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.