- Analyze the connection between civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights.
- Examine the role African-American women played in the movements for racial, gender, and sexual equality.
- Explore the overlap and interplay between the ideas and activism that shaped the multiple political movements that materialized after World War II.
- What does it mean to “straight-wash” a historical figure?
- What is the relationship between the civil rights movement and gay rights activism?
- How do activists simultaneously participate in multiple political movements?
- What do Hansberry’s writings and life illuminate about the intersections among civil rights, women’s liberation, and the historic struggle for LGBT equality?
This lesson is part of The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement series. This series introduces students to four lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people of African descent, and their allies. All four—James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin—were indispensable to the ideas, strategies and activities that made the civil rights movement a successful political and social revolution.
In this lesson, students will examine the battle over how history has remembered one of America’s important mid-20th century playwrights. Some African-American scholars consider Lorraine Hansberry to be a literary genius because she masked radical black politics through the construction of seemingly unthreatening African-American characters. Her 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun blazed a trail for African Americans into mainstream theatre and entertainment. While Hansberry has long been recognized as a significant figure in black history, less is known about her advocacy for lesbian and gay rights. Hansberry’s sexual orientation remains a mystery to those interested in studying her life and subversive politics. Hansberry’s sexual politics and advocacy for LGBT rights is the subject of this lesson.
Creating a Timeline
Read the Lorraine Hansberry Biography. Then, complete the Life of Lorraine Hansberry handout. Use the biography to fill in the timeline about Hansberry’s life and achievements (Note: List of events included for instructor.)
After reading the “Lorraine Hansberry Biography” and completing the timeline, use the document and context that is provided to define the following: A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry v. Lee, Daughters of Bilitis, and The Ladder.
Close and Critical Reading
- Read “Lorraine Hansberry’s Gay Politics,” independently.
- While reading, highlight passages where the writer discusses Hansberry’s thoughts about race, gender, or sexuality. Ask yourself the following questions: How does the author use the term “straight-wash”? Is the term applicable to Hansberry’s life and legacy? What does the term “straight-wash” mean or imply?
- After you have finished reading and highlighting your passages, discuss the questions and the text you selected as an entire class. Be ready to explain why you chose the passages you selected.
1. With a partner, read “Lorraine Hansberry: To The Ladder.” Discuss the connection Hansberry makes between sexual and gender oppression. How does she differentiate between the two? What similarities does she acknowledge? Do you think that Hansberry was a LGBT person or simply an ally to the LGBT community? Use the text to support your answers.
2. After reading and discussing the document, select a quote to share with the class. Write a brief explanation why you selected the passage, as well as what it reveals about Lorraine Hansberry’s complicated political beliefs.
Write to the Source
Based on the sources, write a brief biography of Lorraine Hansberry. Use the biography you read as a model, but add the information learned from the newspaper article and primary source. Do the three documents paint the same portrait of Hansberry, or are they different? What explains the inconsistencies you identify? Your biography should capture Hansberry’s complexity and include a discussion about her sexual politics. It should also discuss the connection that Hansberry saw among civil rights for African Americans, women’s liberation, and gay and lesbian rights. Should we consider Hansberry’s sexual politics to be ahead of her time? Where would Hansberry’s political beliefs fit in today’s society? If Hansberry were still alive, do you think she would be a controversial figure?
During Black History Month organize a student committee that will focus on ensuring that LGBT people are included in the events planned at your school. Start by finding an adult who can serve as your group advisor. Conduct research about African-American LGBT people. Compile a list based on what you discover. Choose 10 individuals from the list. Write one-paragraph biographies of each person including information about birth, death, organizational affiliations, life accomplishments and historical contributions. Select an image to accompany each biography. If possible, post your final biographies in a visible place in your school’s main hallway. You may also create a short, optional interactive quiz that participants in the history walk will complete as they read about each individual.