I don’t know about you, but with everything going on, especially these past few months, I’ve been thinking about death…a lot. Not really in a morbid sense, but rather, as a way of reflecting on the importance of living well with whatever time I’ve been given in this bodily form; of using my gifts wisely to fulfill my soul’s destiny.
I think that Chadwick Boseman, the young king who reflected black greatness in the roles he chose to take on, from his portrayal of legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), to the King of Soul, James Brown, in Get On Up (2014), to Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017), to King T’Challa in Black Panther(2018) to Stormin in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020), to most recently, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (to be released posthumously) lived his life well.
As you know Boseman had been with us a mere 43 years before he found his place amongst the ancestors. His legacy is strong and assured.
Another genius soul whose legacy is also strong and assured, even if we don’t call her name quite as often anymore, is Lorraine Hansberry. Perhaps I was trying to come to terms with Boseman’s passing when I picked up her book that had been sitting at my bedside for more than a year: To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1995).
Although it left me really sad, I’m so glad I did.
Hansberry, like Boseman, left us after bestowing us with gifts that have lived on well beyond her short time on this earth.
She was here for only 34 years before she succumbed to pancreatic cancer, but only after she’d given us A Raisin in the Sun and Les Blancs (2004), among other works (1995). If you haven’t seen at least a couple of interpretations of A Raisin in the Sun in your lifetime then I would venture to say you‘ve been living under a rock.
Besides sensing a deep loss, by the end of YGB I was and remain convinced that Hansberry was a prophet. Of course, as I heard Rev. angel Kyodo williams tell Krista Tippett the other day, prophets are actually speaking about the present. The problem is that the vast majority of us are living in the past. Hansberry bore witness to the ills of this country during her short lifetime. She also clearly saw and spoke up about the United States’ reluctance to come to terms with its hypocrisy. She understood that the “nation’s” refusal to confront its past did not mean that that past would remain buried. Rather, to paraphrase Brother Malcolm, “Those chickens would inevitably one day come home to roost.”
According to the great James Baldwin (a prophet in his own right), Hansberry’s friend and brother in the struggle for basic human dignity, during a(n) (in)famous meeting with the late Bobby Kennedy, she tried to convey this fact: “that a holocaust is no respecter of persons; that what today seems merely humiliation and injustice for a few, can, unchecked become Terror for the many, snuffing out white lives just as though they were black lives; that if the American state could not protect the lives of black citizens; then presently the entire State would find itself engulfed.” (xx)
As my dear sister-friend remarked to me just the other day, this is exactly the moment that we find ourselves in; a moment in which the State is engulfed literally in flames and trying desperately to continue with business as usual. And those who are taking the side of this dinosaur of violence, exploitation, and rape will inevitably also find themselves engulfed.
Moreover, those who blindly believe that their “leader” is going to save them from the roosting that is unfolding are in for a rude and painful awakening.
I will admit, I was a bit put off as I began reading “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, adapted by Robert Nemiroff.” Beginning with the title, it’s framing reminded me of slave narratives from the 1800s. It is prefaced by Jewell Handy Gresham Nemiroff who married Hansberry’s ex-husband and literary executor, Robert Nemiroff, following Hansberry’s passing. That preface is followed by a much-appreciated introduction by Baldwin entitled “Sweet Lorraine” and then a forward by Nemiroff, complete with explanations of minor changes that he’d made “to the text that we held in our hands” (if you’ve ever read a slave narrative then you know what I’m talking about).
“The woman was a writer for goodness sakes!! Let her words speak for themselves!,” I thought.
It also didn’t help what one afternoon as I sat on my balcony to read, and glanced down at the cover I found myself looking at the title, but no photo of Hansberry! As if she had disappeared/been erased from the text! (it turned out to be the way the sunlight was hitting the laminate—but what (momentary) symbolism.
Hansberry’s brilliance, her curiosity, and her genuine kindness, documented as it is on every page propelled me forward, however. And my misgivings proved unfounded as on the final page of the text I was made to understand that what Nemiroff had done was honor her wishes.
An undated note from Hansberry reads:
“If anything should happen—before ‘tis done—may I trust that all commas and periods will be placed and someone will complete my thoughts—
The last should be the least difficult—since there are so many who think as I do—”
I will return to YGB in a bit. I plan to read Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018) to get a fuller picture of this incredible artist and will let you know how that turns out.
Till then, in the words of someone I can’t remember, “Take your time, but don’t waste your time”
P.S. I have noticed that there’s a new edition of YGB, subtitled An Informal Autobiography of Lorraine Hansberry. Progress.
P.P.S. I leave you with some Nina!