Why the 60th Anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun' Resonates for Me in a Personal Way
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." A major American classic by any standard, it is also the first Broadway-produced play by an African-American woman. It's a milestone that remains as relevant on March 11, 2019 as it was in 1959.
Several years ago, a Seattle newspaper asked me to review a staging at Seattle Rep, one of the finest regional theaters in the country. A lifelong theater buff, I was thrilled when the editor promised free tickets and a stipend in exchange for my opinion.
Whenever anyone remounts a beloved classic of film or stage, you hope they won't ruin it. So it was with a mixture of anticipation and dread that I made my way to Seattle Center for the opening. But I needn't have worried. As you might expect from a Tony-winning outfit like Seattle Rep, the production was excellent. Although I hadn't seen the play for quite a while, its impact remained undeniable. The play resonates for anyone with a human heart, but it's especially meaningful to African Americans because it takes a hard look at a family divided by conflicting dreams and the internal and external pressures that challenge and shape the black experience to this very day.
But Hansberry's play also has a special place in my personal memory because my brother, Kurt Hill, performed the role of Walter Lee Younger (the Sidney Poitier character) when my alma mater, Drexel Catholic High School, produced the play during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, about a year before the Voting Rights Act became law.
The last time blackface rode into town, the showdown ended with Megyn Kelly losing her job at NBC Today and disappearing from television. But not without lawyering up and collecting a reported $30 million due on the remaining two years of her $69 million contract. That’s how much the network wanted to put an end to the controversy.
Now Blackface is back and ready for another showdown. Will Governor Northam of Virginia lose his job over blackface and Ku Klux Klan images in his medical school yearbook? Will Justin Fairfax, the African-American Lt. Governor, next in line for the top job, be impeached over sexual assault allegations? Can Virginia's attorney general come out of this mess unscathed after revealing that he too has worn blackface? What about Katy Perry's shoes and Gucci's blackface sweater? Or Cindy Sherman's controversial "Bus Rider" series, which became known in the art world as "Cindygate"?
And what about Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, and Jimmy Fallon, who have also resorted to blackface in order to keep the masses entertained? Or the dozens of other American entertainers listed on this Wikipedia entry?
Is there no one who can rid us of this egregious insult once and for all?
Why 'The Green Book' with Its Echoes of Greek Myth, Huckleberry Finn & Cyrano de Bergerac Is a Must See Movie of 2018
One critic calls it Driving Miss Daisy in reverse. But for my money The Green Book goes a lot deeper as it takes a long, hard look at what ails us—and hints at what’s required to heal our national divide. Even though it’s set during the early 1960s before passage of the Civil Rights Act, the movie’s themes could not be more relevant to today.
If you’ve never heard of the actual Green Book, which gives the film its name, you’ll learn during this two-hour excursion that even high-profile African-Americans were not allowed to eat or sleep in “whites only” establishments when they performed in the American Deep South. The film won’t tell you this, but it was a Harlem post-office employee, Victor Green, who published the book. Between 1936 and 1966, the Green Book was the essential guide for black travelers, providing a city-by-city list of restaurants, hotels, and gas stations where you would not be humiliated or harmed.
A hilarious satire about what really went down when a famous coffee house closed its doors for racial-bias training--and one man's campaign to set things right once and for all. (Written under my nom de plume to protect the unprotected.)
It is interesting to note that fifty-four years ago (1961), John Howard Griffin, a white native of Dallas, TX, published Black Like Me, his personal account of riding Greyhound buses and hitchhiking through the segregated South disguised as a black man (with the help of doctor-assisted ultraviolet skin treatments). He did this to expose the difficulties faced by African-Americans during the racially turbulent period of the Civil Rights movement. Although he received many letters of praise and support for what he’d done, he was also met with hostility and numerous threats. Griffin eventually fled to Mexico for safety.
Before that, in 1948, another white man, Pulitzer-prize-winning writer Ray Sprigle, disguised himself as black to write a series of articles entitled, “I Was a Black Man for 30 Days.”
Also worth noting is Grace Halsell’s Soul Sister, her 1969 book about changing the color of her skin in order to discover what it was like to be a black woman in the United States.
Of course, this kind of blackness is temporary. Whites pretending to be black can always make it back to the safety of the white world. Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott did not have this option. So it's no wonder Rachel Dolezal is viewed with a certain degree of suspicion and distrust.
Some have compared her to Chet Haze, Iggy Azalea, M&M, and John Meyer. But she is different from any of these pop starts. Different too from the authors who donned black skin temporarily to write books.
Dolezal did not attempt to co-opt black experience for financial gain. Hers is not the historical insult of "black face" as some claim. As Jelani Cobb points out, she went to work shouldering the burden of African-American causes at the NAACP of all places. Her “outing” has now become the story. And not the work that remains to be done.
We are in a peculiar moment of our evolution. The endless chatter around the specious and confining category of race is an effort to come to terms with our shifting identity. It is an opportunity for society to say what it will and will not allow. People are taking sides and mounting arguments. The NAACP is disappointed. The Today Show interview begins amiably enough but Matt Lauer eventually grills Dolezal as if she were a Nazi war criminal. ("When did you begin to deceive people?") Jon Stewart responds with a simple“Whaaat?” In the end, it is Rachel Dolezal -- and only Rachel Dolezal -- who must decide who and what she is.
A famous literary critic was once asked to define tragedy and came up with this response: “A tragedy is when society wins.” Look at King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, or Othello, and you will see the truth in this. What’s at stake for people like Dolezal is the same as what’s at stake for everyone: How to be your authentic self in a world full of people who would have you become otherwise—some fiction they are willing to accept and tolerate.
All of this is playing out within a few days of the sixth anniversary of Michael Jackson's death (June 25, 2009). Jackson’s reconstructive surgeries were criticized as far away as Pravda as a pathetic attempt to become white. When asked about all this during their brief marriage, Lisa Marie Presley once answered that Jackson was simply exercising his prerogative to redefine himself. America may be in the midst of an identity crisis, but this desire for self-redefinition is as old as the Pilgrims and as mythic as Jay Gatsby. It’s a stony road. Not everybody makes it. But Jackson said it best: In the end, it won’t matter if you’re black or white.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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