By: Veli Mbele
“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. Don’t pass it up. Use it. Good luck to you. The Nation needs your gifts.” – Lorraine Hansberry.
The words ‘To Be Young, Gifted & Black’ continue to occupy a precious position in contemporary Black imagination. These are the words that have shaped not only the identities and approaches of Black creatives but also the identities and approaches of the Black revolutionary movements of the 20th century.
These words have therefore become both an embodiment of Black creative expression and Black rebellion. A black zeitgeist if you like. But where do these epoch-shaping words come from?
While the incomparable Queen Mother Nina Simone must bear most of the credit for popularising the words ‘To be Young, Gifted&Black’, these words were actually taken from a literary tribute to Simone’s late friend, Lorraine Hansberry.
Hansberry was a playwright, writer and activist, who worked with among others, the eminent Black thinker W.E.D Du Bois. After her passing on 13 January 1965, her literary works were published in 1968-69.
The literary tribute was titled ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words’. Subsequent to this, as a tribute to her friend, Simone, decided to record the tune ‘To Be Young, Gifted & Black’ in 1968.
The recording of the tune ‘Young, Gifted&Black’ came in the midst of at least three seismic moments in Black resistance: the assassinations of Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King jr (1968) and later, Black Panther Warrior, Fred Hampton ( 1969).
Later, Black creative geniuses like Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Houston Person, among others, recorded their own interpretations of this soulfully revolutionary black tune.
Thanks to Hansberry and later Simone, today, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ today, is not just an epoch-defining artistic theme, but it also remains a timeless reminder of the beauty of Black rebellion in a world where Black peoples’ very right to exist is denied.
Veli Mbele is an Afrocentric essayist, political historian and secretary of the Black Power Front.
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