Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was born on this day, May 19. She was 34 years old when she died after a two-year fight with pancreatic cancer. She is remembered for her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway in 1959, just six years before her death – and sometimes for her memoir, which was the inspiration for Nina Simone’s song of the same title, To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
To read excerpts from Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, click here:
Chicago: South Side Summers
from To Be Young, Gifted and Black
. . . All travelers to my city should ride the elevated trains that race along the back ways of Chicago. The lives you can look into! I think you could find the tempo of my people on their back porches. The honesty of their living is there in the shabbiness. Scrubbed porches that sag and look their danger. Dirty gray wood steps. And always a line of white and pink clothes scrubbed so well, waving in the dirty wind of the city. My people are poor. And they are tired. And they are determined to live. Our South side is a place apart: each piece of our living is a protest.
. . . Of love and my parents there is little to be written: their relationship to their children was utilitarian . . .
. . . Life was not a struggle − it was something that one did. One won an argument because, if facts gave out, one invented them − with color! The only sinful people in the world were dull people. And, above all, there were two things which were never to be betrayed: the family and the race. But of love, there was nothing ever said.
. . . Seven years separated the nearest of my brothers and sisters and myself; I wear, I am sure, the earmarks of that familial station to this day. Little has been written or thought to my knowledge about children who occupy that place: the last born separated by an uncommon length of time from the next youngest. I suspect we are probably a race apart.
The last born is an object toy which comes in years when brothers and sisters who are seven, ten, twelve years older are old enough to appreciate it rather than poke out its eyes. They do not mind diapering you the first two years, but by the time you are five you are a pest that has to be attended to in the washroom, taken to the movies and “sat with” at night. You are not a person − you are a nuisance who is not particular fun any more. Consequently, you swiftly learn to play alone. . . .
. . . Evenings were spent mainly on the back porches where screen doors slammed in the darkness with those really very special summertime sounds and, sometimes, when Chicago nights got too steamy, the whole family got into the car and went to the park and slept out in the open on blankets. Those were, of course, the best times of all because the grownups were invariably reminded of having been children in the South and told the best stories then. And it was also cool and sweet to be on the grass and there was usually the scent of freshly cut lemons or melons in the air. Daddy would lie on his back, as fathers must, and explain about how men thought the stars above us came to be and how far away they were. I never did learn to believe that anything could be as far away as that. Especially the stars. . . .
April 23, 1964
To the Editor,
The New York Times:
. . . The fact that my father and the NAACP “won” a Supreme Court decision, in a now famous case which bears his name in the law books, is − ironically − the sort of “progress” our satisfied friends allude to when they presume to deride the more radical means of struggle. The cost, in emotional turmoil, time and money, which led to my father’s early death as a permanently embittered exile in a foreign country when he saw that after such sacrificial efforts the Negroes of Chicago were as ghetto-locked as ever, does not seem to figure in their calculations. That is the reality that I am faced with when I now read that some Negroes my own age and younger say that we must now lie down in the streets, tie up traffic, do whatever we can − take to the hills with guns if necessary − and fight back. Fatuous people remark these days on our “bitterness.” Why, of course we are bitter. The entire situation suggests that the nation be reminded of the too little noted final lines of Langston Hughes’ mighty poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode? *
“Chicago: South Side Summers” from To Be Young, Gifted and Black, © 1995 by Robert Nemiroff as Executor of the Estate of Lorraine Hansberry – First Vintage Books Edition