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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, 2 will read the letters in their historical context as well as in relation to a number of her key texts that cross a range of genres including plays, political speeches, letters and essays. My aim is to deepen our understanding of Hansberry’s rhetorical vision and her commitments to social and political transformation. The object of this paper is thus not to investigate Hansberry’s “private” self in search of her “true” sexual identity. Rather, I follow the path of cultural and queer studies that view identities as, in Stuart Hall’s phrase, “necessary fictions.” As Bravmann describes it, identities are seen as “temporary but compelling fabrications that are remade through the actively inventive projects of political mobilization and social movements, rather than as antecedent, immutable, essential truths.” 6 My argument, however, is not that Hansberry or her sexual life did not exist – history is, lives happen. The heavily occluded historical record suggests that Hansberry did articulate and theorize lesbian experience and that she had women lovers. 7 But rather than undergo a search for evidence of Hansberry’s personal identity, I will instead explore Hansberry’s publicly constructed rhetorical voice for its articulations of counter-hegemonic perspectives on sexuality, race, gender, and class. For in spite of her decision to stay closeted throughout her short life, Hansberry nevertheless articulated a vital lesbian political ethos. 8 Further, her passing as heterosexual can be understood as an example of what Morris calls a rhetorical tactic of resistance. “For certain individuals, passing constitutes the public expression of homosexual double-consciousness, a measured and strategic form of straight masking employed to resist, and not merely survive, homophobic oppression.” 9 Thus by interpreting the Ladder letters in the relation to Hansberry’s other writing as well as their historical context in the 1950s homophile movement, I “Introduction,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983), xxxi. 6 Scott Bravmann, Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 23. 7 According to the journalist Elise Harris, Hansberry had several affairs with women in New York in the late 50s and early 60s, the longest with a woman named Dorothy Secules, a secretary who lived in Hansberry’s building in Greenwich Village. Elise Harris, “The Double Life of Lorraine Hansberry,” Out, September 1999, 96-101, 174-175. 8 An intriguing but unexplored acknowledgment of this is offered in a critical analysis of Hansberry’s drama that quotes Robert Nemiroff stating that “Hansberry’s ‘homosexuality’ was not a peripheral or casual part of her life but contributed significantly on many levels to the sensitivity and complexity of her view of human beings and of the world.” Stephen R. Carter, Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment amid Complexity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 6.

Authors: Lipari, Lisbeth.
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Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 2
will read the letters in their historical context as well as in relation to a number of her key texts that cross
a range of genres including plays, political speeches, letters and essays. My aim is to deepen our
understanding of Hansberry’s rhetorical vision and her commitments to social and political
transformation. The object of this paper is thus not to investigate Hansberry’s “private” self in search of
her “true” sexual identity. Rather, I follow the path of cultural and queer studies that view identities as,
in Stuart Hall’s phrase, “necessary fictions.” As Bravmann describes it, identities are seen as “temporary
but compelling fabrications that are remade through the actively inventive projects of political
mobilization and social movements, rather than as antecedent, immutable, essential truths.”
6
My
argument, however, is not that Hansberry or her sexual life did not exist – history is, lives happen. The
heavily occluded historical record suggests that Hansberry did articulate and theorize lesbian experience
and that she had women lovers.
7
But rather than undergo a search for evidence of Hansberry’s personal
identity, I will instead explore Hansberry’s publicly constructed rhetorical voice for its articulations of
counter-hegemonic perspectives on sexuality, race, gender, and class. For in spite of her decision to stay
closeted throughout her short life, Hansberry nevertheless articulated a vital lesbian political ethos.
8
Further, her passing as heterosexual can be understood as an example of what Morris calls a rhetorical
tactic of resistance. “For certain individuals, passing constitutes the public expression of homosexual
double-consciousness, a measured and strategic form of straight masking employed to resist, and not
merely survive, homophobic oppression.”
9
Thus by interpreting the Ladder letters in the relation to
Hansberry’s other writing as well as their historical context in the 1950s homophile movement, I
“Introduction,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table, Women
of Color Press, 1983), xxxi.
6
Scott Bravmann, Queer Fictions of the Past: History, Culture, and Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1997), 23.
7
According to the journalist Elise Harris, Hansberry had several affairs with women in New York in the late 50s and
early 60s, the longest with a woman named Dorothy Secules, a secretary who lived in Hansberry’s building in
Greenwich Village. Elise Harris, “The Double Life of Lorraine Hansberry,” Out, September 1999, 96-101, 174-175.
8
An intriguing but unexplored acknowledgment of this is offered in a critical analysis of Hansberry’s drama that
quotes Robert Nemiroff stating that “Hansberry’s ‘homosexuality’ was not a peripheral or casual part of her life but
contributed significantly on many levels to the sensitivity and complexity of her view of human beings and of the
world.” Stephen R. Carter, Hansberry’s Drama: Commitment amid Complexity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
1991), 6.


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