Opening the Restricted Box: Lorraine Hansberry’s Lesbian Writing

Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry, playwright

By Kevin Mumford

Born in 1930 in Chicago to a real estate broker, Carl Hansberry and Nannie Louise Perry, Lorraine Hansberry grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a comfortable neighborhood, a rebellious young woman from the city’s African American elite.   Hansberry achieved international fame with the Broadway production of Raisin in the Sun (1958), for which she won the New York Desk Drama Awards (the youngest and first African American).  Her portrayal and personal portrait personify a moment of young rebelliousness, feminine elegance, and civil rights protest, and yet few of her readers have been aware of her lesbian desire, writings, and relationships.  Though they had divorced, Hansberry’s former husband, Robert Nemiroff, restricted access to archival materials that expanded upon her sexual identity.  Recently, the Hansberry estate has permitted researchers access to some of the materials, and in 2013 I received permission to view the “restricted box.”  What follows is some of the new information about her personal life that I have examined.

In 1948 Hansberry matriculated at the University of Wisconsin but later dropped out of classes after less than two years, apparently the result of distraction or perhaps a sense of marginalization as a black woman and lesbian.  Ironically her lowest grade—a D—was given for her performance in a drama course.  At the age of 23, writing from Madison, Hansberry composed a list favorite things, “Myself in Notes,” in which she wrote a number of likes, including “to look at a well dressed women” and “deeply intelligent women,” but under dislikes, “masculinity in women.” At 26, she listed Eartha Kitt, Anna Magnani, and “intellectual women” under likes, but noted that she remained “indifferent to:  most men.” In turn, her political activity immediately moved leftward:  pressing for the integration of local institutions, joining and then heading a progressive political organization, campaigning for presidential candidate Henry Wallace.  When Hansberry left Madison for New York, she moved in progressive political circles and eventually joined the Communist Party, and assisted Paul Robeson with the production of a black radical journal, Freedom.

At that time the FBI commenced undercover surveillance and continued to monitor her activities sporadically, and then increased their coverage after the premiere of A Raisin in the Sun, assigning an agent “to determine whether the play in any way follows the Communist line.” Their investigation uncovered no such content, speculating that it “would have never been accepted on Broadway if there were any Communist content.” Around the same time, she found herself the object of uncomfortable speculation when the press reported that she was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker and that her family’s business, Hansberry Enterprise, run by her two brothers and sister, owned at least thirteen properties that were in violation of building codes, and that the city had cited them for more than 40,000 in fines.  Depressed and angered, Hansberry engaged an attorney to rebut the charges and clear her reputation.

In 1957, around the time she separated from her husband, Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry sent her a letter to the editors of the national lesbian journal, The Ladder, along with a money order for $2.00 (to receive as many back issues as the amount covered).  In the first one, Hansberry offered several observations about social difference—what she described as “off-the-top-of-the-head reactions,” and developed what may be identified as the first theory of intersectionality.  She first wished to dispel the idea of “wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero.”  In a reading of the “homosexual” literature that was not apparently her first, Hansberry negotiated the problem of difference, showing a sensitivity to need to find separate and to join, and demonstrated remarkable adeptness at applying an understanding of the civil rights movement to the question of lesbianism.  After addressing the needs of separatism, Hansberry compared the dictates of black respectability to the homophile’s adoption of a similar strategy, arguing that 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.”

A Raisin in the Sun

The first edition of Raisin in the Sun, 1959. The play was partly autobiographical, and the first play by an African-American woman to open on Broadway.

On the one hand, Hansberry addresses The Ladder and its audience as “you people,” as if to notice, but not clearly identify with, lesbians of the 1950s.   On the other, Hansberry made a number of observations about the homophile movement that seemed to reflect a sustained reading of The Ladder and more than a passing interest in lesbian issues.  “What ought to be clear is that one is oppressed or discriminated against because one is different, not ‘wrong,’ or ‘bad’ somehow.” She readily analogized the case of African Americans to that of homosexuality, but did so from the inside.  In other words, when she compared the “personal discomfort at the sight of an ill-dressed or illiterate Negro,” and then predicted that “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.”  Of this scene, Hansberry wondered if the West Coast was more prejudicial than the East Coast, and therefore had spawned more homophile groups, or if they were “Pioneers still?”  As for the East Coast she attested to “a vigorous and active set almost bump one another off the streets.”

