To Be Young, Gifted, Black, Depressed, and Anxious
How Lorraine Hansberry helped me feel like writing was possible again
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Last June, I sold my memoir. Somehow the story that I never thought anyone wanted to hear found a home. For a while, I was ecstatic; I’d been waiting for this moment my whole life, and now everything felt a bit brighter and more bearable. But the jubilant high of my accomplishment dissolved as the seasons changed. By the time winter rolled around, my seasonal depression and anxiety was in full swing. As the days grew shorter and sunlight became scarce, my confidence and motivation to write, or do anything really, crumbled. When I did write, it was just a paragraph or two, quickly scrutinized and altered again and again by the inner critic I could never seem to quiet. Most of the time I did everything but write. I binge-watched hours of Star Trek, hunted for vintage paperbacks at my favorite bookstore in Bushwick or on Etsy, and compulsively searched for quotes by my favorite authors late at night in hopes that I could use their words as a way to correct whatever personal flaw was keeping me from reaching my fullest potential.
Weeks turned into months and friends started to ask about my book. They wanted to know how it was going. Their eyes glistened with excitement when they told me that they couldn’t wait to read it. Every time, I smiled back before telling them that things were going great and that I’d written a few chapters. Each time this happened, I pushed the image of the barely five-page long Google Doc I had preemptively titled “Chapter 1” out of my mind. I ignored the weight of guilt that sat heavy like a stone on my chest. I tried to forget how little I’d written since the day my dream came true and the reasons why.
Maybe it was because of the “political climate” and the monstrosity of a man who occupies the White House. Maybe it was because of how many hours I spent between my three jobs and freelance assignments or how much money wasn’t in my bank account and how little I slept each night. Or perhaps it was all just a side effect of my words being overlooked or dismissed for so many years at the glaringly white schools my parents felt would give me a brighter future than what their schools had given them. There was also the possibility, at least in my own mind, that my depression and anxiety were a sign of weakness or laziness. Perhaps I wasn’t sad or anxious at all, but merely not working hard enough. I felt paralyzed and lonely. “I am a writer. I am going to write,” Hansberry wrote in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the autobiography collected from her unpublished work. If I, too, was a writer, I wondered, then why couldn’t I write?
“I am a writer. I am going to write,” Hansberry wrote in her autobiography. If I, too, was a writer, I wondered, then why couldn’t I write?
In January, things got worse. In addition to not writing, I stopped replying to emails, stopped doing laundry, and had to set calendar reminders for things like “use SAD lamp,” “take out the trash,” and “buy cat food.” Outwardly, I seemed normal, but within the four walls of my bedroom, I was a mess. I needed an escape, so on a bright cold day I decided to ignore my inbox, to abandon the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and all the words I hadn’t written but needed to write. Instead, I slipped on my boots, grabbed my coat, and headed to Harlem to spend the day with Lorraine Hansberry.
Earlier that week, I’d apprehensively RSVP’d to American Master’s screening of Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart and the Schomburg Center’s Open Archive of Lorraine Hansberry’s papers. Even then, I was behind on everything, tired, and as always, anxious. That morning, I had decided not to attend, to be pragmatic and spend the day toiling away at my laptop. But as soon as I resigned myself to staying home, something in my heart whispered, “You should go.” So I listened, and as I walked out the door, I considered my decision not an act of defiance, but one of self-preservation. I couldn’t quite articulate why, but I needed something that sitting at my desk couldn’t give me and I was determined to put the world on hold until I felt sane again.
Even when I was a child, I knew Lorraine Hansberry’s name and the shape of her face. In my mind, she was sepia-toned, like the photo of her that my mom had shown me on the back of a weathered copy of A Raisin in the Sun. She was beautiful, but static, with a glint of mystery in her eyes. She seemed bigger than life itself. I remember the way I’d always sit with my face too close to the TV screen each time the trailer for A Raisin the Sun played on TCM. I knew exactly how the film adaptation of her play unfolded, but every time, I still felt breathless, amazed by seeing an all-Black cast. It didn’t matter that it was from the ’60s or that her play debuted before my parents were even born and years before segregation was illegal. It was still spectacular to see Black life humanized with such heart and depth. The Younger family’s love for one another was stronger than the racist world that surrounded them. Even at the peak of their struggles, there was warmth at the center of their lives.
Over the years, I’ve returned to A Raisin in the Sun habitually. Whether I surveyed its pages in order to complete a school assignment or to fill the hours of a free afternoon, I always found comfort there. Yet as the plot became more and more familiar, the wonder I once felt became muted. I grew up, and like Hansberry, I wanted to be a writer. Like her, I eventually moved to New York City to pursue my dream and when I left, I brought my dog eared copy of her legendary play along with me. In a way, the familiarity of its pages reminded me of home.
