THE NEW YORK TIMES, SUNDAY, APRIL 18, 1971
‘Today I Feel Like I Am Somebody!’
By CAMILLE YARBROUGH, actress recently on tour with
Lorraine Hansberry’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”
I knew it was a Black audience before I went out onto the stage. I could feel it. There was an extra festive quality. The kind of excitement I remember that would fill our home in Chicago on holidays, or when relatives would come up from the South and all the family would gather to welcome them over and hear the latest news.
Standing backstage now, on opening night in Detroit, I could hear them talking back and forth across the aisles to one another. Not as first-nighters discussing after-theater drinks, or who is who’s new escort, but as relatives and neighbors. Heavy-set women wearing flowered hats, mothers with babies and small children, groups of young people and middle-aged men with reserved faces. “Have Mr. and Mrs. James got here yet? They’re driving in from Flint you know.”… “My minister and my whole church is here. You know I wouldn’t miss this!”
Finally, the house lights dimmed to out and the taped voice of Lorraine Hansberry could be heard over the music. The audience hushed. I had the feeling that they had been caught in mid-sentence or, having silently eased onto the edge of their seats, were holding their breath. Waiting. The spotlight came up downstage and I wearing slippers and a tattered old robe, walked into it, in the part of Ruth in a scene from “Raisin in the Sun.” Silence. Then from somewhere in the audience…. “Ummm…umph!” Oh yes! We knew each other. We were with family. They laughed easily and gratefully in recognition and, though the cast of “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” is composed of both Black and white actors, there was an additional dimension in the communication between the Blacks in the audience and the Blacks on stage. So we, as Black artists expressing the Black experience, accepted their laughter easily and gratefully in recognition, and the joy, joy of recognition was almost overwhelming.
At Lorraine Hansberry’s words, “I was born Black and a female,” there was an explosion of applause and vocal acknowledgement of “What It Means.”
They recognized and relived with us, some vocally, the childhood games—May I and Oh Merry Mack—and remembered sitting out on back porches, and the slum-slaughtered children wearing colored anklets held up by rubber bands, the agonies of growing up compounded by the agonies of growing up Black in a racist society. And the Sounds. The sound of a Black mother’s voice when she questions her troubled son, the sounds of Black speech inflections and rhythms. A unique way of walking, an attitude of body. The explosive joy of living, of having survived. And what Black person at some time in his or her life has not met the “White Liberal” who desperately holds on to his shallow and exaggerated understanding of what it is to be Black!
I don’t know how many domestics were in the audience, but when she came out on the stage, there was a rather embarrassed recognition and acceptance. Yes, we knew her very well. I remembered when I was a little girl sitting out on the front porch in the early evening, watching the slow trek of this army of sturdy Black women back into the South Side Chicago Ghetto. And, later in the evening, sitting out on their front porches in the summer heat. Just sitting. With a heavy tiredness. And sometimes on such nights these women carried the additional burden of being the victims of ghetto-frustration violence. Their screams and bloody images are vivid in my memory.
You’re taken my blues and gone—
You sing ‘em on Broadway
And you sing ‘em in Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed ‘em up with symphonies
And you fixed ‘em
So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.
You also took my spirituals and gone.
You put me in “Macbeth” and “Carmen Jones”
And all kinds of “Swing Mikados”
And in everything but what’s about me—
But someday somebody’ll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me—
Black and beautiful—
And sing about me,
And out on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Yes, it’ll be me.
It is very infrequent that we Blacks behold true images of ourselves on stage or television or, until relatively recently, in literature. We had almost forgotten who and what we were and, in the confusion caused by a desperate need for employment, we Black artists sometimes had fallen into the suicidal posture of imitating our imitators imitating us. It wasn’t just lack of money that kept us from going to the theater in large numbers until this day. Why should we go? What would we see except insult? As O’Casey wrote from the realities of the Irish experience, so only Blacks can write from the realities of the Black experience.
“People can say it, you know. They talk about it. But I sat in my seat and felt like I was somebody! Everybody did! In the lobby people was just talkin’ and smilin’. Today I feel like I am somebody! Thank you for coming.” She was maybe 50, 55 years old, Black. And she blushed as she spoke, holding my hand firmly with both of her hands. Large, work-strengthened hands with bright nail polish.
I looked at her face and at the faces of all the others who came by the carloads, busloads and on foot. It did not matter where we were: at the largely white University of Alabama where in 1963 Governor Wallace tried to block the enrollment of two Black students; at all-Black Jackson State College in Jackson Mississippi, where two students were recently shot to death and 13 wounded; at Princeton University; at the University of Wisconsin—in all of the 54 cities we visited, the audiences, Black and white, laughed and cried. But always, always, there was a special welcome from the brothers and sisters.
