HERitage is a month-long, four-part series exploring the lasting legacies of Black lesbian, trans, and/or queer womyn.

Lorraine Hansberry (1930 – 1965) was an influential playwright and author. She wrote and spearheaded fundraising for the groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted at the Ethyl Barrymore Theater in 1959 making her the first African-American womyn to have her play produced on Broadway. Lorraine Hansberry was a regular fixture of the early sixties Greenwich Village intellectual scene, providing early Black feminist thought of the highest order.

Hansberry’s early life was spent in the white Washington Park section of Chicago, Illinois, which was at that time designated as a whites-only neighborhood. Her family frequently faced racist insults and harassment from their upper middle-class white neighbors, who eventually filed an injunction to evict the Hansberrys from their home. Her family fought back, taking their complaint to the United States Supreme Court in the landmark Hansberry v. Lee case which set the precedent that the white-privileging racial compacts in place at the time could be challenged in court, even in light of previous judgments.

While much of her adult life was spent married to producer and songwriter Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry became open about her queered identity and feminist politics through a series of anonymous letters written to the magazine of Daughters of Bilitis, The Ladder. Daughters of Bilitis is widely credited as the first lesbian rights organization in the United States; in her letter, Hansberry advocates for womyn’s spaces while injecting the idea of less binary notions of sexuality, asserting that she was comforted by her perception that the writers thought “that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations.” Lorraine Hansberry’s letters, both published in 1957, illustrate her desire for womyn to be at the forefront of the LGBT struggle for legal rights and socio-cultural change.

Hansberry’s letters to The Ladder leave the lesbian and queer women of the current generation with a ringing vote of confidence, as she states:

As per marriage, as per sexual practices, as per the rearing of children, etc. In this kind of work there may be women to emerge who will be able to formulate a new and possible concept that homosexual persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.

Hansberry’s belief that queer womyn would ultimately rise to the task of linking misogyny and homophobic oppression is one that has truly come to fruition in the work of later Black feminists and anti-misogyny thinkers of the 1960’s into the present day.

 – Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.

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Your go-to resource for all things empowering, thought-provoking, and pertinent to Black queer and trans women and non-binary people.

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