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To Be Young, Gifted and Black
Lorraine Hansberry
James Baldwin
Paperback: Mass Market
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INTRODUCTION

Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930, the youngest of four children. Her parents were educated and successful, and publicly fought discrimination against black people. During this era, Northern states had no official policy of segregation, but they were generally self-segregated along racial and economic lines. Hansberry's family became one of the first to move into a white Chicago neighborhood. When neighbors struck at them with threats of violence and legal action, Hansberry's family fought back, her father successfully bringing his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

In 1950, Hansberry left college to pursue writing in New York, including working on the staff of Freedom, a black newspaper. The production of her play A Raisin in the Sun catapulted her to the forefront of the theater world. In his introduction to the book, James Baldwin writes, "Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage." It received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play of the Year; Hansberry was the youngest playwright, the fifth woman, and the only black writer at that point to win the award. Among her other writings are numerous essays and the play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Her promising career was cut short when she died from cancer in 1965, at the age of thirty-four.

Adapted after Hansberry's death from passages from her plays, interviews, diary entries, letters, and other miscellaneous observations, To Be Young, Gifted and Black is "the portrait of an individual, the workbook of an artist, and the chronicle of a rebel who celebrated the human spirit," as Robert Nemiroff describes it in the Foreword to the book. "[It is] shaped with a particular purpose in mind: to relate the artist to the person, and place the parts within the context of the whole in such fashion as to enable the words she left to tell her story."


ABOUT LORRAINE HANSBERRY

Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago. In 1950, she left college to pursue writing in New York, including working on the staff of Freedom, a black newspaper. The production of her play A Raisin in the Sun catapulted Hansberry into the forefront of the theater world. She was the youngest playwright and only the fifth woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play, and to win the distinguished Drama Desk Award. In 1961, the film version of the play, starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Dee, opened; Hansberry won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Screenwriters Guild Award for her screenplay. Among her other writings are numerously essays and the play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. The book was constructed after Lorraine Hansberry's death, and is comprised of diaries, letters, interviews, and passages from her plays, creating a somewhat unconventional narrative structure. How did it affect your reading experience? Did the construction hinder or enhance your enjoyment of the book?

  2. The Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred" begins "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" Why do you think Hansberry chose to title her play A Raisin the Sun after this poem?

  3. "When you start measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to where he is." This line from A Raisin in the Sun is repeated several times throughout To Be Young, Gifted and Black. What is its significance? How do you interpret it?

  4. Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin in 1948, but found herself uninspired until hearing the architect Frank Lloyd Wright speak at her school: "He attacked… the nature of education, saying that we put in so many fine plums and get out so many fine prunes." What is meant by this statement? Do you feel that the educational system has changed since Lorraine Hansberry wrote this?

  5. Hansberry asserts that in poor neighborhoods, schools and housing were intentionally substandard, designed to cheat people out of an education and proper homes: "To be imprisoned in the ghetto is to be forgotten—or deliberately cheated of one's birthright—at best." What do you think about this statement? Does it still hold truth today?

  6. "I suppose that the most heroic expression that I have ever seen was that on the face of a certain tough-looking, brutalized, slum-slaughtered woman at Coney Island. She had her arm around a girl child who looked hardly any less brutalized and slum-slaughtered—'We is going to have a good time tonight!' the look said." What do you think Hansberry finds heroic about this woman? What is the most heroic expression you have ever seen?

  7. A woman who was profoundly affected after seeing one of her plays wrote to Hansberry: "I—who ordinarily keep my wits about me—went back to my hotel and got in the shower with my wristwatch on. But… the experience was worth every penny of the repair bill." Have you ever been similarly affected by a piece of art? What was it? Why do you think it affected you in this way?

  8. Hansberry writes of her frustrations with the theater, "I begin to think more and more of doing something else with my life while I am still young. I mean almost anything—driving an ambulance in Angola or running a ski lodge in upstate NY—instead of this endless struggle." Do you ever feel frustrated when you are trying to accomplish a goal? Is it encouraging to know that even the most influential and talented people can struggle and feel dissatisfied with their work?

  9. After seeing photographs of the Civil Rights march on Birmingham, Hansberry wrote, "Do I remain a revolutionary? Intellectually—without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle?" Are you inspired by activism? What causes do you feel strongly about?

  10. Towards the end of the book, in a letter to the winners of the Negro College Fund contest, Hansberry writes, "Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic—to be young, gifted and black." What do you think she means by this?