I had seen Black audiences before rise as one, with tears of joy wetting their faces so moved were they at seeing themselves realistically reflected with intelligence and love. Earlier in 1970, I stood on the stage at the end of my performance in James Weldon Johnson’s “Trumpets of the Lord,” immobile—watching through teary eyes this baptism, this crossing over of my people from shadow into substantial Black, the hollow gray places having been filled by their knowledge and acceptance of themselves. They waved their arms, shook their heads, called out in religious salute, rocked, hummed and sat in loving silence.
Now, on this tour, after every performance, students surround us backstage, staring, their eyes bright, shaking hands African-style until the actor’s arms are tired and everybody laughs.
“Right o-o-on, brother! Right o-o-on, sister!”
“We’re so glad you came, you don’t know what this plays means to us.”
“Whitey sho’ needed to hear what you all said up there on that stage.”
“We did, too!” Two brothers spoke: “That lady playing the mother reminded me of my mother.”
“My father was offered some money not to move into this white neighborhood. He didn’t do like you did in the play. He took the money.”
At a Black Student Union reception, the students led us into their lounge as if it were a palace. The room was crowded with students dancing to an Aretha Franklin LP. As we entered, they burst into applause and assembled round us, eager for conversation. There were two sisters with out-of-sight Afros.
“Last year,” one said, “they let 24 Black students into this college. Twenty girls and four boys. They were so afraid of Black men. They don’t seem to understand that we like each other. Now what were we supposed to do behind that? We were crying every night. When they gave a party, we gave our party dresses to the white chicks. A lot of us flunked out. They didn’t care if we flunked out as long as they had their quota of Blacks. Then we got together and made some demands, and they got some Black male students up here and gave us this lounge and a Black studies program.
Our tour took us to most of the Southern states and, as I looked out though the bus window at the rich, red earth, the tall pine trees, the beautiful green hills and valleys, I thought of my father who, like hundreds of thousands of other Blacks, had fled from the South, running, their sweat and blood nourishing that rich red earth, their clothing and flesh torn by those tall pine trees, their breathing labored on those beautiful green hills and fearfully, painfully, silent in those valleys.
I thought of those who had stayed and fought back with word and deed and who had been mentally and physically destroyed. Then today’s Blacks came to mind and what could I feel but pride for a mighty people who, though debased, were still able to create? They nourished this country, this world, with music and dance, with written, oral and visual imagery, with scientific inventiveness, and still they are hollering at the tops of their voices: “Right on!”
This family of Blacks owes a great deal to its writers. To Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ron Milner and all those whom I have not mentioned, who have helped bring us through the shadowy years. Also to the producers, both Black and White, who have had the intelligence and courage to produce good Black theater places.
Black theater is, as all theater should be, a vital theater. It is not a place to go to promote business deals or run away from the realities of life. Nor is it a way-station where old ladies rest every Wednesday and Saturday while on their way to the grave. It is communication, education, religion, love. It is a social organ, in fact. And its cathartic value is not limited to the Black community, but is desperately needed by the White Community. The existence of Black theater, written by Blacks from the realities of the Black experience, directed by Blacks who know intimately the style, dynamics and texture of Black existence, and performed by Blacks who have crossed over, is imperative if we are to have a cohesive society. Though our progress as a people does not depend on it, through the communications of the Black Theater progress can be made less explosive, the dues to be paid less painful.
Unless white avariciousness is deeper than I thought, it should no longer be necessary for whites to run and hide in the suburbs or behind barred doors, or to demand a police state in which they would lose as well as we. If they can force themselves to sit in a theater, hopefully next to a Black, see a Black play, and feel something of the realities of our existence, then, perhaps, that thread of humanity which links us all will be vibrated in them, and the urgency and relentlessness of our demands to take our rightful place in this country, in this world, will be understood.
So Black writers, write on! Right On!
Hold up the mirror that reflects our true image. The strengths and weakness, the hows, the whys.
Strip us of the grotesque and vulgar costumes which distort our Africanisms.
Cleanse us with the purifying knowledge of our ancient and glorious existence on this planet.
Wipe us clean of all self-hatred, then clothe us in the robes of knowledge, creativity, wisdom, and the communal spirit of our ancestors.
There is more work to be done. The shadows are not completely filled in yet. When all the shadowy places are filled in this country, this world will be healthier.
As Lorraine Hansberry wrote:
“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 work hard at it. Care about it. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention. Don’t pass it up. Use it. Good luck to you. This nation needs your gifts. Perfect them.”
*Copyright 1948 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Reprinting from “Selected Poems.” By
Langston Hughes, by permission of the