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Young, Gifted and Black: who was Lorraine Hansberry?

Lorraine Hansbery

Lorraine Hansberry © Bettmann/CORBIS

To be young, gifted and black,
Oh what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black,
Open your heart to what I mean

In 1969, Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine sat at a piano and turned an unfinished play into a civil rights anthem. That song, ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, would be Simone’s second-highest charting single, covered by Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Bob and Marcia and a million other voices in Black America’s struggle for freedom. The song’s protagonist was Lorraine Hansberry: playwright, activist, and godmother to Simone’s daughter. She had died four years earlier of pancreatic cancer, aged just 34.

In the whole world you know
There are billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that’s a fact!

Hansberry was born in 1930, the youngest of four children, to successful real estate broker, Carl Augustus Hansberry, and school teacher Nannie Louise Hansberry (nee Perry). Her family were illustrious. Her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, founded the African Civilization section at the history department of Howard University. Her cousin, Shauneille Perry, was one of the first African American women to direct off-Broadway. When Hansberry was eight years old, her father moved the entire family to a whites-only area in Chicago and won a landmark case against furious locals in the Supreme Court.

Hansberry had a middle-class upbringing. Her family were involved in activism, and her childhood home was visited by black intellectuals, including the historian, sociologist and author, W E B  Du Bois, and singer, actor and athlete, Paul Robeson. It would not be long before Hansberry herself was a well known and influential polymath.

Young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
This is a quest that’s just begun

Between graduating from high school in 1948 and enrolling at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hansberry campaigned on the presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry A Wallace and studied painting at the University of Guadalajara. By 1950, she had moved to New York to study at the New School – another year later, she was writing for the black newspaper, Freedom.

The activism that would drive Hansberry’s work as a playwright was there in her journalism and study. She wrote in support of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and covered the case of William McGee, a black man executed for the rape of a white woman, convicted by an all-white jury in less than three minutes. Her former classmate, Bob Teague, said ‘She was the only girl I knew who could whip together a fresh picket sign with her own hands, at a moment’s notice, for any cause or occasion.’

When you feel really low
Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know
When you’re young, gifted and black
Your soul’s intact

Hansberry’s soul, and the soul of the civil rights movement, came through in her work. Only two of her plays were ever performed during her lifetime. In 1959, Hansberry transformed her family’s struggles in a white Chicago neighbourhood into A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by a black woman to make it to Broadway, where it was named the year’s best by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. Hansberry was 29.

Her second, The Sign in Sidney Brunstein’s Window, was inspired by her nine-year marriage to producer Robert Nemiroff. Like Raisin, it deals with the theme of race, but also encompasses gender and sexuality; Hansberry’s private letters suggest that she was lesbian – she has been posthumously honoured by the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. The play ran for 101 performances. It closed the day she died.

Les Blancs did not receive its Broadway premiere until five years later. It tells the story of Tshembe, who returns to an unnamed African country from England for his father’s funeral. In it, Hansberry explores identity, revolution and colonialism, looking at the individual, the family and the nation. It was not the only piece that Hansberry had left behind her – her ex-husband, Nemiroff, put the finishing touches to a number of pieces, including The Drinking Gourd, What Use Are Flowers? and an adaptation of numerous works, titled To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

Young, gifted and black
How I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth

Throughout her career, Hansberry was driven by her activism and desire for social justice. Her father had died of a cerebral haemorrhage when she was just 15 years old – she said that ‘American racism helped kill him’. The struggle pervaded her work up to and beyond her own death at a tragically young age. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1963, and died two years later, on 12 January 1965, aged 34.

She leaves behind her a powerful body of work, both contemporary and posthumous, has entered a host of hall-of-fame lists and given her name to schools and university campuses. Through these, through songs and through her work, Lorraine Hansberry will continue to live on for many lifetimes.

Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and black
Is where it’s at.

Go to the Les Blancs show page