This past week reminded me of how soothing and vital literature, art, and music are to the world. All of us have spent more than two years exhausted from Covid-19. We are ironically distracted by war, which has overshadowed the banning of books in school. When I was twelve years old, I got hold of a copy of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I read that book from cover to cover in one weekend. It had curses and sex in the text and was filled with violence. It glorified and romanticized gangsterism. It did not make me want to be a Mafia kingpin, eat Italian, or drive the causeway. It did force me into the pages of a dictionary and ask questions. As a 12-year-old black kid in a changing southeast Washington, DC neighborhood, two Italian families were left in my community, and naively I asked questions about the book, thinking they had all the answers. No, all Italians did not say ‘fuhgeddaboudit’ or wear silk suits. Instead, I learned the transistor radio I hid beneath my pillow to listen to West Coast [Senators] games was because of Guglielmo Marconi.
Fighting back the tears from the wall-to-wall coverage of Ukraine and aching heart for its people, I needed a reminder again of why I love the solace of literature. I reached for my treasured copy of the stage play A Raisin in the Sun written by Lorraine Hansberry. After reading some selected passages, it was not enough to quench my thirst. I grabbed my tv remote pressed the DVR setting, and started the movie A Raisin in the Sun (the Sidney Poitier/Claudia McNeil version). If you have not seen it or only watched the remake with Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad, I suggest you find a copy. Seeing the late Mr. Poitier fall to his knees before his mother after losing his father‘s inheritance still freezes me in grief. When Ms. Claudia McNeil confronts her daughter Beneatha’s, played by Diana Sands, defiant resistance, I can see my great- grandmother’s angry, exasperated face—when I messed up.
I remember moving into our new home in 1966 and seeing our white neighbors gawking and shaking their heads. I did not have to ask questions; I had seen the fear, anger, and disappointments in the play and movie in my own home. In the years following, the neighborhood suffered through white flight, and again I was in an all-black neighborhood. It seemed normal to be surrounded by my people, but later, you realize the consequences of cultural segregation. I remember the first day of 5th grade and protecting our books in homemade book covers fashioned from brown bags to hold them together. We pasted a label over the inside cover to obscure the many names of the previous owners to write our names—as owners—inside. Suddenly schools that were regularly maintained were cold in the Winter and hot in late Spring.
Unfortunately, books and literature are under assault because it makes some uncomfortable, and the truth disturbs others. Ms. Hansberry’s title was inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem who wrote:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the Sun?”
Books are meant to teach us, challenge us, inspire us, and most of all, let us dream.
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