Lorraine Hansberry: Letters to “The Ladder”

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Lorraine Hansberry was an African-American playwright and writer from Chicago. She was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930 to middle-class parents. Hansberry grew up in a racially restricted neighborhood in Southside Chicago, where her father fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for them to live. She is most well-known for being the first black female author to have her play, A Raisin in the Sun, performed on Broadway. In 1959, Hansberry received the New York Drama Critic’s Circle’s Best Play Award for A Raisin in the Sun. She married Jewish songwriter and political activist Robert Nemiroff in 1953, but the couple officially divorced in 1964, though they continued to work closely.

In 1957, the same year Nemiroff and Hansberry separated, she joined the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), a lesbian-rights organization. In August 1957, Hansberry wrote her first letter to the editors of the DOB publication, The Ladder, to say “I’m glad as heck you exist.” She then engaged in dialogue on the position of married lesbians, claiming, “I am one of these, incidentally.” Over a period of time, Hansberry would write to The Ladder on various topics, including that of lesbian conformism to a “dominant group,” based on her understanding of conformism for blacks to white society. Hansberry was adept at topics of intersectionality, often analogizing the African-American experience to that of homosexuals, and discussing the inequality women face against men, even within the gay community.

Hansberry's list of things she was bored with and things she wanted. Image courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library.
Image courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library

The Brooklyn Museum’s 2013-2014 exhibit Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to “The Ladder” includes Hansberry’s “Notes on Self” which she began when she was 23. Under lists for likes, she includes looking at well dressed women, “deeply intelligent women” and Eartha Kitt’s legs, but under dislikes she includes “masculine women” and notes that she remained “indifferent to: most men.” When Hansberry was 29, she placed “My Homosexuality” under both “What I Love” and “What I hate”. Her identity as a queer black woman was never truly consolidated. The 1950s and 1960s were a time when the lines between black and white gays did not intersect. In fact, many of Chicago’s gay and lesbian clubs held quotas for blacks, or simply excluded them altogether. Hansberry felt it was more important for her to a successful black author than a lesbian, and never truly came out as one. Despite this, Hansberry continued to support the DOB. She also included gay characters in her plays The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964) and Les Blanc (published posthumously in 1972).

Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1963, and died in 1965 at thirty-four years old. Unfortunately, following her death, her former husband restricted access to archival materials which could expand upon her sexual identity.

IHLC Sources:

Baim, Tracy, ed. 2008. Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community. Chicago: Surrey Books.

De la Croix, St Sukie. 2012. Chicago Whispers : A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall. Madison : The University of Wisconsin Press.

Online Sources:

Mumford, Kevin. “Opening the Restricted Box: Lorraine Hansberry’s Lesbian Writing.” OutHistory.org. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/lorraine-hansberry/lesbian-writing

2 Replies to “Lorraine Hansberry: Letters to “The Ladder””

  1. She is my HERO! I stand up for what I believe in strongly; and the principle of the matter…

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