While making public appearances and authoring the text for a book commissioned by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Hansberry returns to the same lifestyle---caught up in the hectic and glamorous schedule of a downtown bohemian, dashing to coffee dates, appearing at star-studded events, lunching in the Village—and a profound sense of isolation and aloneness.  Much of the recently released diaries reveal a reflective and imaginative woman, and yet someone battling the symptoms of depression—a woman not only singular but isolated.  Then, one morning, Hansberry awakens in a different mood.  “As for this homosexuality thing (how long since I have thought or written of it in that way—as some kind of entity!) Am committed to it.  But its childhood is over.  From now on---I actively look for women of accomplishment—no matter what they look like.  How free I feel today.  I will create my life—not just accept it.” In January 1964, returning from the hospital, Hansberry writes of her intense desire for her lover, and their sexual encounters.  The woman had slept over at Hansberry’s place as well.  The loneliness and illness became entangled in Hansberry, and that evening “so much was pent up.  I consumed her whole.  I recalled also when she first lay in my bed—how very, very wet the place on my leg when she moved.  She was very ready.” In subsequent pages, Hansberry described lunches and dates with other women in terms of their beauty—“a grand smile and grand eyes.” In the new materials, evidence of several passionate relationships confirms the speculation sparked by the letters:  Hansberry not only subscribed to homophile magazines, including ONE, but also corresponded with several women with whom she clearly had intense physical relationships. 

To my knowledge, none of the presidential or civil rights scholarship, or African-American historiography has considered Hansberry’s lesbian desire.  At work on her biography, in the 1980s Margaret Wilkerson mentioned the 1957 letters to the Ladder, observing that they “raised the problem of a lesbian in a heterosexual marriage,” but that same year she separated from Nemiroff and they later divorced.  Because of Nemiroff’s intentions along with a broader scholarly silence, the complexities of Hansberry’s life have remained obscure.

The only exceptions to the silence of the closet came from a few gay and lesbian archivists and writers.  Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s 1972 lesbian anthology, Lesbian/Woman, referred indirectly to Hansberry, observing that “many black women who been involved in the homophile movement found themselves forced to make a choice between two ‘Causes’ that touched their lives so intimately,” and that “One of them wrote a play that was a hit on Broadway.”  Here they seek not only to acknowledge her as a pioneer but also reconstruct a more pluralistic genealogy of lesbian identity, posing the rhetorical question of why she mattered to them:  “Simple answer…Lorraine Hansberry was an early N.Y. DOB [New York Daughters of Bilitis] member, and she contributed to this magazine in its very earliest years.”  While she subscribed both to the Ladder and ONE, no evidence has surfaced of her participation in meetings, conferences, or other activities.  Yet lesbian archivists understandably desired to include the evidence of her desire in the record.  Archivist Barbara Grier responded to what she described as a “capsule ad” posted by Nemiroff and “offered her LADDER material,” but claimed that she did not receive a reply from him, which seems entirely plausible given his other decisions as executor of the estate. Some years later apparently Nemiroff, or perhaps another archivist, clipped the pages of Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History (pages 5 and 425) that reference her letters to the Ladder, and deposited them in her personal papers, but this was the extent of his ability or intentions to include, much less recognize in a public way, Hansberry’s enthusiasm for the homophile movement and passions for other women. 

Another act of queer genealogy—that is, attempting to document and claim the presumed straight figure as and for queer—appeared in a special 1979 issue of Freedomways, the black radical journal for which Hansberry had once worked.  Here the lesbian feminist poet, Adrienne Rich, figured Hansberry as a “problem,” insofar as she presented several complicated characteristics--“black, female, and dead”--and then Rich writes of her frustration that “the Hansberry papers are not simply accessible in an archive open to the public.”  Yet as a lesbian feminist immersed in essentialism of the time, Rich felt constrained as a white women looking at a black women, and awaited the eyes of a black feminist to examine these documents, citing the black lesbian scholar, Barbara Smith.  She then reminds readers of Hansberry’s correspondence with the Ladder and her mention in the lesbian anthology, Lesbian/Woman to consider the terms of the closet, or what she termed Hansberry’s “internal and external censors.”  Drawing on the letters and some of the “unpublished—Xerox copies of letter, interview transcripts, essay,” Rich retrieved a black lesbian genealogy that effectively outed Hansberry—aligning her with June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Linda Tillery among others.  Yet Hansberry’s closest friend was probably James Baldwin, forming a queer bohemian couple that comforted one another under the pressures of the limelight. 

Up until quite late, Hansberry appears unaware that she had cancer--the pain in her shoulders diagnosed as “calcium deposits” and the pain in her stomach as “ulcers.”  When she finally underwent treatment, her diary entries repeat the following:  “Great day but a queer day.  Much pain last night.  Took a Darvon; vomited was instantly relieved.  Went on Darvon…Thus a day free from physical discomfort.  She continued to travel from the upstate New York home and for two weeks in Cape Cod.  “Provincetown naturally,” wrote Hansberry.  On July 29, 1964 the entry began:  “Health:  not good.  Continue to lose weight.  Down to 107.”  “Frankly, things look rather poor.  But the truth is that I am so tired of hurting at this point that I wouldn’t mind something rather drastic.  I don’t mean operations.  I do mean death.  I feel as if I am being sucked away.”