In the first lines of the 1969 production of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, actress Ruby Dee takes the role of playwright Lorraine Hansberry and introduces herself: “My name is Lorraine Hansberry. I am a writer. I suppose I think that the highest gift that a man has is art, and I am audacious to think of myself as an artist.”

It had been four years since Dee and over 600 mourners celebrated Hansberry’s life at her funeral in Harlem. The play, compiled 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 of To Be Young, Gifted and Black (a phrase coined by Hansberry) is one of the rare objects to be displayed in the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures. It begins with Hansberry telling the audience her aspirations as a writer—to elevate stories of people to motivate change.

“It’s almost a documentary—you get a sense of just her voice as a radical storyteller,” said A.J. Muhammad, a librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “The play is so powerful that even excerpts give you the range of Hansberry’s imagination.”

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

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

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Lorraine Hansberry (center left) smiles as she listens to the band at a party at Sardi's restaurant in honor of her Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun, March 1959.
Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

At the time, Hansberry didn’t have to remind audiences about her talent in illuminating voices. At 29 years old, her play 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 movie with Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier and a 2008 movie featuring Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Audra McDonald.

“Lorraine’s storytelling isn’t just for one story or time—it’s a multiplicity. She’s bringing the struggles of the Black community to the stage and documenting it,” said Muhammad.

First page of the script

First page of the Young, Gifted and Black script

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First page of the Young, Gifted and Black script
Robert Kato / NYPL

To Be Young, Gifted and Black chronicles Hansberry’s highs as a talented playwright exploring themes of Black family life, economic disparity, racism, and violence. However, her activism didn’t wasn’t just for the stage. Hansberry served on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement as an organizer. Even as she fought her own battle with pancreatic cancer, she remained on those front lines.

In fact, the title of the play came from a speech Hansberry gave in 1964 to the winners of a national writing contest. Right at the cusp of her illness, Hansberry left her hospital bed and would unknowingly say the words that would immortalize her work: “I wanted to be able to come here and speak with you on this occasion because you are young, gifted, and black. In the year 1964, I, for one, can think of no more dynamic combination a person might be.”

After her death, a village of creatives (Nemiroff, Nina Simone, Mel Brooks, to name a few) worked to protect Hansberry's legacy, honor and document her short life. (Decades later, historians like Imani Perry, Soyica Colbert and Karen Grisby Bates joined 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 it the same year.

The To Be Young, Gifted and Black draft is among the extensive collection of Hansberry’s papers archived at the Schomburg Center including scripts, drawings, get-well cards, and even her copy of the Langston Hughes poem Harlem that 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 the Schomburg is so extensive and accessible,” said Muhammad.

In 1965, Hansberry died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. After her death, writer 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 must resolve not to fail her for she certainly did not fail us.”


This story is part of our partnership with the NYPL around the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, which showcases items spanning 4,000 years from the Library's research collections—we'll be publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures. The Treasures exhibition opens Friday, September 24th, 2021 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now available here.