Happy Black History Month! For each of the 28 days of February, we at The Mary Sue will have a post about a black woman you should know about—some you may have heard of, some a little bit more obscure, and some fictional who still deserve a lot of love.
Day Twenty-Four: Lorraine Hansberry
I’d always known of Lorraine Hansberry, she was the writer behind A Raisin in the Sun one of the most popular and adapted black plays. The 1961 film with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee was a frequently played film in our household. Yet, I had no idea that Lorraine Hansberry was a queer black woman until much later in life.
Born in 1930 to well-off and politically active black family, Hansberry’s youth was spent in the company of black thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Her uncle was William Leo Hansberry, who founded the African Civilization section of the history department at Howard University. So Hansberry grew up with a very clear understanding of the racial issues that were going on the country at the time and well educated enough to apply those idea to her craft. She was very socially active in her adult life, to the point where she was being surveilled by the FBI.
At twenty-nine years old she became the youngest American, fifth woman, and first black dramatist to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year for A Raisin in the Sun. The play later became a Tony Award Winning musical called Raisin. Hansberry’s skill as a truth-speaker for the black experience was lauded by her peers including James Baldwin who wrote “Never before, in the entire history of the American theatre, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.
Throughout the 1950s she wrote a series of anonymous letters to early queer magazines like One and The Ladder with the initials L.H or L.H.N. Her unfinished play Les Blancs included a gay couple and her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, has a male gay character. According to her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, despite not fully “come out of the closet” Hansberry’s queerness “was not a peripheral or casual part of her life but contributed significantly on many levels to the sensitivity and complexity of her view of human beings and of the world.”
In her letters, Hansberry would talk about a range of topics from the butch/femme role-playing, that made her feel uncomfortable, to the links she saw between the oppression of both women and homosexuals. In one of her unmailed letters to One, found after her death, saw her dealing with the difference in the social attitudes towards male and female homosexuals, noting about how society deemed gay men as “criminal” but found lesbian women “naughty” and “titillatingly wicked or rebellious.”
Sadly, Lorraine Hansberry died at the age of thirty-four in 1965 before Stonewall started and the gay movement began to take off in full force. There is no doubt that her voice would have been among one of the eloquent and powerful ones in the group in tandem with activists like Audre Lorde, who we talked about yesterday. At her funeral messages were read about her written by both James Baldwin and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lorraine Hansberry has left behind an amazing legacy as a black writer, playwright and as a queer voice.
Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present by Neil Miller
To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry
( image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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