March 12, 2023

On this date, “A Raisin in the Sun” exploded on Broadway

On March 11, 1959, the play A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry, premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.

It was the first Broadway play written by a black woman.

It was the first Broadway play directed by a black director, Lloyd Richards.

And, rather unexpectedly, Hansberry’s intimate story about hopes and troubles of “one Negro family” in segregated Southside Chicago was a critical and popular success.

The play significantly boosted the acting careers of cast members Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett, Jr. — who went on to star in the highly-praised film version.

It also made the phrase “a raisin in the sun” familiar to millions of people.

Hansberry didn’t coin the title of her play. She took it from a famous poem by a groundbreaking “Harlem Renaissance” poet and novelist she admired, Langston Hughes.

The poem was originally titled “Harlem.” But it’s sometimes referred to as “A Dream Deferred” — partly because one of the lines in it includes that memorable phrase and partly because it first appeared in 1951 in a collection of Hughes’ poetry titled Montage of a Dream Deferred.

Race relations in America have obviously improved since 1951. But “Harlem” still packs a wallop.

It’s short and full of potent imagery. Here’s the complete poem:

          What happens to a dream deferred?

          Does it dry up
          like a raisin in the sun?
          Or fester like a sore —
          And then run?
          Does it stink like rotten meat?
          Or crust and sugar over —
          like a syrupy sweet?

          Maybe it just sags
          like a heavy load.

          Or does it explode?

Although Lorraine Hansberry didn’t coin the phrase “a raisin in the sun,” she did create an equally famous one before her untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 1965.

The year before she died, Hansberry was invited to be a speaker at a ceremony honoring a group of bright, young African-Americans who had won a creative writing contest sponsored by the United Negro College Fund and Readers Digest.

Hansberry gave a brief, moving speech at that ceremony on May 1, 1964. In it, she coined the phrase “to be young, gifted, and black.”  
“Apart from anything else,” Hansberry told the young writers, “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…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. Good luck to you. This Nation needs your gifts. Perfect them!”

In 1969, Hansberry’s ex-husband Robert Nemiroff used parts of her plays, speeches, essays, letters and unpublished works to create a play dramatizing her life. He titled it To Be Young, Gifted and Black and later published it as a book.

That year, Hansberry’s friend Nina Simone also released a stirring song that used the same title, which she wrote with musician and lyricist Weldon Irvine as a tribute to Hansberry.

“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” became Simone’s signature song and has been covered by many other great music artists, including Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway and Dionne Warwick.

In 2008, an African-American was elected President of the United States. In 2012, President Barack Obama was reelected for a second term.

Some of the credit for that highly visible sign of change surely goes to writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes, whose eloquent works helped raise awareness of and inspire the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Related reading and listening…

February 24, 2023

“Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped.”

The publication of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1859 helped launch the modern science of evolution.

It also created a firestorm of controversy, by suggesting that all species — including homo sapiens — evolved from “lower” life forms.

However, Darwin did not explicitly state that humans evolved from ape and monkey-like precursors in On the Origin of Species.

He saved that bombshell for his next major work, The Descent of Man, which was first published in London on February 24, 1871.

The final chapter of that book, Chapter XXI—MAURITIUS TO ENGLAND, contains Darwin’s famous (and infamous) statement:

       “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.” 

There were— and still are— some people who are unwilling to accept the theory of evolution because it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

But from a scientific perspective, Darwin’s basic conclusions have withstood the test of time.

That’s not to say he got everything right.

Over the past 140 years, other scientists have determined that some things Darwin postulated were wrong.

Thus, like every science, the science of evolution has evolved.

Darwin himself predicted this would happen.

In the preface to the Second Edition of The Descent of Man, published in 1874, he noted:

       “It is probable, or almost certain, that several of my conclusions will hereafter be found erroneous; this can hardly fail to be the case in the first treatment of a subject.”

One of Darwin’s conclusions that’s still accepted as a basic fact by scientists is that “man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped.”

That’s also one of the things that is most vehemently rejected by Darwin’s religious critics.

They believe God created humans and everything else and that “Darwinism is atheism.”

As explained on the excellent website, Darwin called himself an agnostic, not an atheist.

He felt that God’s existence was outside the realm of scientific research.

