On Being ‘Young, Gifted, and Black’
To accompany this story, we asked filmmaker Janicza Bravo to curate a selection of images. (Her blog, after all, was called Young Gifted and Black.)
“The images selected are a few of my favorites,” she tells us over email. They are singular and alluring, but it's not the only reason I chose them. What drew me to them most is that they are able to transport. Each is a story, a moment, an event frozen in time under a spotlight.
“Some years ago, I realized that the majority of the images that I was inundated with were devoid of woman and men that looked like me and felt like me. These pictures and pictures like them are, for the most part, comfort. Comfort because they are a reminder that I am visible and I exist. They say, ‘I was there, I am there, and I will be there.’”
To be young, gifted, and black Oh, what a lovely, precious dream To be young, gifted, and black Open your heart to what I mean
—Nina Simone, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”
“This will sound very strange, but not to people who are really hip,” Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, explains in an interview filmed before a 1969 recording session at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Simone doesn’t seem to register the camera’s presence, but it’s a close shot, made all the more intense by her big, brown eyes outlined in winged eyeliner and topped with shimmering eyeshadow, fixed on an unidentified interviewer.
For nearly two minutes, Simone speaks uninterrupted, describing a photograph taken at a New York City rally for the Freedom Riders, a group of both black and white civil-rights activists who traveled to the Deep South, where states were flagrantly violating the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate transit systems. The Freedom Riders were beaten, stoned, and firebombed by racists while police watched—often intervening only to arrest, not protect, the activists being brutally attacked. In the picture (below), taken by an unidentified photographer in 1961 or 1962, Simone’s arm is firmly entwined with that of Lorraine Hansberry, the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway (1959’s A Raisin in the Sun). Hansberry’s eyes, Simone says, were “trying to tell me something.”
The photo had been taken less than a decade prior to the interview, yet so much had changed: Hansberry was gone, dead at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer. Many of the civil rights movement’s other prominent black leaders had also died, including Malcolm X, who was assassinated months after watching—along with more than 600 other people—Simone sing at Hansberry’s funeral in January 1965. Martin Luther King Jr.—who sent Hansberry’s family his condolences in a telegram—would meet the same fate as Malcolm X a few years later, when he was killed on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39 while visiting Memphis, Tennessee.
Following Hansberry’s death, her ex-husband and friend Robert Nemiroff embarked on a mission to collect her unpublished letters and journal entries, which he then adapted into an off-Broadway play called To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. The play, which opened at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre on January 2, 1969, told the story of Hansberry’s life and was later adapted into a book of the same name. It was the longest-running off-Broadway play of the season, and, following its successful debut, Simone saw Hansberry’s name and face resurface in the media; she encountered the photo from the Freedom Riders rally anew.
“I remember getting a feeling in my body and I said, ‘That’s it: to be young, gifted, and black,’” Simone told the interviewer in 1969.
“We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin, and revolution—real girls’ talk.”
The image moved Simone to sit down at her piano, and, with the help of jazz-funk legend Weldon Irvine Jr., write the song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” released in 1970. The composition captured the moment of militant cultural nationalism and the Black Power movement so perfectly that it was declared the “black national anthem” by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the leading nonviolent civil rights organizations of the 1960s. (CORE, along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped sponsor and organize the Freedom Rides.) The song peaked at number eight on the R&B charts and 76 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It has since been covered by countless artists, including Aretha Franklin, whose 1972 version reached number 11 on the Hot 100 and spent 31 weeks there.
“I really believe [Hansberry] gave [the song] to me,” Simone said during the 1969 interview. “We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin, and revolution—real girls’ talk.” Historians list Hansberry, as well as Langston Hughes, as Simone’s mentors; Attallah Shabazz, the eldest daughter of Malcom X and Betty Shabazz, once described the playwright’s role in Simone’s life as a “wink of permission.” Though Hansberry and Simone were just three years apart in age and ran in the same artistic circles in New York, Hansberry’s homegrown radicalization had occurred decades earlier—and it revolved around housing.
Lorraine’s father, Carl Hansberry, was a successful Chicago real-estate broker who in 1937 moved his family of six to the Washington Park subdivision near the University of Chicago, then an all-white neighborhood. Like most developments on the South Side at the time, Washington Park had signed on to the restrictive covenants created by the Chicago Real Estate Board, which were designed to prevent black families from moving in. The covenants stated, “No part of said premises shall in any manner be used or occupied directly by a negro or negroes.” (This, of course, did not include “janitors’ or chauffeurs’ quarters in the basement or in a barn or garage or in the rear, or of servants’ quarters by negro janitors, chauffeurs, or house servants.”) Carl Hansberry knew such racially restrictive covenants were considered legal, but he also knew it was up to white property owners themselves to prevent occupancy by black purchasers. He found a white homeowner made so desperate by the Great Depression that he was willing to sell to the Hansberrys.
