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Hansberry, Lorraine (1930-1965)  

As a part of her fight for social justice, playwright and political activist Lorraine Hansberry supported the emerging American lesbian liberation movement.

Hansberry was born May 19, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois to upper middle-class African-American parents who had a family history of dedication to political and social reform. She studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and attended the University of Wisconsin, Roosevelt College, and the University of Guadalajara in Mexico.

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Deciding that her future did not lie in the visual arts, in 1950 she went to New York City where she studied at the New School and in 1951 joined the staff of Freedom, a radical African-American journal. There she wrote articles and became associate editor in 1952. During this time, she met Robert Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953.

Her attendance at the International Peace Congress in Uruguay and her association there with women from other countries heightened her awareness of many issues, among them feminism. By 1957, she was coming out, privately though not publicly, as a lesbian. She and Nemiroff quietly separated in 1957 and were divorced in 1964, but maintained a close personal and professional relationship until her death from cancer in January 1965.

Hansberry's first complete play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, a first for an African American. It also marked the first time a black woman had a play produced on Broadway. Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), challenged the idea that African Americans should deal exclusively with black subjects.

Hansberry was terminally ill with cancer when this play went into rehearsal but was able intermittently to continue the political activism in which she was engaged her entire life. She also discussed her unfinished work at length with Nemiroff so that he might handle its appearance.

Lorraine Hansberry's life and work were distinguished by a commitment to ameliorating social injustice. Although she prioritized her attention in favor of black freedom and world peace, she also addressed the issue of gay liberation. In August 1957, she wrote two letters to the fledgling lesbian periodical, The Ladder, in which she supported the emerging American lesbian liberation movement. She endorsed women's need for their own publications and praised The Ladder.

Most interesting, she connected and antifeminism, calling for analyses of ethical questions implicit in the social and moral inequities produced by patriarchal culture. In these letters, she condemned homosexual persecution as having its roots in social ignorance but also speculated that it owed something to "a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma."

In The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, she links sexuality and creativity. Some critics have misread David, the homosexual character who is a dramatist, as a negative portrayal. However, in spite of his immaturity, he is a positive image of commitment, artistic creativity, and meaningful sexuality. He is humanly complex, and the play makes a plea for maturity in sexuality, whatever form it takes.

For Lorraine Hansberry, theater was a means of exploring inner conflicts and of demanding broader opportunities for the expression of human potential. Homosexuality was a subject about which she wrote and thought. When Margaret Wilkerson's biography, currently being written, appears, more will be known of the place of homosexuality in the dramatist's life. In any case, Hansberry's work gives evidence of her significant breaking away from stereotypical characterizations and of her willingness to take homosexuality seriously.

Dorothy H. Lee

     

 
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Lorraine Hansberry in 1959.
  
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    Bibliography
   

Bond, Jean Caron, ed. Lorraine Hansberry: Art of Thunder, Vision of Light. A special issue of Freedomways Magazine 19.4 (1969).

Chene, Anne. Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Hansberry, Lorraine. Letters to The Ladder 1.11 (August 1957): 26-30. Signed "LNN." Quoted in Jonathan Katz. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.

_____. "A Raisin in the Sun" and "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's" Window. New York: New American Library, 1966.

_____. To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Adapted by Robert Nemiroff. New York: New American Library, 1970.

Marre, Diana. "Lorraine Hansberry." Notable Black American Women. Jessie Carney Smith, ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. 452-457.

Wilkerson, Margaret B. "Excavating Our History: The Importance of Biographies of Women of Color." Black American Literature Forum 24 (1990): 73-84.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Lee, Dorothy H.  
    Entry Title: Hansberry, Lorraine  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 10, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/hansberry_l.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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