Near the end of his life, Darwin put it this way:

       “I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us.”

One thing is clear…

Darwin’s Descent of Man both shed lasting light on and generated lasting heat over the topic of human evolution.

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Related reading and listening…

February 09, 2023

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige (1906-1982) is considered one of the greatest pitchers in history — despite the fact that he only played for teams in the major leagues for about five years. 

Paige actually had a very long career in baseball that started in 1926.

But from the mid-1920s to the late 1940s he was limited to playing for teams in “The Negro League,” due to the strict racial segregation that continued to be imposed in America during the first half of the 20th century.

In 1947, Paige’s former Negro League teammate Jackie Robinson finally broke baseball’s color barrier.

The following year, at age 42, Paige was recruited as a pitcher by the Cleveland Indians.

That simultaneously made him both the first Negro pitcher in the American League and the oldest major league “rookie” ever.

In 1951, Paige moved to Missouri to play for the St. Louis Browns.

I once owned the Topps baseball card showing him in his Browns uniform, with his name misspelled as “Satchell.” Looking at the prices that card fetches now on eBay, I wish I still had it.

In 1953, a magazine story about Paige included what became a famous quote that’s included in many books about quotations and baseball:

      “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” [Sometimes given as “…may be gaining...”]

This the best known of the six rules attributed to Paige in that article, which was written by sports journalist Richard Donovan and published in the June 13, 1953 issue of Collier’s.

The six rules, (variously known as Satchel Paige’s “Six Rules for a Long Life” and “Rules for Staying Young”) were featured in a sidebar of the article and recorded as follows:

      “1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
       2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
       3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
       4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social rumble ain’t restful.
       5. Avoid running at all times.
       6. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

The Collier’s article made Paige’s rules famous.

Paige enhanced awareness of them by reciting the rules to fans and reporters throughout the rest of his life. He even had them printed on the back of his business cards.

However, over the years, questions arose about whether Satchel’s rules had actually been created by him or by Richard Donovan.

The truth seems to be somewhere in between.

In Paige’s 1962 memoir, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, he said he did have a system of personal rules that helped him be one of the best — and eventually oldest — pitchers in baseball.

“Some sports guy on the East Coast heard me talking about them once and then he went and turned them into a bunch of rules for me to stay young,” Paige recalled.

Regarding the most-quoted rule about not looking back, Paige said: “That last one that fellow wrote was my real rule. When you look back, you know how long you’ve been going and that just might stop you from going any farther...So I didn’t.”

In the excellent biography SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend, author Larry Tye concludes that the rules were based on things Paige said to Donovan during hours of interviews, but the exact wording was probably Donovan’s.

Paige retired from major league baseball not long after Collier’s published his “six rules” in 1953. But he remained a popular celebrity until his death from a heart attack in 1982.

His heart problem may have had something to do with the fact that — by his own admission — Satchel regularly violated Rule #1.

On February 9, 1971, Paige became the first black "Negro League" veteran to be nominated for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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Further reading and viewing about Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues

January 28, 2023

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

The quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is
often mistakenly attributed to the Irish lawyer and politician John Philpot Curran and frequently to Thomas Jefferson.

In fact, Curran’s line was somewhat different. What he actually said, in a speech in Dublin on July 10, 1790, was:

       “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

And, according to Jefferson scholars there is “no evidence to confirm that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ or any of its variants.”

Traditionally, the most famous use of “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” that’s included in books of quotations is from a speech made by the American Abolitionist and liberal activist Wendell Phillips on January 28, 1852.

Speaking to members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society that day, Phillips said:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

However, Anna Berkes, a research librarian at The Jefferson Library, has discovered uses that predate Phillips’ speech.

In a post on the Jefferson Library blog, Berkes wrote:

“Not to be mean to Mr. Wendell Phillips, but he’s about to get slightly less famous. After two days of ridiculously feverish searching, I’ve traced the purported Phillips version of this quote all the way back to 1809.  (For the record, Mr. Phillips was -2 years old at that time.)”

Berkes noted that, in a biography of Major General James Jackson published in 1809, author Thomas Charlton used the same words, just in a different order.

