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Queering the borders: Lorraine Hansberrys 1957 Letters to The Ladder
Unformatted Document Text:  One of the challenges of queering historical public address is to resist the impulse to produce an account of a “real” queer figure which in the end simply produces yet another discursive formation. Public address scholars such as Morris have articulated the ambiguities of the queer rhetorical persona who evades easy identification. 1 An interesting example of this process can be seen in the discursive construction of Lorraine Hansberry who, while widely regarded as a signifier for racial justice for close to 50 years, was not constructed as a queer signifier until after her death in 1965. That “revelation” came about in 1976 when Barbara Grier, former editor of the lesbian periodical The Ladder, publicly identified Hansberry as the author of two public letters published in The Ladder in 1957. 2 Excerpts from the letters were then published in Katz’s 1976 edition of Gay American History. 3 Three years later in a 1979 special issue of Freedomways dedicated to Hansberry, the lesbian poet and critic Adrienne Rich referred to the letters in a critical interrogation of the silences surrounding Hansberry and her work. 4 Since then, Hansberry has been increasingly identified as a lesbian in lesbian/gay, African-American, and other literary biographies. But whereas from one perspective much has been made of the two Ladder letters – the fact of her speaking and the concurrent silencing of that speaking -- relatively little has been made about what Hansberry actually says in the letters or in her other writing that addresses sexuality. 5 Few critics link the Ladder letters to Hansberry’s other writings or address how Hansberry also wrote about gay experience and politics in two of her plays – the Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and Les Blancs. In this essay I 1 See Charles E. Morris III, “Contextual Twilight/Critical Liminality: J.M. Barrie’s Courage At St. Andrews, 1922,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 82 (1996): 207-227 and Charles E. Morris III, “’The Responsibilities of the Critic’ F.O. Matthiessen’s Homosexual Palimpsest,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 84 (1998): 261-282. 2 DeLano, Sharon, “An Interview with Barbara Grier,” Christopher Street, October 1976, 41-46. In the interview, Grier states: “We got a lot of early work from writers who went on to be very well known…we had work from Muriel Spark, Lorraine Hansberry…” 3 Jonathan Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (New York: Thomas Crowell Company,1976), 425. 4 Adrienne Rich. “The Problem of Lorraine Hansberry.” Freedomways 19 (Fourth Quarter 1979): 247-255. 5 One important exception is Barbara Smith’s introductory essay to the 1983 Home Girls, which quotes from one of the letters as a means to critique what she calls “anti-feminist myths.” Smith writes: “I would like a lot more people to be aware that Lorraine Hansberry, one of our most respected artists and thinkers, was asking in a Lesbian context some of the same questions we are asking today, and for which we have been so maligned.” Barbara Smith,

Authors: Lipari, Lisbeth.
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One of the challenges of queering historical public address is to resist the impulse to produce an
account of a “real” queer figure which in the end simply produces yet another discursive formation.
Public address scholars such as Morris have articulated the ambiguities of the queer rhetorical persona
who evades easy identification.
1
An interesting example of this process can be seen in the discursive
construction of Lorraine Hansberry who, while widely regarded as a signifier for racial justice for close
to 50 years, was not constructed as a queer signifier until after her death in 1965. That “revelation” came
about in 1976 when Barbara Grier, former editor of the lesbian periodical The Ladder, publicly identified
Hansberry as the author of two public letters published in The Ladder in 1957.
2
Excerpts from the letters
were then published in Katz’s 1976 edition of Gay American History.
3
Three years later in a 1979 special
issue of Freedomways dedicated to Hansberry, the lesbian poet and critic Adrienne Rich referred to the
letters in a critical interrogation of the silences surrounding Hansberry and her work.
4
Since then,
Hansberry has been increasingly identified as a lesbian in lesbian/gay, African-American, and other
literary biographies.
But whereas from one perspective much has been made of the two Ladder letters – the fact of her
speaking and the concurrent silencing of that speaking -- relatively little has been made about what
Hansberry actually says in the letters or in her other writing that addresses sexuality.
5
Few critics link the
Ladder letters to Hansberry’s other writings or address how Hansberry also wrote about gay experience
and politics in two of her plays – the Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and Les Blancs. In this essay I
1
See Charles E. Morris III, “Contextual Twilight/Critical Liminality: J.M. Barrie’s Courage At St. Andrews, 1922,”
The Quarterly Journal of Speech 82 (1996): 207-227 and Charles E. Morris III, “’The Responsibilities of the Critic’
F.O. Matthiessen’s Homosexual Palimpsest,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 84 (1998): 261-282.
2
DeLano, Sharon, “An Interview with Barbara Grier,” Christopher Street, October 1976, 41-46. In the interview,
Grier states: “We got a lot of early work from writers who went on to be very well known…we had work from
Muriel Spark, Lorraine Hansberry…”
3
Jonathan Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (New York: Thomas Crowell
Company,1976), 425.
4
Adrienne Rich. “The Problem of Lorraine Hansberry.” Freedomways 19 (Fourth Quarter 1979): 247-255.
5
One important exception is Barbara Smith’s introductory essay to the 1983 Home Girls, which quotes from one of
the letters as a means to critique what she calls “anti-feminist myths.” Smith writes: “I would like a lot more people
to be aware that Lorraine Hansberry, one of our most respected artists and thinkers, was asking in a Lesbian context
some of the same questions we are asking today, and for which we have been so maligned.” Barbara Smith,


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