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What I Love, What I Hate, What I Should Like

The Ladder

A butch cruising a femme in Washington Square park, cover of The Ladder, April 1959.

By Kaitlyn Greenidge

Review: Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to “The Ladder”. Brooklyn Museum, November 22, 2013–March 16, 2014, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Herstory Gallery, 4th Floor, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY

In 1959, fresh off her win of a Drama Desk Award for her debut play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry, home in Chicago, sat for an interview with Studs Terkel. “I believe,” she tells Terkel, “that one of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create something universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific.”

This maxim runs throughout the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to “The Ladder”. Hansberry wrote a number of letters to the editors of “The Ladder”, which was, as the curators point out “the first subscription-based lesbian publication in the United States.” The magazine began publishing in 1956 and Hansberry’s first letter to the editor appeared in 1957. Also in the exhibition are a number of unpublished notes, poems, short stories and essays, documents in which Hansberry explicitly engages with the intersecting axes of her identities as a writer: lesbian; feminist; black woman; and member of a heterosexual marriage.

In the letters and documents on display, it’s clear that Hansberry repeatedly engaged with the question of the specific and the universal in regards to her own lesbian identity. The Hansberry of these texts seems to have frankly acknowledged her own sexual identity while attempting to articulate the best ways to claim personhood as a black, lesbian writer in a heterosexual marriage—specifics of her experience that both connected her to collective political identities and potentially isolated her from these identities.

In her first letter to “The Ladder”, Hansberry tells the editors “I’m glad as heck you exist.” Hansberry was writing in response to an article in the preceding issue, where a writer argued for assimilation with the larger heterosexual culture and particularly the abandonment of “butch” presentations. Hansberry writes, “As one raised in a subculture 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 groups, I know something about the shallowness of such a view in and of itself…what ought to be clear is that one is oppressed or discriminated against because one is ‘different’, not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ This is perhaps the bitterest of the entire pill.”

Hansberry argues in favor of assimilation, not because she believes the dominant social norms are correct or necessary, but from a purely pragmatic standpoint. “As a matter of facility, of expediency, one has to take a critical view of revolutionary attitudes which in spite of the BASIC truths I have mentioned above, may tend to aggravate the problem of the group,” she wrote.

In a later letter, Hansberry writes, “What the homosexual wants and needs is not autonomy from the human race but utter integration in it. I feel however I could be wrong about this.” The letter was written in response to an article admonishing lesbian women who remained in heterosexual marriages. Hansberry, who had married Robert Nemiroff in 1953, continued, “I am one of these, incidentally.” They separated around the time that she began writing to The Ladder, though she included the first initial of Nemiroff’s last name in her signatures to these letters.

Hansberry agreed with the Ladder that lesbian women in heterosexual marriages who sought out affairs with other women should be held in contempt by both straight and lesbian communities, not least because she believed that it debased lesbian relationships: as she wrote, “all relationships between women need not be that of ‘cats’, tearing at each other.” Yet she admonished The Ladder for the article’s lack of sympathy for lesbian women in heterosexual marriages, pointing out that such relationships were part of a greater “social moral superstructure that has never admitted to the equality of women and is therefore immoral itself.” 

“I don’t think people start out in this world to be bad,” she wrote, “They start out to be happy.” This insight was one of the underlying contradictions between the individual and the universal.

The most extraordinary document in the exhibition is, in my opinion, an unpublished 1961 essay Hansberry wrote in response to reports of a rift at a “homophile” conference between male homosexuals, who were advocating for a Homosexual Bill of Rights, and some lesbians, led by an editor of The Ladder, who opposed any attempt at sponsoring legislation, arguing that “you can’t legislate sentiments.”

Hansberry’s response “On Homophobia, the Intellectual Impoverishment of Women and a Homosexual Bill of Rights” applies a precise arithmetic to the situation, taking into account the privileges and what we would now identify as the intersectionality of these disparate causes and groups.

“It is true that all human questions overlap and while our understanding of a trial in Israel or an execution in Viet Nam may not momentarily be rapid fire, life has a way of showing up why we should have cared all along….there always comes the reckoning,” Hansberry wrote. “Men, as a sex, find themselves socially stagnant and trapped into incredible patterns with conformity that dictate what and how their “manliness” should be in order to hold their place over the lesser...The relationship of anti-homosexual sentiment to the oppression of women has a special and deep implication.”

Hansberry noted that women do not “enjoy genuine equality with men. They have not, therefore, evolved as a group the discipline of intellectually organized thought. They do not, for instance, think socially, they think personally…” and so are unable to understand the urgent need for organized political action. Hansberry was careful to note, “It has nothing to do with intelligence. It has everything to do with experience. Which is why the fact is fluid.” Hansberry later argued that “the reason we have such excellent agricultural and educational organizations” in the United States is because these were governmental departments and places where women “got to the point” and organized socially.

The one drawback of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition is its staging. Sidelined to one wall in the Sackler Center, the exhibition is made up entirely of Hansberry’s texts, making it difficult for a visitor to spend time with her words and truly read each document. Included in the exhibition are Hansberry’s “Notes on Self”, lists of “What I love”, “What I hate”, and “What I Should Like”, records that she began keeping each year of her life, starting at age 23. The lists underline this question of identity as simultaneously personal and political. In one, from her 29th year, Hansberry placed “My Homosexuality” under both “What I Love” and “What I hate”. All the lists contain beautifully evocative lines that pierce the heart of Hansberry’s desires. One “What I Like” includes “69 when it really works”; all the lists contain descriptions of lovers and Eartha Kitt’s legs and eyes are mentioned across multiple lists. 

Access to these documents, as Kevin Mumford points out, was restricted for many years. It’s understandable that the Brooklyn Museum may be under a restriction as to how they can display them. Still, I couldn’t help but wish that the exhibit had a digital component or at least additional resources where I could read the texts more closely. Stooping over the farthest transom in the exhibit, I struggled to read the final Notes of Myself on display, where Hansberry writes, in her own hand, “I Should Like…To be utterly, utterly in love/ To work and finish something.”

These lines are particularly moving when we consider her early death. Hansberry linked this ability to think socially, and not personally, to fully realizing one’s political and human rights, of fully claiming one’s personhood. Male homosexuals, she notes, socialized to believe in their integrity as male citizens and used to the language of “dissertations and speeches and manifestos,” to claim equal rights. Lesbians, being women and not socialized in this form of personhood and assertion, indeed, denied their full humanity because of their gender, were understandably against advocating for legal rights. But to Hansberry it was in the assumption of individual rights and personhood, the assertion of the individual through the organized, collective understanding and critique of the social, where liberation and acceptance lay. This peculiar paradox lies at the heart of her work and jumps like a live wire throughout the documents on display.