“I wish to live because life has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful, and that which is love. Therefore, since I have known all these things, I have found them to be reason enough and — I wish to live. Moreover, because this is so, I wish others to live for generations and generations and generations and generations.”
–Lorraine Hansberry, March 1, 1959
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black is a unique autobiography — unique because it was written posthumously. All of the words are Hansberry’s, from excerpts of her plays and fragments of works in progress to the letters she wrote to fans to entries in her journal. As is the artwork, which include self portraits, sketches and photos. Gathered, edited, and compiled by her husband and publisher Robert Nemiroff after her death, with an introduction from her good friend James Baldwin, Young, Gifted, and Black sings of Hansberry’s optimism in and passion for humanity.
What is so astoundingly refreshing about Young, Gifted, and Black is Hansberry’s vivid sincerity. Often, while lost in the pages, I felt as if Hansberry were writing directly to me, almost as an aunt sharing stories of life and lessons learned while cooking in the kitchen or doing hair.
“Eventually, it comes to you: the thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely….” says Hansberry in one of her journal entries, almost as though she were gazing in the mirror at herself and seeing me reflected over her shoulder. How poignant a statement being made to me, someone who has tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to be exceptional and social at the same time.
Hansberry wrote frequently of her struggle to write, how hard and lonely it could be at times as she strove to find exactly what messages she wanted to say about the human experience, in particular, the African-American experience, in her works. Baldwin suggested Hansberry may have even sacrificed her health and well-being for her art.
Despite the struggles, Hansberry encouraged others — encourages me — to push through the barriers of their art and transform their circumstances as the tools needed to mine real treasures from the world around them.
At the award ceremony for the winners of the United Negro College Fund’s writing contest in 1964, Hansberry coined the phrase that titles her autobiography. She goes on to say, “though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing merely to be young and gifted in such a time, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic–to be young, gifted and black!” She exhorted writers to write about the world around them, both as it appeared and as it should appear. For Hansberry, there was nothing more important.
I believe Young, Gifted, and Black is a must read for anyone, white or black, in search of a reinvigorated morale in either their art or their society — or both!
Six years after speaking the words quoted at the beginning of this piece at a black writers conference, Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34. During the short span of her career, she completed only two major works, A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered in 1959 and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which premiered in October of 1964 and closed the night she passed away. But she left many pieces behind, all of which are drenched in a legacy brimming with hope for what could be and should be.