How many people remember the moving song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” written and sung by Nina Simone which she released in 1969 as a tribute to her dear friend Lorraine Hansberry?
By the way, if you don’t know who Lorraine Hansberry is and you’re African-American, you need to turn in your “Black card” immediately. For others, I’ll provide a brief lesson in Black history.
Hansberry was a gifted writer, a playwright actually, who in 1965 at the age of 34, died from cancer. But she left her mark on Black America and the world after penning the legendary play, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Simone’s song would become one of the anthems of the civil rights movement and as a little Black boy growing up in Detroit, it often provided me with much-needed encouragement. Around the same time, James Brown, with processed hair, skintight pants and an entertainer second-to-none who could effortlessly do the “splits,” provided us with another life-changing anthem, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Both songs led the way in presenting new visions of Blackness — inspiring and challenging Blacks to reconsider ages-old images that had devalued our skin color, our heritage, our bodies and our inherent beauty.
But it wasn’t just the profound messages of songs like those to which I so desperately clung. What ultimately made the difference was the “meat” I was being fed until the time came for me to go out into the world as a man. It was the encouraging words, the heartfelt glances, the bear hugs, tender kisses and the many eternal truths — a treasure trove freely given to me from my father, mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents and years later, from my “second father” — a man whose blood I did not share but who always treated me as if I were his very own son, filling in the blanks that had been left upon the sudden, surprising death of my biological dad.
I would learn that being a young Black boy and later a Black man, was my destiny — a destiny of which would always be proud. Some lessons would center on the importance of accepting my broad nose and full lips, my caramel-colored skin, the bounce in my walk and the sing-song inflections of my talk — nuances and characteristics uniquely connected to my Blackness, my Black community and my Black family.
Most of all, I discovered that after wrestling with the idea once or twice during my formative years, I had turned away from the impossible dream of one day being magically transformed from Black to white. But some of my friends had learned something else — fooled into believing one of our childhood chants which said, “white is right, yellow is mellow but Black should get back.”
In other words, they learned how to hate themselves.
Today I am the father of two — a female and male child, and the grandfather of two young warriors. Each time we talk, or come together, I hold them tightly, brush my whiskers across their faces and tell them how much I love them. I tell them to remember that they should always be proud of the skin they’re in.
Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!