They are such icons and heroes that, like members of our family, we are comfortable calling them only by their first names. On this day in 1925, Malcolm Little, later to be called Malcolm X, was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Five years later, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago, Illinois. In their own unique ways they were pivotal to the explosive push for civil rights in the tumultuous years spanning the early 1950s, right up to their deaths a little more than a month apart in 1965.
I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first when I was 14, about the same time that I’d read A Raisin in the Sun. Funnily enough, it was my religious, West Indian mother who gave me Malcolm X’s book and I subsequently caught some of the militant fire that was beginning to strain her relationship with the church. It is a cracking read. You can smell the polish of Chicago’s shoe shine boys, you can feel the weight of prison, and the lightness of religious conversion and acceptance. You can also feel the determination and love with which Malcolm X, later to once more change his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, pursued justice; an endeavor made more significant and fitting, I think, because he knew what it was like to be a prisoner on every conceivable human level.
Hansberry had the same goal as Malcolm X, it’s only her tools that were different. “A Raisin the in Sun”, the first play by an African-American to be produced on Broadway, is a politically charged domestic drama about the strangling tentacles of segregation. There might be some debate about whether it has withstood the test of time (George C. Wolfe famously poked fun at it and the numerous imitators it spawned in his Colored Museum skit, “The Last Mama on the Couch Play”), but in its time it was revelatory, raw, and humanizing. Hansberry’s death at the age of 34 after battling cancer is impossible to comprehend. That a mind that fertile was taken so young still feels like an egregious error.
I wonder if people really knew what they had when Malcolm and Lorraine were in the world? History says no, a lot of them didn’t. But the ones who did know loved them madly, deeply and honored them the best ways they knew how. Below Nina Simone sings, with a bit of bitterness and anger, her Hansberry-inspired song, “To be Young Gifted and Black” at the 1969 Harlem Festival. The footage is grainy, terrible even, but it captures a little of what Simone must have felt at losing her dear, close friend; defiant and just a little sad.