Born On This Day, 1930: Lorraine Hansberry

Jim Burroway

May 19th, 2016

Lorraine_Hansberry(d. 1965). The American playwright and writer is notable for being the first African-American woman to have her play performed on Broadway. A Raisin In the Sun described a black family’s experience of moving to an all-white Chicago neighborhood in an attempt to “better” themselves. Hansberry drew from her own family’s experience in a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood'” and her father’s lawsuit challenging racial restrictions in property covenants. A Raisin In the Sun, starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands, was nominated for four Tony Awards, and she became the youngest American and the first black playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. In 1961 it was made into an acclaimed film featuring much of the original Broadway cast and with Hansberry writing the screenplay.

Hansberry had been involved with the civil rights movement since 1951, when she joined the staff of the African-American newspaper Freedom. She was also keenly interested in women’s issues, and wrote of the various global conflicts from the point of view of the female participants. In 1953, she married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish publisher, songwriter and political activist; they spent the night before the wedding protesting the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executions. The couple quietly separated in 1957 and divorced amicably in 1964, but they remained close and continued to work together throughout.

These facts about her short life are fairly well known. What isn’t widely known is her much quieter contribution to a gay rights discussion in the pages of The Ladder, the official magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis. In May, 1957, the same year Hansberry and Nemiroff separated, The Ladder published a letter from “L.H.N., New York, N.Y.” — her abbreviation for Lorraine Hansberry Nemiroff. “I’m glad as heck that you exist,” she wrote. “You are obviously serious people and I feel that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations. Our problems, our experiences as women are profoundly unique as compared to the other half of the human race. Women, like other oppressed groups of one kind or another, have particularly had to pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment that the second class status imposed on us for centuries created and sustained.”

The letter reads as one who was coming to an exciting realization about herself and her discovery of a world of others like her. And her background as a woman and an African-American, she had some very pertinent thoughts about the assimilation debate taking place in the pages of The Ladder (i.e. that women should dress as ladies as a path to acceptability.) “As one raised in a cultural experience (I am a Negro) where those within were and are forever lecturing to their fellows about how to appear acceptable to the dominant group, I know something about the shallowness of such a view as an end to itself. The most splendid argument is simple and to the point, Ralph Bunche, with all his clean fingernails, degrees, and, of course, undeniable service to the human race, could still be insulted, denied a hotel room or meal in many parts of our country.”

Despite her circumspection in how she signed her letter, and despite her remaining closeted, her background allowed her to draw parallels between her experience as a woman, an African-American, and a lesbian. “What ought to be clear is that one is oppressed or discriminated against because one is different, not ‘wrong,’ or ‘bad’ somehow.” She recalled her former “personal discomfort at the sight of an ill-dressed or illiterate Negro,” but now “Social awareness has taught me where to lay the blame. Someday, I expect, the ‘discrete’ Lesbian will not turn her head on the streets the sight of the ‘butch’ strolling hand in hand with her friends in their trousers and definitive haircuts. But for the moment, it still disturbs.”

“I feel I am learning how to think all over again,” she gushed in her second letter the following August. And she spent the next four pages diving deeply into the problems confronted by “heterosexually married lesbians,” of whom she added, “I am one of those.” And here, we get a sense some of her internal struggles in dealing with her own marriage with Nemiroff:

Speaking personally as well as abstractly here, may I ask when did the problem of saying to oneself, or to one’s husband, or anyone else that one finds “other women interesting” get to be any kind of a problem at all? Isn’t the problem of the married lesbian woman that of an individual who finds that, despite her conscious will ofttimes, she is inclined to have her most intense emotional and physical reactions directed toward other women, quite beyond any comparative thing she might have ever felt for her husband – whatever her sincere affection for him? And isn’t that the problem?

…I am suggesting here that perhaps it is pat and even unfair to suggest that all that remains for the married lesbian, already nursing her frustrations and confusions, 1s somehow to get rid of her ‘self-pity’ and ‘self-excuses’ and make a ‘happy marriage without in anyway denying her nature’. I am afraid that homosexuality, whatever its origins, is far more real than that, far more profound in the demands it makes; otherwise it could hardly deserve to be called a problem at all. I don’t think people start out in this world to be ‘bad’ – they start out to be happy. Frankly, I haven’t the least idea in the world what a ‘solution’ to the question might be at this particular moment in history.

Her diaries were recently made available, and they reveal her conflicts, then adjustment to her self-realization as a lesbian. But when she died at a tragically young death at the age of 34, of pancreatic cancer, she remained closeted, not surprising given the times. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.” Those words are truer today the more we’ve come to know of her.

After she died, her ex-husband adopted her unfinished autobiography for the play To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, which became the longest-running off-Broadway play from 1968 to 1969. The autobiography itself was then published under the same title in 1970.

[Sources: “L.H.N., New York, N.Y.” Letter to the editor. The Ladder 1, no. 8 (May 1957): pp 26-28.

“L.N., New York, N.Y.” Letter to the editor. The Ladder 1, no. 11 (August 1957): pp 26-30.]

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