Charlton wrote that that one of the obligations of biographers of famous people is “fastening upon the minds of the American people the belief, that ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’

Berkes also found several news articles that include the more familiar version of the line as later used by Phillips.

For example, an article in the May 2, 1833 edition of The Virginia Free Press and Farmers' Repository says:

“Some one has justly remarked, that ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ Let the sentinels on the watch-tower sleep not, and slumber not.”

One of the news articles she found, in the January 4, 1838 edition of the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, uses the same quote and attributes it to Thomas Jefferson — one of the earliest sources to do so.

Berkes reiterated that the consensus of Jefferson scholars is that he never spoke or wrote the words “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

She also concluded that, although Wendell Phillips still gets credit for the most famous use of that phrase, it was already a well-known saying prior to his speech in 1852.

Many witty variations on this old saying have been created since then.

My personal favorite is by the novelist Aldous Huxley.

In his spoken introduction to the 1956 CBS Radio Workshop adaptation of his novel Brave New World, Huxley said: “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.”

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to reader Chris Cox for emailing me a correction on my original citation of the Huxley quote and for giving me the link to listen to the CBS Radio adaptation on the Internet Archive.

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 Related reading…

January 14, 2023

The MLK speech that almost wasn’t the “I Have a Dream” Speech – and the one that might have been…


The observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, on the third Monday of January each year, always makes me think of his most quoted words: “I have a dream…”

After doing some research on the story behind those famous words, I find them even more memorable.

August 28th is generally cited as the anniversary of King’s use of “I have a dream…” because he spoke them in the moving, high-profile address he gave at the historic “March on Washington” on August 28, 1963.  

What he said that day is rightly considered to be one of the greatest speeches in history.

It is generally referred to as the “I Have a Dream” Speech, due to King’s repeated use of the phrase during the last third of his remarks. 

But if King had stuck to the written version of the speech he’d prepared it would be known by a different name.

The typed copy that his aides gave to the press that morning and that King carried to the podium was titled “Normalcy – Never Again.”

The words “I have a dream” were not in it.

In fact, King had consciously decided not to include that phrase because he’d used it before in several other speeches.

He and his aides thought it might seem stale.

He had used the phrase recently in another high-profile speech at a major civil rights rally in Detroit on June 23, 1963.

In that speech he repeated “I have a dream” numerous times in a series of sentences that are very similar to those he later used in the most famous part of his August 28 speech in Washington.

As noted by many newspaper and magazine articles and the book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream, by Gary Younge, King was inspired to add “I have a dream” to his Washington speech by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

Jackson had sung two rousing gospel songs shortly before King started speaking and was standing behind him.

During the first eleven minutes of his speech, King basically delivered his prepared remarks.

To people who had heard him speak at other events, and to King himself, it seemed like a good speech, but not quite a great one.

Then, as recounted in Younge’s book, something remarkable happened:

King was winding up what would have been a well-received but, by his standards, fairly unremarkable oration. “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana,” he said. Then, behind him, Mahalia Jackson cried out: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”…Jackson had seen him deliver the dream refrain in Detroit in June and clearly it had moved her.

“Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed,” King said [continuing his prepared remarks]. Jackson shouted again: “Tell ‘em about the dream.” 

King knew what she meant.

He stopped giving his written speech, set the written text aside on the podium, and began talking extemporaneously. Or, more accurately, almost extemporaneously.

When you compare the text of the last part of King’s August 28 speech with the text of his June 23 speech, you can see that some of the most famous parts of what came to be called the “I Have a Dream” Speech were based on lines from the earlier address.

Of course, this does nothing to diminish the amazing eloquence and impact of what King said on the 28th.

But it is interesting to compare some of the parallel language in the two speeches side by side.

If King had not recycled parts of the Detroit speech at the March on Washington, his speech on August 28 might now be called his “Normalcy – Never Again” Speech. And, his Detroit speech might be called his “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Here are some of the parallel lines from both speeches…

From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s
speech in Washington, D.C.
August 28, 1963
(Click here to read the entire speech)

From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s
speech in Detroit
June 23, 1963
(Click here to read the entire speech)

I say to you today…I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

And so this afternoon, I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that “all men are created equal”…I have a dream this afternoon.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi…will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children…will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream this afternoon that one day, one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted…and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

And when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”

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