To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

by Lorraine Hansberry, Robert Nemiroff

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After Lorraine Hansberry’s untimely death, Robert Nemiroff, her former husband and literary executor, edited versions of her writings and adapted them for the stage under the title To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. He also expanded that work into an informal autobiography of the same title. In Nemiroff’s words, the work is “biography and autobiography, part fact, part fiction, an act of re-creation utilizing first person materials as well as, inferentially, autobiographical projections of herself in her characters.”

“Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” James Baldwin said of To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. Characters from Hansberry’s plays, including the character of Lorraine Hansberry, portray and relate various strands of African American life in modern America. Walter Lee, for example, embodies the frustrations of black men trying to cope in an economic system that promises advancement but holds them back because of their race. His sister, Beneatha, is an example of the gifted, intelligent black woman (not unlike Hansberry herself) who aspires to participate fully in the American culture. She also, as does Asagai, the Africanist intellectual, strives to remember her African roots.

Then there is Sidney Brustein of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964), the play most represented in To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. Sidney, after leading a life of sleepy noncommitment, grows to care about himself and his society; he takes action, political and otherwise, to improve things. This sort of character growth, in one way or another apparent in all of Hansberry’s work, defines her own belief in the possibility for human goodness to prevail. It is this conviction that allows her to anticipate a healing of familial and social ills that comes when people are moved to dedicate themselves to change.

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black also addresses the deep connections between black Americans and emerging African nations, black empowerment, sexual relationships, the generation gap, and black art. Woven throughout To Be Young, Gifted, and Black is the character of Lorraine Hansberry herself, who, at the beginning of the work, states perhaps somewhat despairingly: “I was born on the South Side of Chicago. I was born black and female,” but by the end is proclaiming proudly, “My name is Lorraine Hansberry. I am a writer.” She has ceased allowing the ghetto, with its economic, social, and cultural deprivation, to define her. She has overthrown her enslavement by oppressive sexual stereotypes. In this, the character of Lorraine Hansberry and the playwright are one in the embodiment of a hope for the black race and the female sex. Just as they have, through commitment and perseverance, discovered and defined themselves in name and vocation, so, too, must their people insist on partaking of that vital experience and self-definition that leads to a discovery of self-worth, purpose, and genuine human sympathy.

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