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Queering the borders: Lorraine Hansberrys 1957 Letters to The Ladder
Unformatted Document Text:  Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 11 Significantly, however, the fifties lesbian bar culture was a largely white working class space. 34 Oral histories, biography, and autobiography suggest that in many if not most U.S. cities, the bar culture by and large did not include black lesbians. In her autobiography Zami, for example, Audre Lorde describes thinking she and her friend were the only black lesbians in New York’s Greenwich Village: “it seemed that loving women was something that other Black women just didn’t do. And if they did, then it was in some fashion and in some place that was totally inaccessible to us, because we could never find them.” 35 Similarly, in Thorpe’s oral history of black lesbians in Detroit in the 1950s, African-American lesbians describe both overt and covert incidents of racism that left them feeling unwelcome or invisible in predominantly white bars. Thorpe’s history documents how Detroit black lesbians created semi-public spaces in the form of house parties to circumvent the racism of the white lesbian community and the homophobia of the black community. She writes: “One reason historians of lesbians have not been successful locating lesbians of color might be that they have assumed bars have been the center (both theoretical and actual) of lesbian communities.” 36 It was, however, to the Ladder’s discursive community, the only national lesbian counterpublic in existence at the time, that Hansberry addressed herself in 1957 while she was writing the play Raisin. Her first letter was published in May 1957, the 8 th issue of the nascent publication, and her second three months later in August. The letters are actually more like essays than letters and are longer than most of the other letters published in the Ladder: the May letter is approximately 840 words and the August letter roughly 1340 words. Following The Ladder’s editorial conventions, neither letter is addressed or signed by name -- the May letter is signed with the initials L.H.N., New York, and the August letter signed signed simply L.N., New York. In contrast to the rhetorical persona Hansberry used in her other writing (i.e. the name “Lorraine Hansberry”), however, in public letters to the Village Voice and the Ladder she 34 See Davis and Kennedy, 1989 and Faderman, 1991, and also Rochella Thorpe, “’A House Where Queers Go’: African-American Nightlife in Detroit, 1940-1975,” in Inventing Lesbian Cultures in America, ed. Ellen Lewin (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 40-61. 35 Audre Lord, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1982), 180. 36 Thorpe, 41.

Authors: Lipari, Lisbeth.
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Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 11
Significantly, however, the fifties lesbian bar culture was a largely white working class space.
34
Oral histories, biography, and autobiography suggest that in many if not most U.S. cities, the bar culture
by and large did not include black lesbians. In her autobiography Zami, for example, Audre Lorde
describes thinking she and her friend were the only black lesbians in New York’s Greenwich Village: “it
seemed that loving women was something that other Black women just didn’t do. And if they did, then it
was in some fashion and in some place that was totally inaccessible to us, because we could never find
them.”
35
Similarly, in Thorpe’s oral history of black lesbians in Detroit in the 1950s, African-American
lesbians describe both overt and covert incidents of racism that left them feeling unwelcome or invisible
in predominantly white bars. Thorpe’s history documents how Detroit black lesbians created semi-public
spaces in the form of house parties to circumvent the racism of the white lesbian community and the
homophobia of the black community. She writes: “One reason historians of lesbians have not been
successful locating lesbians of color might be that they have assumed bars have been the center (both
theoretical and actual) of lesbian communities.”
36
It was, however, to the Ladder’s discursive community, the only national lesbian counterpublic
in existence at the time, that Hansberry addressed herself in 1957 while she was writing the play Raisin.
Her first letter was published in May 1957, the 8
th
issue of the nascent publication, and her second three
months later in August. The letters are actually more like essays than letters and are longer than most of
the other letters published in the Ladder: the May letter is approximately 840 words and the August letter
roughly 1340 words. Following The Ladder’s editorial conventions, neither letter is addressed or signed
by name -- the May letter is signed with the initials L.H.N., New York, and the August letter signed
signed simply L.N., New York. In contrast to the rhetorical persona Hansberry used in her other writing
(i.e. the name “Lorraine Hansberry”), however, in public letters to the Village Voice and the Ladder she
34
See Davis and Kennedy, 1989 and Faderman, 1991, and also Rochella Thorpe, “’A House Where Queers Go’:
African-American Nightlife in Detroit, 1940-1975,” in Inventing Lesbian Cultures in America, ed. Ellen Lewin
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 40-61.
35
Audre Lord, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1982), 180.
36
Thorpe, 41.


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