclusion of Radical Black Peace Activists. Criticism of Cold War policy was interpreted as seditious and Hansberry and her comrades were committed peace activists that pointed to the dangers of the American warfare state. For Nick Fischer and other scholars, anticommunism is a permanent strain in American politics and was and continues to be motivated by efforts to contain challenges to the status quo.
During the Cold War, Lorraine Hansberry was labeled an enemy of the state. The Bureau found her so concerning that she was placed on J. Edgar Hoover’s security index; the security index was a list of individuals who would be detained during a national security crisis. While her work with the Wallace campaign made the Bureau aware of her politics, it was in 1952 when the Bureau decided action had to be taken. That year she traveled to a peace conference in Montevideo in Paul Robeson’s place. Robeson had his passport seized for his own radical activism and was no longer able to travel; Hansberry went in his stead and read a statement by Robeson to the conference attendees, a conference intelligence officials decided was communist. Upon her return the State Department revoked her passport. For the next several years agents monitored Hansberry’s activities and noted her work on Robeson’s Freedom newspaper, her association with Party members like Claudia Jones, who was briefly her roommate, and her work with organizations like the Civil Rights Congress and the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. In 1956, an agent claimed there was no evidence that she was associated with the Communist Party and suggested she be removed from the security index; that decision was immediately revoked and she was kept on the list until her death.
In 1958, with the release of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry became a public figure and an admired author. Its debut on Broadway the following year increased her popularity and made her a sought-after artist. Still the Bureau believed that Hansberry was a threat and her play a communist “device.” The New York FBI office was instructed to determine whether the play followed the “communist line,” even after its own informants embedded in the Communist Party informed the local office that she was not active. During a pretext call to Hansberry’s home, the agency learned that the play would make its stage debut on one of the “usual out-of-town” stages. J. Edgar Hoover instructed local offices to send an agent to the debut to “properly analyze” the play.
In February 1959, a special agent was sent to A Raisin in the Sun’s Philadelphia premiere; he wrote a four-page report on the play and the audience’s reaction to it. A Raisin in the Sun, he wrote, made no comments about communism “as such” but it was focused on “Negro aspirations” and the problems at “advancing themselves” and “various attempts” at finding solutions. The mother (Lena Younger – the agent did not list any character names) was described as a “firm-minded dominating matriarch” who, without asking family members, purchased a home in a white neighborhood. The son (Walter Lee Younger) is described as having no qualms about making illegal deals and squandering his family’s money; but he regains his self-respect at the end of the play by refusing the white community’s offer to buy back the house. It is in the character of the daughter (Beneatha Younger) where the agent recognized “propaganda messages.”
Beneatha, known as Bennie, denies the existence of God, to which Lena Younger forces her through “superior force of will” to say that God remains in their home. Bennie, however, remains doubtful. Bennie’s dismissal of Walter’s aspirations to be an “entrepreneur” struck the agent as propaganda as did her African suitor. The agent describes him (Joseph Asagai) as devoted to Nigerian independence and accepting of “evil things” to achieve it. Asagai states that he is willing to die for independence and he wants Bennie to become a doctor and join him in Africa. The agent notes that by the end of the play it “appears” that this has become her goal. Finally, the last propaganda piece was that the only white character who “plausibly” explained why his neighborhood did not want the Younger’s to move in, was treated as insulting and the family rejected his offer. Bennie, the agent noted, called Walter Lee a “toothless rat” for considering it. The agent recognized in Bennie’s character an atheist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist agitator whose character regurgitated communist propaganda. He noted however that “relatively few” audience members reacted to the propaganda and that some audience members applauded comments on a “racial basis” though the majority were Black with a few white people joining. Much of the applause and praise, he concluded, was for the acting skills.
The agent’s report appeared staid and neutral, but it regurgitated anti-Black stereotypes and the Bureau’s intent on linking civil rights to a communist plot. Lena Younger was depicted as a domineering Black woman, Walter Lee was fickle and prone to criminality, and Bennie was a communist agitator; this confirmed the need to continue monitoring Hansberry and the play’s reception. In March 1959, the same month that the play made its Broadway debut, an agent wrote to Hoover that it did not appear the play was controlled by the Party, nor did it follow the communist line. The following month a report to Hoover indicated that because the play had given Hansberry “considerable notoriety” it was “inadvisable” to seek an interview with her as it might cause the Bureau embarrassment. Even as Bureau informants denied any knowledge of Hansberry and the Communist Party, and its own agents’ admission that the play was not controlled by the Party, Hansberry was recommended for the Security Index and the FBI conducted twice annual reports on her until she died in 1965.
Hansberry’s FBI file is substantial, and the Bureau’s detailed surveillance included watching her movements, her travel, and her written work and its reception. That the Bureau committed so many resources to the surveillance of activists like Hansberry reveals the Cold War state saw the Black Freedom Struggle as a threat. That the contemporary Bureau continues to commit resources to activists confirms that social justice remains a threat to those in power. Today, at a time of increased white supremacist violence, the Bureau remains committed to its long history of targeting Black activists. Efforts to reform have proven resistant to the agency’s racism, which affects both domestic and foreign policy. The file on Hansberry demonstrates an effort to criminalize peace and social justice advocacy, and a long history of Bureau abuse.