In 1957, a 27-year-old Lorraine Hansberry was busy writing a play when out of sheer exhaustion and frustration she threw the manuscript into the trash. Two years later that discarded text became a theatrical hit when a Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway in 1959 and paved the way for Hansberry’s highly decorated career as a writer. Five years later Hansberry sent these words of encouragement to young aspiring writers and winners of a creative writing contest in 1964.
“Write if you will: but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be—if there is to be a world. Write about all the things that men have written about since the beginning of writing and talking—but write to a point. Work hard at it, care about it. Write about our people: tell their story. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention. Don’t pass it up. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention. Don’t pass it up. Use it. Good luck to you. The Nation needs your gifts.
Lorraine Hansberry speech, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” given to Readers Digest/United Negro College Fund creative writing contest winners, NYC, May 1, 1964.” ― Lorraine Hansberry
I can’t help but imagine that Hansberry wrote these words to her 19-year-old self as a sophomore in college, inspired by dramatists, taking art classes and deciding to quit school to pursue writing and journalism in New York. Hansberry’s move to Harlem would center her among the neighborhood’s intellectuals, writers, actors, and activists who produced works of art that would inspire generations of brilliant minds to come.
Hansberry died far too soon at 34 but she left us with a lifetime of enduring, thoughtful wisdom that resonates to this day. This video of Hansberry’s close friend Nina Simone performing To Be Young, Gifted, and Black is powerful. It is not only a beloved tribute to a dear friend, but it is also a promise to preserve her legacy to inspire the next great writer to share their gifts.
For more on Hansberry, check out the PBS American Master’s Documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart.