Lorraine Hansberry - Young, Gifted and Black

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BBC Radio 4, 11 May 2010
Presented by actress Adjoh Andoh, this documentary looked at the life and work of the African-American author of A Raisin in the Sun, whose life was tragically cut short by stomach cancer. The child of an activist family, who challenged the racist laws of the time by moving into an all-white area of Chicago, Hansberry became politically active from an early age. She attended numerous protest meetings, and meeting other celebrated artists such as Langston Hughes. The title of her play A Raisin in the Sun comes from Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred." However she saw herself not as an activist alone, but an artist who tried to use plays to broaden awareness of the social issues of that time.
A Raisin in the Sun did precisely that; first produced on Broadway in 1959 and filmed two years later, it portrays a few weeks in the life of the Younger family, living on the south side of Chicago sometime between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1950s. The play dramatizes many of Hansberry's own experiences of overcoming institutional racism, as they move into an all-white neighbourhood in Clybourne Park, despite the efforts of the so-called 'welcoming committee' to keep them out. The family's future in this new world might seem uncertain and slightly dangerous, but they remain optimistic and resolve to lead a better life.
Hansberry's play caused a considerable stir (at that time African-Americans were still known as negroes, with little opportunity for self-advancement unless they were fortunate enough to be athletes). The author herself became a considerable celebrity; but such fame proved ephemeral. Mainstream American culture found ways of marginalizing her; much of her later work was either shelved or not produced at all. Her only other play to be given a Broadway production - The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964-5) ran for only 100 performances and closed the night she died.
Nonetheless Hansberry's name lives on, as a result of her achievements as a playwright and activist. She coined the phrase "young, gifted and black" (later immortalized in Nina Simone's song), which has proved an inspiration to successive generations. Presenter Andoh admitted that she had perpetually borne the phrase in mind while growing up in rural Wiltshire, the only African-British child in an all-white neighbourhood. Young, Gifted and Black celebrated the work of a pioneer whose legacy remains as significant today as it was in the days of the Civil Rights Movement in America. The producer was Eleanor McDowell.