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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, 24 Browne, for example, summarizes Grimke’s abiding principles of human rights as: “All human beings posses rights because they are moral beings; All human rights are essentially the same because moral natures is essentially the same…Sex, being incidental, is subordinate to the primary and essential rights of moral being.” 70 Hansberry is thus moving beyond the ethico-political domain of rights claims and into to the ethico-political domain of moral possibility and imagination.– a move from deontic spheres of moral duty and obligation to epstemic spheres of radical moral possibility. Thus Hansberry is not to be understood as an essentialist -- she is not arguing that women are different because of biological difference, but rather because of historically specific social location, in particular the social context of oppression. The argument in this letter echoes somewhat the debates Hansberry engaged about Raisin where she was accused of (or lauded for, depending on the audience) celebrating a depoliticized and decontextualized transcendent universality. But to Hansberry, historical specificity is, paradoxically, the ground and basis of universality. For example, in her 1959 speech, after riffing on the glorious potentialities of “man,” she sets herself, personally, in historical context of extradordinary specificity: “I was born on the South Side of Chicago, I was born black and a female. I was born in a depression after another. While I was still in my teens the first atom bombs were dropped on human beings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and by the time I was twenty-three years old my government and that of the Soviet Union had entered actively in the worst conflict of nerves in human history.” 71 Similarly, when Studs Terkel asks how she responds to the claim that Raisin “is not really a Negro play,” she responds: “I believe one of the soundest ideas in dramatic writing is in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific. Universality, I think emerges, from truthful identity of what is. In other words, I have told people that not only is the play about a Negro family, specifically and culturally, but it’s not even a New York family or a southern Negro family – it is specifically Southside Chicago. To the extent we accept them and believe them as who they’re supposed to be, to that extent they can become 70 Stephen Browne, Angelina Grimke: Rhetoric, Identity, & the Rhetorical Imagination, (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1999), 108. 71 Hansberry, 1981, 11.

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Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 24
Browne, for example, summarizes Grimke’s abiding principles of human rights as: “All human beings
posses rights because they are moral beings; All human rights are essentially the same because moral
natures is essentially the same…Sex, being incidental, is subordinate to the primary and essential rights
of moral being.”
70
Hansberry is thus moving beyond the ethico-political domain of rights claims and into
to the ethico-political domain of moral possibility and imagination.– a move from deontic spheres of
moral duty and obligation to epstemic spheres of radical moral possibility. Thus Hansberry is not to be
understood as an essentialist -- she is not arguing that women are different because of biological
difference, but rather because of historically specific social location, in particular the social context of
oppression. The argument in this letter echoes somewhat the debates Hansberry engaged about Raisin
where she was accused of (or lauded for, depending on the audience) celebrating a depoliticized and
decontextualized transcendent universality. But to Hansberry, historical specificity is, paradoxically, the
ground and basis of universality. For example, in her 1959 speech, after riffing on the glorious
potentialities of “man,” she sets herself, personally, in historical context of extradordinary specificity: “I
was born on the South Side of Chicago, I was born black and a female. I was born in a depression after
another. While I was still in my teens the first atom bombs were dropped on human beings at Nagasaki
and Hiroshima, and by the time I was twenty-three years old my government and that of the Soviet Union
had entered actively in the worst conflict of nerves in human history.”
71
Similarly, when Studs Terkel
asks how she responds to the claim that Raisin “is not really a Negro play,” she responds: “I believe one
of the soundest ideas in dramatic writing is in order to create the universal, you must pay very great
attention to the specific. Universality, I think emerges, from truthful identity of what is. In other words, I
have told people that not only is the play about a Negro family, specifically and culturally, but it’s not
even a New York family or a southern Negro family – it is specifically Southside Chicago. To the extent
we accept them and believe them as who they’re supposed to be, to that extent they can become
70
Stephen Browne, Angelina Grimke: Rhetoric, Identity, & the Rhetorical Imagination, (East Lansing: Michigan
State University, 1999), 108.
71
Hansberry, 1981, 11.


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