Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters Reveal the Playwright’s Private Struggle


In her unbearably short life, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at age 34, forever transformed Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered in 1959. For this staggering chronicle of the struggles of an African-American family on Chicago’s South Side, Hansberry would, at age 29, become the youngest American and the first black playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Her friend James Baldwin exalted, “Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage”; the play was only one of Hansberry’s numerous contributions to advancing the discussion about civil rights in this country. Yet two years earlier, around the time that Hansberry was completing her landmark work, she was engaged in another, far more private endeavor, writing excitedly — but anonymously — in a letter to the editors of a semi-clandestine publication, “I feel I am learning how to think all over again.”

That periodical was The Ladder, the first subscription-based lesbian magazine in the U.S., which ran from 1956 to 1972. What Hansberry — a closeted lesbian married to Robert Nemiroff, a writer and publisher who produced many of his spouse’s posthumous works — was reflecting on in that missive, published in the August 1957 issue and signed simply “L.N. [Lorraine Nemiroff], New York, N.Y.,” was her own identity as a “heterosexually married lesbian”; after declaring herself as such, Hansberry’s letter then dilates into a piercing feminist disquisition on homophobia and the institution of marriage itself. This dispatch is one of two published in the San Francisco–based magazine and part of a trove of the writer’s papers gathered for “Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder,” on view in the Herstory Gallery of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Offering the pleasure of discovering Hansberry’s cogent, often prescient thoughts about gay rights and sexism, this terrific exhibition provides an immediate, unfiltered look into a quick, agile mind.

The show takes its title from a roughly 45-minute radio interview, included in full here, Hansberry did with Studs Terkel on May 12, 1959, two months after the premiere of A Raisin in the Sun. (The upcoming revival of Hansberry’s play at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, scheduled to begin previews March 8, occasions an exhibition of material relating to the original production, on view at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street through March 7.) In a steady, eloquent voice, Hansberry points out that “the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, obviously,” concluding that those who are “twice oppressed” can become “twice militant.”

Though she concealed her sexuality, as the times demanded, Hansberry was essentially thrice militant, addressing the “homosexual question” in an undated, handwritten essay on three pieces of yellow legal paper. The second paragraph of this treatise stuns with its radical dismantling of the unsophisticated argument — still promulgated in today’s pro-LGBT pop anthems and Grammy winners — that gays are “born this way”: “Since it does not follow that all which proceeds from nature is in any way automatically desirable for human good, it is silly and baseless to posit the rights of homosexuality on the remote (+ in some sense irrelevant) possibility of its possible congenital character.”

Hansberry’s two letters to The Ladder — more than two dozen issues of which are on display — evince the thrill of a writer having an outlet to discuss at length observations, about herself and lesbians in general, that could not otherwise be voiced publicly. The tone of her first epistle to the magazine, from May 1957, is particularly irrepressible: “I’m glad as heck that you exist,” she writes, before commending the editors as “obviously serious people.” Though “I” buoyantly appears throughout, this first missive, like the second, also concludes with identity-masking initials: “L.H.N.,” for Lorraine Hansberry Nemiroff. (As the concise wall text notes, by 1957, the year Hansberry wrote her Ladder missives, she was living alone in Greenwich Village, “having quietly separated from” Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953. They divorced in 1964 but remained close and continued to collaborate until her death.)

This act of self-effacement, though mandated by the era, is all the more crushing in that it terminates such vibrant letters, brimming with personal details and trenchant analyses of marginalized groups. “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 social group, I know something about the shallowness of such a view as an end to itself,” she wrote in her May ’57 letter, referring to The Ladder‘s commitment to “advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society” — don’t be too butch, ladies — that would facilitate lesbians’ integration.

For as much as these documents — which also include a poem, a short story Hansberry published pseudonymously in The Ladder, a self-portrait, and a 1961 essay entitled “On Homophobia, the ‘Intellectual Impoverishment of Women’ and a Homosexual ‘Bill of Rights'” — expose crucial if little-known aspects of Hansberry’s affective and intellectual life, the most intimate glimpses of the writer can be found in the pages she called “Myself in Notes.” Yearly inventories that Hansberry began when she was 23, these fascinating jottings record her likes, loves, hates, and regrets.

Among the many things Hansberry liked at age 28 were “slacks” and “Eartha Kitt’s eyes, voice, legs, music”; she was bored with “A Raisin in the Sun,” “loneliness,” “most sexual experiences,” “myself.” Sometimes the lists are contradictory: When she was 29, Hansberry included “my homosexuality” under both “I like” and “I hate.” Others are delightfully bawdy; at 32, Hansberry liked “69 when it really works” and “the inside of a lovely woman’s mouth.” Near the end of this catalog, she notes under “I am proud,” a rarely used category, “that I struggle to work hard against many, many things.” The invaluable “Twice Militant” shows just how brilliantly, how passionately Hansberry grappled with herself and the world at large.