17 May Lorraine Hansberry – Young, Gifted and Black
May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965
Folks of a certain age remember Nina Simone’s rendition of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, a ubiquitous force at proms and graduations, rallies and poetry fests during the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Simone’s artistry made the lyrics soar, she drew from the imagination and majesty of acclaimed playwright and essayist Lorraine Hansberry.
It was May 1, 1964 and Hansberry, addressing a group of student essay winners, extolled a vote of confidence. “I speak with you on this occasion because you are young, gifted and black.” It was an affirmation that resonated with Simone and became a mantra of that generation.
Those words embodied the life and works of the writer, adapted into a biographical play and a memoir after her death.
May marks the 90th anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry’s birth. Projecting the threats of being a Black woman in a society that would cast her away, Hansberry issues a simple four-prong literary manifesta, articulated in a letter to Robert Nemiroff, whom she would later marry.
I am a writer. I am going to write.
I am going to become a writer.
Any real contribution I can make to the movement can only be the result of a disciplined life. I am going to institute discipline in my life.
I can paint. I am going to paint.
For Hansberry her art and activism were inextricably linked — and she poured her talents into sustaining both. Generous with her pen, she joined the newspaper staff of Freedom, where she worked with W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson.
As a young journalist, Hansberry covered the Sojourners for Truth and Justice convened by Mary Church Terrell in Washington, DC. She also covered the case of Willie McGee, a Black man who was executed by Mississippi for alleging raping a White woman. That derailment of justice inspired 21-year-old Hansberry to write the poem Lynchsong.
Hansberry’s voice, rooted in antiracist activism, was global in scope. She exposed the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. And when her mentor Paul Robeson was denied his U.S. passport, she traveled on his behalf, attending an international peace conference in Uruguay.
Best known for Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry’s transcendent play portrayed the depth and emotions of spatial isolation and racism encountered by a working-class Black family struggling to attain the intangible “American Dream.”
Hansberry, a Chicago native, was the daughter of middle class parents whose lives were far removed from the economic struggles of Raisin’s Younger family. Yet she had first hand knowledge of the hatred entrenched and enforced in the city’s segregated neighborhoods.
When her family moved into a white area, they were greeted by a cement block thrown through a window that narrowly missed Hansberry’s head.
Hansberry, a beneficiary of the Harlem Renaissance and the explosion of Black Arts, was immersed in radical Black feminism in a period before the movement had even solidified. She was part of a celebrated cadre of political thought leaders, counting as compatriots James Baldwin and the elder statesman Langston Hughes, whose Dream Deferred, inspired the title of her acclaimed play.
A Raisin in the Sun is deservedly Hansberry’s best-known work because it transformed theater, shattering the reality of Black family life and American racism onto the Broadway stage. Raisin was the first play penned by a Black woman to appear on Broadway.
Hansberry’s work opened the cultural floodgates, providing a stage for Black actors, audiences and outlets and creating a space for later Black playwrights such as August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Suzan-Lori Parks, and others.
While Hansberry’s short hour on life’s stage was all too brief, her’s was a prolific voice that maximized every moment with pathos and meaning.
Listen to Young, Gifted and Black here
Check out other Hansberry works:
- A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
- A Raisin in the Sun, screenplay (1961)
- “On Summer” (essay) (1960)
- The Drinking Gourd (1960)
- What Use Are Flowers? (written c. 1962)
- The Arrival of Mr. Todog – a parody of Waiting for Godot
- The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964)
- The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1965)
- To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1969)
- Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays by Lorraine Hansberry. Edited by Robert Nemiroff (1994)
Imani Perry’s biography of Hansberry.
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry