Young, gifted and Black
Oh what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and Black
Open your heart to what I mean
In the whole world you know
There’s a million boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and Black
And that’s a fact!
You are young, gifted and Black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
Yours is the quest that’s just begun
When you’re feeling real low
There’s a great truth that you should know
When you’re young, gifted and Black
Your soul’s intact!
To be young, gifted and Black
Oh how I’ve longed to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth
Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and Black
Is where it’s at!
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was first sung by Nina Simone and recorded on her 1970 album Black Gold. The song was written by African-American composer, Weldon Irvine, in remembrance of Simone’s friend, Lorraine Hansberry, a “young, gifted and Black” author and playwright. Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced (1959) on Broadway. Her last play, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, was produced in 1969, five years after she transitioned on January 12, 1965 at a mere 34 years old.
The song “Young, Gifted and Black”, sung by Simone, was considered a Civil Rights anthem. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone was christened the “High Priestess of Soul” by her fans. Simone herself was “young gifted and Black”, considered a child prodigy playing the piano as a four-year-old and studying classical music at the Juilliard School of Music in New York (1951) when she was in her last year of high school.
Simone won an international following during the 1960s Civil Rights movement with several protest songs including “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)”, a tribute to civil rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which she wrote the day King was assassinated and “Mississippi Goddam”, a tune about the plight of African-Americans, which she wrote and recorded after four African-American girls were killed when a White man bombed an African American church in Birmingham, Alabama.
In her 1992 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, Simone describes her feelings at the moment she heard of the bombing of the church and her decision to write a song to express those feelings: “I was sitting there in my den on September 15 when news came over the radio that somebody had thrown dynamite into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama while Black children were attending a Bible study class. Four of them had been killed. Later that day in the rioting which followed, Birmingham police shot another Black kid and a White mob pulled a young Black man off his bicycle and beat him to death out in the street.
“It was more than I could take and I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. I suddenly realised what it was to be Black in America in 1963 – it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. I sat down at my piano. An hour later I came out of my apartment with the sheet music for ‘Mississippi Goddam’ in my hand. It was my first civil rights song and it came out of me quicker than I could write it down. I knew then that I would dedicate myself to the struggle for Black justice, freedom and equality under the law for as long as it took, until all our battles were won.”
Although Simone was known as the “High Priestess of Soul”, her repertoire included African songs, blues, gospel, jazz and pop music. In spite of her popularity internationally she suffered racism in her homeland and to escape it and the White supremacist culture of America, she fled the U.S. to live in distant places including Barbados, Liberia, Paris, Switzerland and the Netherlands before moving to Bouc-Bel-Air, near Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where she transitioned on April 21, 2003.
Her work has been sampled by younger African-American artists including Talib Kweli who sampled “Sinnerman” on his 2002 released “Get By” and Timbaland on his 2007 released “Oh Timbaland.” Simone’s song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, was sampled by Devo Springsteen on “Misunderstood” from Common’s 2007 album Finding Forever and by producers Rodnae and Mousa for the song “Don’t Get It” on Lil Wayne’s 2008 album The Carter III. The song “See-Line Woman” was sampled by Kanye West for “Bad News” on his album 808s and Heartbreak.
The sampling of Simone’s songs by members of the younger generation may not be protest songs but Weldon Irvine who wrote “Young, Gifted and Black” for Simone a generation ago kept the protest song genre alive for another generation. Irvine produced “The Amadou Project: The Price of Freedom” ensuring that Black music in the 21st century can continue to raise the issues that affect our community.
In reaction to the news of the acquittal of the four New York policemen who had killed unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo (firing 41 times), Irvine produced “The Amadou Project”, a collection of songs dedicated to Diallo in 2002. The 24-track presentation includes offerings from Q-Tip, Talib Kweli and Mos Def rhyming on the song “Make It All Better”. This is reminiscent of Simone’s reaction to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the killing of the four African-American children which led to the writing of “Mississippi Goddam”.
The compilation of songs on the Amadou Project is just one reminder that there are now billions of our young people who are “young, gifted and Black.”
The murder of unarmed African-American teen, Trayvon Martin, on February 26 is a reminder that even in the 21st century we still have a long way to go to ensure justice is served when members of our community are injured or killed.
In Toronto, our “young, gifted and Black” youth are striving and achieving in spite of challenges and setbacks. On Wednesday, June 13, one of our “young, gifted and Black” students who migrated from Guyana as an eight-year-old will be graduating from the University of Toronto. Congratulations to Shequita Thompson (the graduate) and her parents, Malcolm and Cecily Thompson, who nurtured that spark in their “young, gifted and Black” child so that she could become the confident and talented young woman she is today. To be young, gifted and Black is still “where it’s at!”