To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry

When I bought To Be Young, Gifted and Black, I was under the impression it is an autobiography. It says so right there on the cover: “an informal autobiography of Lorraine Hansberry.” What does that mean? I’m thinking something along the lines of Malcolm X telling his story to Alex Haley — that kind of “informal.” Instead, what we get is a carefully organized compilation of Hansberry’s letters, diary entries, plays, and speeches. So, not an autobiography at all, but a collection of works.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black opens with an introduction by James Baldwin, and if you’re like me, you could read that man and his painfully beautiful ideas all day. At the end of the book is an explanation of the work from Robert Nemiroff, who is not labeled as editor, but the one who “adapted” this book. Originally, To Be Young, Gifted and Black was to be a play itself. Imagine, someone playing Hansberry and giving excerpts from speeches between scenes of A Raisin in the Sun followed by a letter responding to a fan. I can see it in all its kinetic glory.

I wish instead the collection were presented as “essays, interviews, play script excerpts, letters, photos, and speeches of Lorraine Hansberry” — something clearer, like that, so my expectations would be on point. As the book is marketed, it didn’t work as well for me. I was always excited when the Younger family from A Raisin in the Sun appeared, but that’s because I love Hansberry’s best-known play deeply. In fact, all the drama excerpts were thought-provoking. But as a “narrative,” which I expect in an autobiography, it didn’t work.

Hansberry, a young black woman who died at 35 from cancer, is vibrant — a writer and thinker of Baldwin’s caliber (likely why they were friends). She concludes a letter to her husband with a note about how she’s thinking of her characters as real people and actually talking to them. “I am either cracking or turning into a fugging genius. You decide,” she writes. In these personal letters, Hansberry feels like a real person to me, one I could talk to and meet. She captures her own writing struggles — with characters, getting something on the page, and hopping from project to project — in her diary and letters so well that she may well have her thoughts incarcerated on the page.

If you read To Be Young, Gifted and Black and think of it as small pieces, like chocolates out of an assortment box, instead of a life history with any kind of arc, you’ll treasure the collection. The book actually did get produced as a play with Nemiroff at the helm, and I would have love to seen it with the powerhouse cast.

14 comments

  1. You clearly love Hansberry and I’ll have to look her up. I’ve mostly passed on Baldwin up till now – skipping Go Tell it on the Mountain in Year 12 English (and failing), and not enjoying the Italian one (The Room?). I’m all for writers finding new ways to tell stories, but it sounds like somewhere between the editing and the packaging this failed as autobiography/memoir where it might have succeeded. We had the opposite case in Australia where 3,000 pages of troubled 1950s author, Eve Langley’s autobiographical writing was cut to 300 pp and attributed to the editor (Wilde Eve by Lucy Frost) when it was clearly Memoir.

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    • For James Baldwin, try his short stories instead, or, if you prefer a novel, give If Beale Street Could Talk a chance. With Hansberry, it’s totally worth it to read A Raisin on the Sun or to get your hands on the film (which was the original cast of Hansberry’s play).

      I can’t believe some authors have so much to add to their autobiography. We have these books of Mark Twain at the library that are not only large in size, but probably a thousand pages each. This man has VOLUMES of his autobiography. Could he leave nothing out??

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  2. I’ve never heard of Hansberry until you mentioned that you had picked up this book, but it sounds fascinating – do you think this is something a person could read and enjoy despite not being familiar with her work, or would it be better to read some of her other work first and then move onto this?

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    • I would most definitely read A Raisin in the Sun (which is a play script) first. It’s so iconic, classic American, and beautifully written. It is her best-known work. There is also a film version, which includes the entire original cast from when the play opened, starring the infamous Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier.

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  3. Hmmm this looks like a book published by a major publisher-so why the strange mention of autobiography? I’m surprised they would mislead the buyer/reader like that, mind you, I guess that’s just proof that misleading marketing has been happening for decades! haha

    Which reminds me, do you have a take on the American Dirt controversy? In my mind, that issues boils down to poor marketing decisions…

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    • I feel really weird about the American Dirt controversy. I am NEVER on the side of banning a book, but I do think publishers have a right to pull a book if they want (in this capitalist society). Book stores are kicking the American Dirt author off their book tour schedules, which is also a form of censorship, but again, they are business that may feel by bringing in an author people want to punish, they may in turn be punished. I’m glad the book is available at libraries and bookstores so readers can make up their own minds. Sandra Cisneros recommended it, but I have to keep in mind that one Latinx person does not speak for all. And if readers want an immigration story, I would agree with Reyna Grande as a recommendation.

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        • I haven’t heard anything about the book being pulled, likely because there is so much controversy around it that now everyone wants to read American Dirt. It’s places at which the author was going to stop on her book tour that are cancelling her.

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