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What We Read When We Don’t Read the Internet PRESENTS! A Dream Deferred: Lorraine Hansberry’s Lesbian Agenda

[And here we are: On Sunday. I assume you are all comfortably drunk from your various brunches, and therefore in an extra-friendly mood! Well, good news: It turns out ALL OF OUR GUEST POSTERS WERE SUPER-AWESOME THIS TIME AROUND, and also, that we have one further awesome guest poster for you. Her name is Lauretta Charlton! Some may know her! Those who do not already know her are soon to be super-impressed! BEHOLD.]

I was fifteen when my father gave me his copy of To Be Young Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry. As with all the books he gave to me, he simply said, “you should read it.” No description, no reason other than a tone of voice parents use when trying to display unmitigated authority. It was years before I opened the book, after becoming more familiar with its author and her other work. Looking back, I wonder if my father knew exactly how powerful and influential this slim mass-market paperback would be in my life.

The success of Hansberry’s brilliant play Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway to immediate success in 1959, left the race-torn country spellbound. This attractive, ebullient and young black woman took the landmark case won by her father protecting the rights of African-Americans to purchase property in predominantly white neighborhoods and created a fiercely intelligent, American drama. Although covenant law was particularly controversial at the time, Hansberry managed to assuage the tempers of both white and black audiences with the play’s extraordinary earnestness. The ending, however, is only slightly cathartic, answering one of the play’s provocative questions (is it justifiable to assume most African-American men are to be feared as violent, uncontrollable and uneducated criminals?) with a resounding: STOP BEING SO GODDAMN RACIST, AMERICA! But the play poses so many questions: what is the role of the matriarch in the black community? Is achieving the American dream contingent upon monetary success? How have other forms of discrimination, namely homosexuality, tarnished our culture?

My father is socially conservative (chalk it up to his Southern Baptist background and low blood sugar). He comes from a family that truly believes “birds of a feather, flock together.” In other words, don’t date out of your race because they simply won’t GET IT. (Funnily, this includes African immigrants, a subject addressed by Hansberry in the play.) It is also a family that finds homosexuality utterly reprehensible. It was a particularly profound for me, then, when I discovered Hansberry was a lesbian, or dated women, or whatever the fuck it was that you were allowed to DO in the 1950s without having the feds come after you, serious-like. She didn’t “come out” during her lifetime. However, it was revealed posthumously in the 1970s that she contributed to the nation’s first nationally syndicated lesbian magazine, The Ladder. In her letters, Hansberry, who signed L.H.N. (initials for her married name) writes that she is “glad as heck that [the Ladder] exists” and discusses the “discreet” Lesbian thusly: “Someday, I expect, the ‘discreet’ Lesbian will not turn her head on the streets at the sight of the ‘butch’ strolling hand in hand with her friend in their trousers and definitive haircuts. But for the moment, it still disturbs. It creates an impossible area for discussion with one’s most enlightened (to use a hopeful term) heterosexual friends.”

Of course, I would have loved to say without equivocation that Lorraine Hansberry was a lesbian AND proud of it thank you very much you homophobic, bible hugging, chicken frying, southern black people I call relatives. I don’t begrudge Hansberry for not coming out, but I do begrudge what seems to be a perpetuated glorification of her commitment to end racism, and how this is used to overshadow her effort to address other forms of discrimination.

It is widely accepted among scholars that Hansberry was a lesbian although she never made it public. It hurts me a little to think that she was too ashamed to proudly don the mark of her chosen sexuality. Did she feel her sexuality would overshadow her status as a writer? Was she protecting the reputation of her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, with whom she remained close until her death? Did she think it was too much to be a spokesperson for racial equality AND sexual equality?

Because of her early death and her not so prolific, albeit incredibly prescient output, the answers to some of Hansberry’s more cryptic questions about homosexuality are either superimposed onto her work or simply ignored, frozen in time. Her legacy, outside of academic/feminist circles, is this: Lorraine Hansberry was a black writer who wanted to end racism in America. Full stop. The significance of Hansberry’s career certainly includes her strides to overcome racism in America, but reading her work, it becomes clear that what she was most concerned about was human dignity, abolishing discrimination in all its ugly guises.

“The human race concerns me and everything that that implies… which is the most ambitious thing you can say, and at the same time the most modest too, because I can’t think of anything that people do where conflict is born that isn’t dramatically interesting.”