In the introduction of To Be Young, Gifted and Black, James Baldwin writes, “[This] is the portrait of an individual, the workbook of an artist, and the chronicle of a rebel who celebrated the human spirit.” Baldwin, who was close friends with Hansberry, calls her curated autobiography “prophetic,” crystallizing what drew me to its pages with pristine clarity: “because of her intrinsic sense of vulnerability as a woman in a violent universe; perhaps because of her multifold experience as a Black woman; perhaps because of her intuitive view of human frailty…”
Through the eyes of Baldwin, I realized that my fascination with Hansberry was rooted in my hunger to witness the intersection of an artist’s greatness and their realness. Although A Raisin in the Sun introduced me to her as a literary icon, it was To Be Young, Gifted and Black that made me see her as a fully-formed person.
Since I learned about women like Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and even Bessie Head, their lives have seemed colossal to me. Their legacies are all encompassing. Without their words the literary canon would still be so painfully narrow, male, and white. Their books line my shelves and have to an extent propelled me towards a path I might not have otherwise taken in life, but sometimes I wonder: do I have what it takes to sit on the shelf beside them? My fascination with the truths they told and the way that they told them made me switch my major from Psychology to English during undergrad. Their words inspired me to pursue my Masters in English and my MFA in Fiction, two decisions that helped me find the courage to consider myself capable of telling stories of my own but also two decisions that left me with massive amounts of student loan debt and subsequent anxiety. I wanted to be like my literary foremothers, but every time I sat down to write, I was paralyzed by the fear of what would happen if the stories within me couldn’t keep a roof over my head. With each blink of the cursor, I worried what would happen if no one was willing to hear or pay for what I have to say. Faced with the emotional and monetary cost of following in the footsteps of my heroes, I felt small and overwhelmed. They’d paved the way for me, but I was too terrified to follow.
Faced with the emotional and monetary cost of following in the footsteps of my heroes, I felt small and overwhelmed. They’d paved the way for me, but I was too terrified to follow.
When I decided to press pause on all of my responsibilities and go to Harlem, it felt like a pilgrimage. I was desperately in search of salvation. Rather than being faced with my own fears and shortcomings as a writer and the reality of what it means to exist in the world as a woman who is also Black, I sat at the Schomburg watching as archivists gently placed Hansberry’s handwritten letters, photographs, and books on a table towards the front of the room. I was starstruck at the tactile proximity of her life to mine. Glancing down at the curvature of her cursive and the telegrams sent the night that her historic play debuted, I felt like the little girl I once was, so desperate to get closer to find pieces of myself reflected by her words. I went to Harlem with a hungry heart and in that moment, I was fulfilled.
Crowded alongside others who cherished Lorraine just as much as me, I stared down in awe at the almost-final manuscript for A Raisin in the Sun before spotting my favorite passage from To Be Young, Gifted and Black. In 1962, on the night before Easter, Hansberry confessed, “Yesterday I was alone. And so I did some work. I don’t really remember what. And then in a fit of self-sufficiency went shopping in the supermarket… I rather knew the kind of weekend that was coming. But was not depressed…” She goes on, examining why she felt alone, the benefits of being alone, and why loneliness so often goes hand in hand with shame. Though I’d read these words so many times before, seeing them on a page that I imagined she once held in one hand while taking a deep drag from a cigarette or drinking coffee from a ceramic cup, made me feel as if her words could be my own, that the same loneliness and frustrations she felt were also what fueled her greatness, and that to be weary of the world can also help you heal what ails it. Later in the passage, her melancholy turns into determined triumph. “I shall be beautiful this time next year… And I shall still be lonely…. At the typewriter.” If Lorraine Hansberry was able to find sanity and solace through writing, perhaps I could do the same.
Later that night, I watched Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart with a marrow-deep sense of hope. My deadlines, already late, were still looming on the horizon, and my self-doubt, although muted by the thrill of the day, seethed beneath the surface of my bliss. The world was still white and racist and the threat of the blank page still filled me with apprehension, but as minutes slipped away and the documentary progressed, I found an unwavering peace. There in the dark of the Langston Hughes Auditorium, Hansberry helped me remember that no matter what, “I am a writer. I am going to write” — and that yes, that’s radical. Centering my day around her legacy and the impassioned urgency of the words she left behind, forced me to embrace my own future with eagerness. Despite my fears, my heart was open and filled with joy.