The original first page of the powerful script “Being Young, Gifted and Black”

In the first lines of the 1969 production of To be young, gifted and black, actress Ruby Dee takes on the role of playwright Lorraine Hansberry and introduces herself: “My name is Lorraine Hansberry. I’m a writer. I suppose I think the highest gift a man has is art, and I’m cheeky at thinking of myself as an artist. ”

It was four years since Dee and over 600 mourners celebrated Hansberry’s life at her funeral in Harlem. The play, composed by Hansberry’s ex-husband and creative partner Robert Nemiroff, sought to tell Hansberry’s life in her own words after she was gone.

The producer edited first page of the script for To be young, gifted and black (a sentence invented by Hansberry) is one of the rare objects to be displayed in Polonsky Exhibition of the New York Public Library’s Treasures. It begins with Hansberry telling the audience his ambitions as a writer – to lift stories about people to motivate for change.

“It’s almost a documentary – you just get a feel for her voice as a radical storyteller,” said AJ Muhammad, librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “The piece is so powerful that even excerpts give you a range of Hansberry fantasies.”

Lorraine Hansberry (center left) smiles as she listens to the band at a party at Sardis' restaurant in honor of her March 1959 Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun.

Lorraine Hansberry (center left) smiles as she listens to the band at a party at Sardis’ restaurant in honor of her March 1959 Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun.

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Lorraine Hansberry (center left) smiles as she listens to the band at a party at Sardis’ restaurant in honor of her March 1959 Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun.

Gordon Parks / The LIFE Picture Collection / Shutterstock

At the time, Hansberry did not need to remind the audience of her talent in luminous voices. As a 29-year-old, she played A raisin in the sun made her the first black woman to produce a play on Broadway and the youngest American playwright and the first African-American to date to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. A raisin in the sun would be recreated through stage and screen for decades, including a 1961 film with Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier and a 2008 film with Sean “P. Diddy ”Combs and Audra McDonald.

“Lorraine’s storytelling is not just for one story or time – it’s a diversity. She brings the struggles of the black community to the stage and documents it, ”Muhammad said.

First page of the script

First page of the manuscript Young, gifted and black

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First page of the manuscript Young, gifted and black

Robert Kato / NYPL

To be young, gifted and black chronicler Hansberry’s heights as a talented playwright exploring themes of black family life, economic difference, racism and violence. However, her activism was not just for the stage. Hansberry served at the forefront of the civil rights movement as an organizer. Even as she battled her own battle with pancreatic cancer, she remained on those front lines.

In fact, the play’s title came from a speech Hansberry gave in 1964 to the winners of a national writing competition. Right at the beginning of her illness, Hansberry left her hospital bed and would subconsciously say the words that would immortalize her work: “I would like to be able to come here and talk to you on this occasion because you are young, gifted and black. In the year 1964, first of all, I can not think of a more dynamic combination, a person might be. ”

After her death, a village with commercials (Nemiroff, Nina Simone, Mel Brooks, to name a few) worked to protect Hansberry’s legacy, honor and document her short life. (Decades later, historians such as Imani Perry, Soyica Colbert, and Karen Grisby Bates ended the effort.) Simone introduced her song, a tribute to Hansberry also titled “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969; she recorded the same year.

That To be young, gifted and black drafts are among the extensive collection of Hansberry’s papers filed at the Schomburg Center, including scripts, drawings, get-well cards and even her copy of the Langston Hughes poem Harlem who inspired the title of A raisin in the sun.

“Their [Nemiroff, Hansberry’s friends and historians] work is the reason why the Hansberry collection at Schomburg is so extensive and accessible, ”said Muhammad.

In 1965, Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. After her death, author James Baldwin delivered a message about Hansberry that would continue to resonate with those who worked to preserve her powerful voice: “We have our memories and her work. I think we have to decide not to let her down, because she certainly did not let us down. ”


This story is part of our partnership with NYPL around The Polonsky Exhibition of the New York Public Library’s Treasures, showing topics spanning 4,000 years from the library’s research collections-we publish a NYC-related object a day during September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures. The Tax Exhibition opens Friday, September 24, 2021 in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now available here.

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