May 18, 1930– The stories of Black Gay people are all too conveniently missing from the narrative of Gay History. Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin, who was a principal planner of MLK’s 1963 March On Washington continued to work for equal rights for decades while having his contribution pushed aside by fellow leaders of the movement. Duke Ellington’s songwriter Billy Strayhorn’s contributions to jazz history are missing. Many of the artists who were major players in the Harlem Renaissance have had their gay lives totally ignored.
Lorraine Hansberry parents fought & won a drawn out legal battle against Chicago’s housing segregation. Her father, a successful contractor & builder, bought a house in Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago to the ire of the white neighbors. The neighbor’s legal efforts to force the Hansberry family out culminated in the SCOTUS’s decision in Hansberry v. Lee. Hansberry’s father died in 1946, when she was 15 years old. Hansberry stated: “American racism helped kill him”. That struggle provided the inspiration for her greatest work, the classic play A Raisin In The Sun.
In 1950, still in her teens, Hansberry left the University Of Wisconsin & moved to NYC to work for Paul Robeson’s political journal Freedom. This is when she met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish folksinger, who would become her husband. Their connection was only briefly sexual, but they remained close friends & didn’t divorce until the end of her life. Hansberry was taken by cancer when she was just 34 years old, but during her short time in this world she was on a journey, personally & politically, towards sexual freedom & gender equality.
Hansberry never used the term “lesbian” primarily because she, like many others, was still in the process of developing the concept of such a clearly defined sexual identity. But she certainly had romances with several women & more tellingly, she was a member of the first ever lesbian political organization, The Daughters Of Bilitis, during an era when doing so made you a target for investigation by the FBI.
In the 1956 & 1957, Hansberry wrote a series of challenging commentaries for gay publications, including The Ladder, while she was busy writing A Raisin In The Sun. She was a prolific political writer & public speaker. She challenged the African-American community to consider the feminist cause & the fight against homophobia.
“I think it is about time that equipped women began to take on some of the ethical questions which a male-dominated culture has produced. There may be women to emerge who will be able to formulate a new & possible concept that homosexual persecution & condemnation has at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.”
Hansberry signed her writings with her initials. All writers who contributed to gay journals in the pre-Stonewall era used some sort of alias.
In a letter to the gay periodical ONE magazine, Hansberry stated:
“I have suspected for a good time that the homosexual in America would ultimately pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment of women. Men continue to misinterpret the second-rate status of women as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots.”
During this time, Hansberry finished writing & shopped around her glorious play A Raisin In The Sun. the title is taken from a line in a Langston Hughes poem:
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
The play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959. It proved was a great success & ran for 530 performances. It was the first play produced on Broadway by an African-American woman, & Hansberry was the first black playwright & the youngest to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. It starred Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee & Louis Gossett. The play was directed by Lloyd Richards, the first black director of a Broadway play. It was made into a film with most of the original stage cast in 1961. A musical version, Raisin, ran for 2 seasons & won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The groundbreaking drama was made into a TV film in 1989 & was revived on Broadway in 2004 with Sean Combs, Audra McDonald & Phylicia Rashad, winning 2 Tonys, & again a decade later with Denzel Washington & Sophie Okonedo, with 3 more Tony wins.
Hansberry was active in the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. Along with Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne & gay James Baldwin, Hansberry met with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to make the case for civil rights. Hansberry criticized white liberals who couldn’t accept civil disobedience, stating:
“The white liberal needs to stop being a liberal & become an American radical”.
Hansberry was taken by cancer in 1965. At her funeral in Harlem Paul Robeson gave the eulogy & read a message from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr:
“Her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.”
A collection of Hansberry’s writings were adapted into the play To Be Young, Gifted & Black, a hit Off-Broadway in the 1968-69 season. Both plays she wrote after Raisin In The Sun included gay characters.