What excited me about the small exhibition currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum featuring a sampling of letters and lists from the writer Lorraine Hansberry — along with a wonderful audio recording of a conversation between her and Studs Terkel — was the way in which it showcased her voracious intellect. While the show, titled Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to “The Ladder,” is primarily focused on a small selection of her missives to the first national subscription magazine for lesbians, what came across was her intense excitement at having discovered a new forum in which to think and converse aloud, even if under a disguised name, about concepts and ideas that were roiling inside of her. (Listen to a very brief excerpt from that Terkel interview here.)
Below are two excerpts from a letter Hansberry sent to The Ladder, signed simply “L.N.” and published in the August 1957 issue of the magazine:
“I am more convinced than ever of the depth and sincerity and—dignity—you people are determined to pursue your work with. I cannot tell you how encouraging it is.
It is time that ‘half the human race’ had something to say about the nature of its existence. Otherwise—without revised basic thinking—the woman intellectual is likely to find herself trying to draw conclusions—based on acceptance of a social moral superstructure which has never admitted to the equality of women and therefore is immoral itself.”
One of the difficulties many of us have in this world is being able to give voice to the thoughts we harbor within ourselves. Finding someone to whom you can divulge those concerns, hopes, and fears is the crux of much of Western society’s notion of romantic love and the heart of any serious friendship. But for someone who often leads with their mind, finding a person willing and able to engage with their deluge of thinking is another matter entirely. Even for a great writer and speaker, it’s clear from her use of initials in these letters, the disguising of names in her lists, and the fact that one of the most striking pieces of writing in the collection remained unpublished, that there were things she felt she could not share. Hansberry’s powerful intellect was contained within a body that our society still struggles to reconcile — that of a black woman, and in her case, a black woman who was also a lesbian. In some small way, The Ladder seems to have offered a unique outlet for her to further develop thoughts that she felt unable to express elsewhere.
The exhibition’s title refers to a quote from the 1959 conversation she had with Studs Terkel, a prominent writer and radio personality who is famous for his hundreds of recorded interviews with Americans from all walks of life. In that recording she states that “the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women,” because they were “twice oppressed” and so there was the potential for them to become “twice militant.” In her case, one might wonder if she was, in fact, “thrice militant,” given her sexuality.
Militance, however, is not what comes across in the words and images on display in the Herstory Gallery of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art on the fourth floor of the museum. Instead, I read joy, hesitation, ambition, frustration, righteousness, and genuine grappling in them. That’s not to dismiss the fierceness of her political beliefs and writing, but to say, what is presented on those pages is a human being struggling with both the limited world around her and the infinite universe within her.
In the letters to The Ladder displayed in the gallery, Hansberry struggles with the question of lesbians involved in heterosexual marriages (as she was for almost 10 years, with Broadway producer Robert Nemiroff), joins the debate on the question of butch or masculine lesbians being asked to assimilate into a more feminine mode of dress, and grapples with the sexism she sees in some gay men. In each instance her political and intellectual core shine through, as well as her desire to live up the ideals she held.
From her first letter to The Ladder, published in May 1957:
“As one raised in a subculture experience (I am a Negro) where those within were and are forever lecturing to their fellows about how to appear acceptable to the dominant social groups, I know something about the shallowness of such a view in and of itself…what ought to be clear is that one is oppressed or discriminated against because one is ‘different’, not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ This is perhaps the bitterest of the entire pill.”
From an unpublished 1961 essay titled “On Homophobia, The Intellectual Impoverishment of Women’ and a Homosexual ‘Bill of Rights’”:
“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 mis-interpret 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.”
And beyond these forceful letters, we have the rare chance to see the more personal side of Hansberry’s intellect through a series of lists she wrote each year recounting her likes, dislikes, regrets, hates, points of pride, and things she should like. After seeing those typewritten letters, deeply political but tinged with the personal, we see in these lists the deeply personal tinged with the political, this time written in her own hand. They are gorgeous, tough, and at times heartbreaking for their stripped-down honesty. She is so hard on herself, and so rigorous, even in her most private moments. Immediately they reminded me of the lists of Susan Sontag, born only three years after Hansberry but who outlived her by decades — two very different people, but two of the great American minds of the last century.
Infinitely quotable, it’s hard to choose just one favorite line from these annual portraits – “Myself in Notes.”
In 1959, at the age of 28, a few lines:
Conversations with James Baldwin
To be alone when I want to
To watch television very late at night
To be in love
From “And at 29:”
Jean Genet’s plays
Jean Paul Sartre’s writing
Not being able to write
Being hung over
as silly men
In 1961, at the age of 31:
the fact that I started keeping these notes when I was 23
In 1962, at the age of 32:
That love is really as elusive as everybody over 30 knows it to be
My consuming loneliness
All the friggin’ hurts in this world
That a certain lady let my letter be read!
The shallowness of the people who have come into (and lately been expelled from) my life.
69 when it really works
The first scotch
The fact that I almost never want the third or even the second when I am alone. Praise fate!
The inside of a lovely woman’s mouth
The way little JW looks in the movies
Her behind—those fresh little muscles
Parts of the lingering memory of a betrayer
I am proud
that I am losing some of those fears
that I struggle to work
against many, many things
and on my own
of my people
I should like
to be utterly, utterly in love
to work and finish something
What these lists show is that she was human, imperfect, frequently deeply lonely, but brilliant and ever-searching. Unfortunately only a couple of years after that last list was written, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died after two surgeries failed to remove the cancer.
Perhaps one of the most poignant public expressions of grief at the loss of such an incredible person is from Nina Simone, who wrote a song that bore the same name as the play, compiled from her papers by her ex-husband, which ran on Broadway after her death. In this live recording of Simone performing To Be Young, Gifted and Black, you hear her struggling with the loss of her friend but bringing forward her own politics as she grapples with her personal sense of loss. (You can also watch a different performance here, but it lacks the commentary and additional lyrics from the 1970 recording.)
“Life has a way of showing up [sic] why we should have cared all along.”
—from Hansberry’s unpublished 1961 essay mentioned above.
Twice Militant is on view at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art (200 Eastern Pkwy, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through March 16. A revival of Hansberry’s most famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, is also currently running on Broadway.
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