For some time now--I think since I was a child--I have been possessed of the desire to put down the stuff of my life. That is a commonplace impulse, apparently, among persons of massive self-interest; sooner or later we all do it. And, I am quite certain, there is only one internal quarrel: how much of the truth to tell? How much, how much, how much! It is brutal, in sober uncompromising moments, to reflect on the comedy of concern we all enact when it comes to our precious images!
Even so, when such vanity as propels the writing of such memoirs is examined, certainly one would wish at least to have some boast of social serviceability on one's side. I shall set down in these pages what shall seem to me to be the truth of my life and essences….which are to be found, first of all, on the Southside of Chicago, where I was born….
I was born May 19, 1930, the last of four children.
Of love and my parents there is little to be written: their relationship to their children was utilitarian. We were fed and housed and dressed and outfitted with more cash than our associates and that was all. 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; that there was nothing enormously difficult about life; that one succeeded as a matter of course.
Life was not a struggle--it was something that one did. One won an argument because, if facts gave out, one invented them--with color! The only sinful people in the world were dull people. And, above all, there were two things which were never to be betrayed: the family and the race. But of love, there was nothing ever said.
If we were sick, we were sternly, impersonally and carefully nursed and doctored back to health. Fevers, toothaches were attended to with urgency and importance; one always felt important in my family. Mother came with a tray to your room with the soup and Vick’s salve or gave the enemas in a steaming bathroom. But we were not fondled, any of us-head held to breast, fingers about that head-until we were grown, all of us, and my father died.
At his funeral I at last, in my memory, saw my mother hold her sons that way, and for the first time in her life my sister held me in her arms I think. We were not a loving people: we were passionate in our hostilities and affinities, but the caress embarrassed us.
We have changed little. . . .
My childhood Southside summers were the ordinary city kind, full of the street games which other rememberers have turned into fine ballets these days, and rhymes that anticipated what some people insist on calling modern poetry:
'Til the Fourth of Ju--Iy, ly, ly!
I remember skinny little Southside bodies by the fives and tens of us panting the delicious hours away:
"May I? "
And the voice of authority: "Yes, you may--you may take one giant step.”
One drew in all one's breath and tightened one's fist and pulled the small body against the heavens, stretching, straining all the muscles in the legs to make--one giant step.
It is a long time. One forgets the reason for the game. (For children's games are always explicit in their reasons for being. To play is to win something. Or not to be “it.” Or to be high pointer, or outdoer or, sometimes--just the winner. But after a time one forgets.)
Evenings were spent mainly on the back porches where screen doors slammed in the darkness with those really very special summertime sounds. And, sometimes, when Chicago nights got too steamy, the whole family got into the car and went to the park and slept out in the open on blankets. Those were, of course, the best times of all because the grownups were invariably reminded of having been children in the South and told the best stories then. And it was also cool and sweet to be on the grass and there was usually the scent of freshly cut lemons or melons in the air. Daddy would lie on his back, as fathers must, and explain about how men thought the stars above us came to be and how far away they were.
I never did learn to believe that anything could be as far away as that. Especially the stars….
Following the success of her play, A Raisin in the Sun in 1958, in 1964 she made the following address to a group of young Black writers.
7 Ladies and gentlemen, Fellow Writers:
I have had an opportunity to read three of the winning compositions in this United Negro College Fund contest--and it is clear I am addressing fellow writers indeed. Miss Purvis, Miss Yeldell, and Mr. Lewis--I commend you and add my personal congratulations to the awards of the afternoon.
Apart from anything else, I wanted to be able to come here and speak with you on this occasion because you are young, gifted, and black. In the month of May in the year 1964, I, for one, can think of no more dynamic combination that a person might be.
The Negro writer stands surrounded by the whirling elements of this world. He stands neither on a fringe nor utterly involved: the prime observer waiting poised for inclusion.
O, the things that we have learned in this unkind house that we have to tell the world about!
Despair? Did someone say despair was a question in the world? Well then, listen to the sons of those who have known little else if you wish to know the resiliency of this thing you would so quickly resign to mythhood, this thing called the human spirit….
Life? Ask those who have tasted of it in pieces rationed out by enemies.
Love? Ah, ask the troubadors who come from those who have loved when all reason pointed to the uselessness and foolhardiness of love. Perhaps we shall be the teachers when it is done. Out of the depths of pain we have thought to be our sole heritage in this world-O, we know about love!
And that is why I say to you that, though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic--to be young, gifted, and black.
Look at the work that awaits you!
Write if you will: but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be--if there is to be a world.
Write about all the things that men have written about since the beginning of writing and talking--but write to a point. Work hard at it, care about it.
Write about our people: tell their story. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention. Don't pass it up. Use it.