On Thursday May 22, 2014, the Schomburg Center’s In the Life Archive series, Ordinary People, will feature the program Outing Lorraine, an engaging panel discussion about imposing gay and lesbian labels on public figures who never publicly identified as such. This conversation centers on playwright, activist and intellectual, Lorraine Hansberry. Panelists include Joi Gresham, Director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, Alexis de Veaux, writer, Steven G. Fullwood, curator, and moderatorShawn(ta) Smith, librarian and writer.
One panelist, Ms. Gresham, along with the moderator Shawn(ta) Smith, share their insights about their personal and professional connections to Hansberry’s work, and if the playwright’s sexuality matters, and if so, to whom and why.
I am connected to Lorraine through the blended family that she created in her life and that she left behind when she died. My father, Robert Nemiroff, before meeting and marrying my mother, formed a close partnership with Lorraine in a marriage that lasted ten years and a deep friendship and creative collaboration that is actually still evolving as we look at and learn to appreciate its scope. An only child, I grew up as part of that family — a direct beneficiary and guardian of her legacy. I was trained in the theater from a very early age—benefitting from a close affinity with Lorraine and drawn to her artistry. My primary career has been in dance. I would say that Lorraine has deeply influenced and informed my work and creativity. I would also say that growing up inside of Lorraine’s creative realm has profoundly affected multiple and all aspects of my identity as an individual and as an artist. Lorraine was dedicated to art as a weapon in the struggle for human liberation and greater human understanding. She saw this as her fundamental calling as an artist. Her personal identity was factored into this as was her commitment to human service and an unreserved opposition to narcissism and vanity. In this regard, she was vehement.
As we think about Lorraine’s sexuality and its importance I would say that to her, in general — someone’s status doesn’t matter — as much as how they construct their identity. It is part of a larger continuum of personal and social liberation. Lorraine was a person who carried multiple identities. Inside of any of those identities she steadily challenged the like-minded to bring a political examination to their engagement, to think about the broader human agency in their actions and encouraged all to focus on contributing to the larger movement of social transformation and civil rights.
Librarians are engaged in the information life-cycle, and I enjoy the work of disseminating information to students and researchers. As an archivist and scholar, however, I am challenged with the notion of “content creation.” In essence, we all have the power to re-interpret, create, and sometimes even, manipulate what others deem as information.
There has been an erasure in our encyclopedias and history books on the African American experience and the contributions that African Americans have made in US History. The erasure of peoples of LGBT experience from history stems from this same act. We – black people, black LGBT people, black librarians, archivists, women, activists, scholars, and queer – are finally in a place of power and access to not only (re)write our histories, (re)claim our rich narratives, but ultimately, to right the wrongs bestowed upon us for generations. It is time to fill in the blanks of these systemic erasures.
In respect to the conversation of “Outing Lorraine,” this concept of “outing” assumes the existence of shaming those who choose to bring to light a more complete and true Lorraine Hansberry. Being silent when information is clearly laid out before us is a worse crime than erasure. We know that Hansberry was married to a Communist. We know that Hansberry had an FBI file years before Raisin in the Sun was debuted. We also know that Hansberry was involved in lesbian feminist social networks. As responsible scholars and researchers, it is our duty to make connections to these, until recently, disparate points of Hansberry’s life. None of these facets are unrelated; Hansberry’s alliance and social networks with white lesbian feminists provides an added layer of complexity to any implied intentions for her work. Deepening the understanding of Hansberry’s life in mid-twentieth century McCarthy era, by using the analytical tools and access of African American and LGBT scholars and archivists today, the more lessons we as a global nation may receive from Hansberry’s work tomorrow.