Lorraine Hansberry was one the most noted African American females of her time, author of Raisin in the Sun. Prior to her 1965 death, few would have linked the 1957 Letters to the Ladder to Hansberry. She lived her life as a “closeted” sexual person and “passed” as a heterosexual female, married to. On the other hand, Lisbeth Lipari evaluates the “discursive construction of Lorraine Hansberry, who, while widely regarded as a signifier for racial justice for close to fifty years, was not constructed as a queer signifier until after her death in 1965. Around 1976, Barbar Grier, the former editor of the lesbian periodical the Ladder, “publicly identified Hansberry as the author of two public letters published in the Letters in 1957” (220). “Three years later in a 1979 special issue of Freedomways dedicated to Hansberry, the lesbian poet and critic Adrienne Rich referred to the letters as a critical interrogation of the silences surrounding Hansberry and her work” (221).
Lipari’s essay is not a search for Lorraine Hansberry’s identity, but it is “to deepen our understanding of Hansberry’s rhetorical vision and her commitments to social and political transformation” (221). Lipari suggests that Hansberry had not received attention related to her position “as a public rhetor.” Hansberry has not received considers as a “public intellect” and is marginalized. “Documenting the omission of black lesbian writers in many anthologies of black women’s criticism and literature such as those Wallace, Washington, and hooks, Cheryl Clark writes, “Black bourgeois female intellectuals practice homophobia by omission more often than rabid homophobia” (223).
“In fact, Hansberry took on an astonishing range of political issues, all inflected with an intersection perspective, including racism, colonialism, sexism, capitalism, heterosexism, and black nationalism” (224). Lipari provides an analysis of the two letters which were published with the “initials L.H.N, Yew York, and the August letter signed simply L.N., New York” (229). Hansberry’s public voice was constrained and did not address her true “self.” Yet, Lipari provides a historical rhetorical assessment of the letters and their implications of the public and private individual. “Although Hansberry does not take up the issue of lesbian assimilation elsewhere in her published writing, she does acknowledge briefly in her August letter a June Ladder essay on “Transvestism,” which deepens the political analysis Hansberry had begun” (235).
“Thus, while valuable, the contributions of critical historiography that appropriately destabilize notions of the mythic individual are misappropriated when used to further erase or silence the contributions of marginalized speakers. . . . To affirm the contingency of the term “lesbian” in this case would be to recognize the complexity of Hansberry’s historicity as both a rhetor witnessing political persecution and as a person of history experiencing it” (241-242).