Reading these lines from To Be Young Gifted And Black – a compendium of journal entries, excerpts, sketches and interviews compiled by Nemiroff with an introduction by James Baldwin – you would think this woman could do anything. Her candor, her participation in the Daughters of Bilitis, her letters to the Ladder and other gay publications belie a fear of reprisal. She was simply waiting for the right MOMENT and unfortunately her life was cut short before the moment could happen. Unfortunately, were she alive today, I think she’d still be waiting.

I had a science teacher in middle school. Mrs. Pierce. (Or was it Ms. Pierce?) She had a very interesting way of getting us, the delinquent, do-nothing, public school go-nowheres, to understand the magnitude of time: “You are a much less than a bugger when it comes to the timeline of the universe,” she would say. I believed her. I still do. We are all so much less than a bugger in the timeline of the universe. Sometimes I think buggers have more significance than the awful, vapid conversations I hear, overhear and sometimes partake in here in New York City. But then again, there are always exceptions. There are moments of genius so powerful you want to seize them, spread them, and milk them before they are exhausted, dissipated in the unknowable void that is time. Time seems less overpowering then because we are all on the same page, we are focused on THIS moment, THIS happening, THIS experience. It is very exciting; this collective joy allows us to feel we have tapped into something larger than we actually are. For me, Hansberry epitomizes this idea. She enraptured audiences all over the world who wanted to listen to her story, er, at least part of it.

Hansberry’s birthday was on May 19. She would have been 80. Too bad she died of cancer at the age of 34. When you think of canonical black, female writers you likely immediately think of Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston or perhaps Phillis Wheatley’s slave narratives. All of these women made remarkable contributions to American literature. But for me the first name before me is, without question, Lorraine Hansberry. Her story reflects so many facets of African-American life and yet ironically challenges the way most African-Americans live today. She is also an example of the greatness of genius and how fleeting it is, how quickly things can be forgotten or left behind while others seem to march in step with time, keeping the beat, stay relevant, defying the bugger notion.

My dad is now the proud father of my lesbian sister, who was married when marriage in California was legal, and me, whoever the hell I am. Although he likely knows little about Hansberry’s double-life, I’m sure knowledge of it would only elevate his appreciation of her genius.

[Lauretta Charlton lives in New York City. She is still young, sometimes gifted and all black.]


  1. So moving.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  2. bookbat wrote:

    This is such a wonderful post, right here.

    Lorraine Hansberry is one of those people whose reputation is so sanitized (she thought black people should be able to live in nice houses like white people! the end!) that actually reading her work is a true shock to the system. Raisin in the Sun is incredible, but the play that really blew my mind was Les Blancs. Just the sheer bravery of it, the way it deals with race and colonization and gender and masculinity and isn’t at all shy about how one person’s liberation struggle often destroys another person’s life, is fucking earthshaking. I kind of wonder now who managed to sneak Hansberry into my high school curriculum? Whoever it was, I love them.

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  3. emylie_bo_bemylie wrote:

    This was great. Thanks. I’ve only ever read A Raisin in the Sun, now I’ll have to go read more of Hansberry’s work!

    Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  4. jai wrote:

    Thanks for writing this! In my experience, no one really talks about Lorraine Hansberry outside of high school English classes, and she is definitely worthy of further attention.

    I do think that referring to her “chosen sexuality” is problematic, but maybe we just have different opinions on the nature vs. choice matter.

    Side note: what does “bugger” mean in this context? I’ve only ever heard that word used in two ways (“bugger off” or “to bugger”) and I doubt that your teacher meant it either one of those ways.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink
  5. Catalania wrote:

    First, I have to admit that reading the sentence ‘We are all so much less than a bugger in the timeline of the universe’ made me laugh, especially in the context of this post – I’m guessing it means something different in the USA, but here in England it’s an old-fashioned word for a man who has anal sex. I never knew they had a special significance in the cosmos, but I’m delighted to hear it!

    On a more serious note, I found the end of this post really touching. Thanks for that. The world needs more parents like your dad.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  6. Annaham wrote:

    Fantastic post, Lauretta! I haven’t read much of Hansberry’s work (yet!) but the way you’ve written about it, and about her, makes me want to read all of her stuff.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  7. JMS wrote:

    I am shocked that Hansberry was so young when she died. She’s a contemporary of Maya Angelou’s! Imagine what she would have accomplished if she had had a life as long and vibrant as Angelou’s has been (and continues to be, thank Heaven).

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  8. Anna wrote:

    @Jai – I think “bugger” is a reference to the novel Ender’s Game, in which the word is used to describe a member of an extraterrestrial species who are similar to ants. They all share one mind and one collective will – that of the queen – so the lives of individual buggers are seen as expendable.

    Also, this is an incredible post.

    Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 9:09 pm | Permalink