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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, 17 mindless conformity. “What ought to be clear is that one is oppressed or discriminated against because one is different, not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ somehow. This perhaps the bitterest of the entire pill.” But after offering this eloquent critique of assimilation, Hansberry turns toward the brighter sun of pragmatism by offering a “critical view of revolutionary attitudes which …may tend to aggravate the problems of a group” and thus returns to her argument in favor of assimilation: “I have long since passed that period when I felt personal discomfort at the sight of an ill-dressed or illiterate Negro. Social awareness has taught me where to lay the blame. Someday, I expect, the ‘discreet’ Lesbian will not turn her head on the streets at the sight of the ‘butch’ strolling hand in hand with her friend in their trousers and definitive haircuts. But for the moment, it still disturbs. It creates an impossible area for discussion with one’s most enlightened (to use a hopeful term) heterosexual friends.” As with her plays, Hansberry here offers a dialogic approach to her argument – she explicates contending perspectives in a way that vivifies and strengthens her argument. But she is also willing to acknowledge that her perspective may not be “right.” Thus Hansberry’s moral imagination, while set on a focused set of liberatory ends, is not unyielding with regard to questions of means. She wants to discover the “way” collectively, in dialogue with others of her community (as, she remarks, her enlightened friends cannot). Her equivocation, however, speaks not just to hear moral imagination, but also to the fact that Hansberry’s “double-consciousness” was not nor could ever be only, or even primarily, as a lesbian, but as an African-American woman, Here, as for other African-American queers, the complexities of intersectional politics come to foreground. The gay-baiting of the McCarthy period exacted a steep price for not just for queer radicalism but also for radicals in the civil rights movement gay or straight, including the brilliant gay activist Bayard Rustin (organizer of the 1963 March on Washington) and student, ostensibly straight, activist John Lewis (chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) who was forced to revise his radical speech at the 1963 March. 53 In fact, an interview with 52 Ibid., 27. 53 John D’Emilio, "Homophobia and the Trajectory of Postwar American Radicalism: The Career of Bayard Rustin," in. Modern American Queer History, ed. Allida M. Black (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001). Neil

Authors: Lipari, Lisbeth.
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Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 17
mindless conformity. “What ought to be clear is that one is oppressed or discriminated against because
one is different, not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ somehow. This perhaps the bitterest of the entire pill.” But after
offering this eloquent critique of assimilation, Hansberry turns toward the brighter sun of pragmatism by
offering a “critical view of revolutionary attitudes which …may tend to aggravate the problems of a
group” and thus returns to her argument in favor of assimilation: “I have long since passed that period
when I felt personal discomfort at the sight of an ill-dressed or illiterate Negro. Social awareness has
taught me where to lay the blame. Someday, I expect, the ‘discreet’ Lesbian will not turn her head on the
streets at the sight of the ‘butch’ strolling hand in hand with her friend in their trousers and definitive
haircuts. But for the moment, it still disturbs. It creates an impossible area for discussion with one’s most
enlightened (to use a hopeful term) heterosexual friends.”
As with her plays, Hansberry here offers a dialogic approach to her argument – she explicates
contending perspectives in a way that vivifies and strengthens her argument. But she is also willing to
acknowledge that her perspective may not be “right.” Thus Hansberry’s moral imagination, while set on a
focused set of liberatory ends, is not unyielding with regard to questions of means. She wants to discover
the “way” collectively, in dialogue with others of her community (as, she remarks, her enlightened
friends cannot). Her equivocation, however, speaks not just to hear moral imagination, but also to the fact
that Hansberry’s “double-consciousness” was not nor could ever be only, or even primarily, as a lesbian,
but as an African-American woman, Here, as for other African-American queers, the complexities of
intersectional politics come to foreground. The gay-baiting of the McCarthy period exacted a steep price
for not just for queer radicalism but also for radicals in the civil rights movement gay or straight,
including the brilliant gay activist Bayard Rustin (organizer of the 1963 March on Washington) and
student, ostensibly straight, activist John Lewis (chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee) who was forced to revise his radical speech at the 1963 March.
53
In fact, an interview with
52
Ibid., 27.
53
John D’Emilio, "Homophobia and the Trajectory of Postwar American Radicalism: The Career of Bayard Rustin,"
in. Modern American Queer History, ed. Allida M. Black (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001). Neil


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