Photo by Jordi Sevilla

Discussion recalls the role of black LGBT pioneers

5 mins read
Photo by Jordi Sevilla
Photo by Jordi Sevilla

An event on black LGBT who influenced social movements in the 20th century was held on Feb. 5 in the Rosenthal Library.

Lisa Davis, an organizer for the event, highlighted the role of such figures and what they represented.

“They are a heroic family with human flaws and triumphs. They are our history, often forgotten. Parts of their identities mocked or erased for other’s comfort and expediency,” Davis said.

Speakers for the event included Shawn(ta) Smith, a librarian at the Graduate Center of CUNY, and Maureen Pierce-Anyan, director of Minority Student Affairs.

Smith first spoke about playwright and writer Lorraine Hansberry, who was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930.

She is most famous for the play “A Raisin in the Sun.” It debuted on Broadway in 1959.

Hansberry was the first black woman to have a show on Broadway and the first African American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

However, less known is her work within socialist and feminist communities. Due to her radical beliefs, she was under surveillance by the FBI for such ties.

“Her nonfiction writings and speeches were paramount in her publications. By 1952, she became the associate editor of Freedom,” Smith said, referencing a black newspaper in Harlem.

Hansberry lived in Greenwich Village in 1950s, where no LGBT communities existed.

Moreover, the same year “A Raisin in the Sun” was released, she wrote letters to the second nationally distributed lesbian periodical called “The Ladder.”

There are discussions and writings, however, questioning whether or not Hansberry was a lesbian.

Smith recommends looking archives and begins the work of figuring out what it means to be defined as a famous black and lesbian writer. Confirmation of this idea would show, even in a time when coming out as homosexual was taboo, it is possible to excel in what you love.

“It takes the work of scholars and researchers to use the archival materials to uncover the depths of meaning that is left behind,” Smith said.

Pierce-Anyan spoke about Bayard Rustin, a key figure during the Civil Rights Movement. In 2013, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

“Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity and equality for all,” President Obama said.

Raised in a Quaker environment, which believed in reliability of the individual, Rustin believed in the sanctity of all life and all mankind are one.

Rustin was known as the man behind the march. He organized the march for jobs and freedom in 1963 in just eight weeks. He worked 12 hour days and logged countless logistical details.

Rustin also was anti-war as he spoke in 20 states to stop Americans from entering in World War II. He was jailed for his violation for the Selective Service Act and not helping the war effort. Rustin’s reason to protest did not come from being black or gay, but from his Quaker upbringing and the value for human dignity.

“I believe when an individual is protesting a society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very active protest, confers dignity on him,” Rustin said.

Rustin promoted non-violence because of his studies with Gandhi and his Quaker upbringing. He put the groundwork for the Southern Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization. He even convinced King to visit Mahatma Gandhi and adopt non-violence.

“He does not become part of the gay rights movement until the 1970s. He lived openly as a homosexual from his very beginnings. But he made it clear: his gayness took second priority to his other values,” Anyan said.

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