When the family moved into the three-story brick building at 6140 South Rhodes Avenue, their neighbors turned apoplectic. A brick hurled at young Lorraine Hansberry missed her head by mere inches, and she later recalled nonstop harassment— “being spat at, cursed, and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.” The property was often vandalized, the family subjected to constant threats. Carl Hansberry fought his neighbors in court for three years in a case known as Hansberry v. Lee, which reached the Supreme Court and yielded a landmark 1940 decision that allowed for the possibility of such covenants being challenged in court at all. (The Hansberrys’ home on South Rhodes Avenue was declared a historic landmark in 2010.)
“Of love and my parents there is little to be written … we were fed and housed and dressed … we were also vaguely taught certain vague absolutes: that we were better than no one but infinitely superior to everyone; that we were the products of the proudest and most mistreated of the races of man,” Hansberry wrote in the introduction to A Raisin in the Sun. “Above all, there were two things which were never to be betrayed: the family and the race.” When Hansberry left home, she enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but left after two years to study in Guadalajara, Mexico, and eventually moved to New York, where she attended the New School for Social Research and dedicated herself—as she would for the rest of her short life—to fighting for civil rights through words. Before A Raisin in the Sun, she wrote for Paul Robeson’s Freedom, a radical black newspaper.
Simone’s path to political radicalization was less straightforward. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the sixth child of a preacher in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933, Simone was a classically trained pianist who had once had to defend her own parents’ right to sit at the front of her white audience to hear her classical concert debut. In her autobiography, Simone recalled the 1944 incident:
When I was 11 years old I was asked to give a recital in the town hall. I sat at the piano with my trained elegance while a white man introduced me, and when I looked up, my parents, who were dressed in their best, were being thrown out of their front-row seats in favor of a white family I had never seen before. And Daddy and Momma were allowing themselves to be moved. Nobody else said anything, but I wasn't going to see them treated like that, and stood up in my starched dress and said if anyone expected to hear me play, then they'd better make sure that my family was sitting right there in the front row where I could see them, and to hell with poise and elegance. So they moved them back. But my parents were embarrassed and I saw some of the white folks laughing at me. All of a sudden it seemed like a different world, and nothing was easy anymore ...
The piano prodigy would continually see her talent and skin color treated as if they were at odds. She wished to study at a conservatory and set her sights on the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She auditioned, and thought she did well, but was not accepted; she was convinced that it was because she was black. (In 2003, just a few days before she died in Carry-le-Rouet, France, after a years-long battle with breast cancer, Simone was finally awarded an honorary degree by the institute.)
Simone remained determined to study classical music, even if it was through private piano lessons with a professor. To pay for those lessons, she moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the owner of the Midtown Bar and Grill on Pacific Avenue promised her $90 a week if she could sing, too. She hid these performances of “devil’s music” from her religious Southern family—who believed she was only performing classical music and spirituals—by changing her name to Nina Simone: “Nina” after a nickname given to her by a boyfriend, “Simone” after the French actress Simone Signoret.
Though by the 1960s Simone had found success with a debut album, Little Girl Blue, and was performing around Greenwich Village, she hadn’t given up her dream of studying at a conservatory or under a gifted teacher. She was hesitant, then, to define herself as an artist dedicated to anything but classical music, let alone the black struggle.
“When they killed those children is when I said, ‘I have to start using my talent to help black people,’” Simone explained.
“[Martin Luther King Jr.] was popular, but I never believed in him,” Simone said. According to Alan Light, author of the book What Happened, Ms. Simone?, it was Hansberry who “pointedly pulled Simone aside and asked her what she was doing for the civil rights movement while its leaders were being put in prison.” Why just lend your voice to racial equality, as Simone had at the Freedom Riders rally, when you could provide a soundtrack?
Whatever pressure Simone felt from Hansberry’s challenge was no doubt intensified by the events of 1963. That June, Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, was shot by a white supremacist, then died in a hospital that initially denied him entry because of his race. Wearing a “Jim Crow Must Go” shirt, he was killed while getting out of his car in front of his own home, his usual FBI escort nowhere to be found. That August, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 people in Washington, D.C.; in September, four young girls preparing for a sermon at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, were killed by a bomb.
“When they killed those children is when I said, ‘I have to start using my talent to help black people,’” Simone explained. In response, she wrote her first civil-rights song, “Mississippi Goddam.” She performed the song at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, where she, along with James Baldwin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Harry Belafonte, crossed police lines—and professional ones. “[Simone] introduced a level of outrage and immediacy unlike anything else in the protest movement,” writes Light. It was a movement whose leaders continued to be assassinated. Images of them lying in pools of their own blood were circulated in newspapers across the nation, followed by peaceful marches, during which the activists they inspired were assailed by firehoses.
“It was a really special and spiritual moment of solidarity pride, in celebrating our blackness,” wrote musician Solange Knowles on her website below a video of a cover of “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” which she performed alongside Dev Hynes, King, and Moses Sumney at the 2015 FYF Fest in Los Angeles. This celebration of blackness—a celebration of both surviving brutality and transcending it—is no doubt part of the reason why the song has been steadily sampled since its release four decades ago and has become a timeless anthem whose pain, and triumph, still resonate today.
“There’s a world waiting for you / This is a quest that’s just begun,” Simone tells the “billion boys and girls” who are young, gifted, and black. She continues: “When you feel really low / Yeah, there's a great truth you should know / When you're young, gifted, and black / Your soul's intact.”
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