Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, writer and equal rights activist, is shown on May 5, 1959. Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, has won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959. (AP Photo)
Lorraine Hansberry stands as one of the most important African-American playwrights of all time, catapulting into fame by way of her celebrated Broadway play, A Raisin In The Sun. While many knew Hansberry was married to fellow writer Robert Nemiroff, it was later revealed via letters to a magazine for lesbians that the playwright struggled with her sexuality. In an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, the letters are on display for the public.
The exhibit, “Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder,” has been showing at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Herstory Gallery since last November, with just two weeks remaining. The Village Voice reported on the story behind the letters, where Hansberry found herself at a crossroads with her career and her outward image. At 29, Hansberry became the become the youngest American and the first Black playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.
Although fame would find and remain with her until her untimely passing at age 34 from pancreatic cancer, Hansberry wrote at length in two anonymous letters to The Ladder, the first subscription-based magazine for lesbians in the country. In these letters Hansberry finally found a safe place for her to express her innermost thoughts on a lifestyle she largely kept hidden from view.
Hansberry’s two letters to The Ladder — more than two dozen issues of which are on display — evince the thrill of a writer having an outlet to discuss at length observations, about herself and lesbians in general, that could not otherwise be voiced publicly. The tone of her first epistle to the magazine, from May 1957, is particularly irrepressible: “I’m glad as heck that you exist,” she writes, before commending the editors as “obviously serious people.” Though “I” buoyantly appears throughout, this first missive, like the second, also concludes with identity-masking initials: “L.H.N.,” for Lorraine Hansberry Nemiroff. (As the concise wall text notes, by 1957, the year Hansberry wrote her Ladder missives, she was living alone in Greenwich Village, “having quietly separated from” Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953. They divorced in 1964 but remained close and continued to collaborate until her death.)
The “Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder” exhibit will remain at the Herstory Gallery until March 16. For more information, click here.