Black Agenda Review

February 21, 2024

 

At a rally against the House Un-American Activities Committee, insurgent playwright Lorraine Hansberry called on artists to shake off the fear and incoherency of the world to defend the peoples’ rights.

On October 27, 1962, the great Black playwright Lorainne Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965) delivered a sober, moving, and unfortunately prescient speech on artists and the politics of art. Titled “A Challenge to Artists,” the speech was given at a rally in New York City calling for the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The House Un-American Activities Committee was a notorious Cold War tribunal where U.S. government officials, like Joseph McCarthy, conducted witch-hunts against those accused of being Communists. The Committee – and McCarthyism – not only ruined the careers and lives of many radical artists, including Paul Robeson, the acclaimed concert performer, actor, and activist but, as Hansberry pointed out, it also created a culture of paranoia and fear that made many artists retreat from politics and detach themselves from the real world. This retreat, combined with the embrace of opportunism by artists, was a source of despair for Hansberry. “If all one’s morality is wedded to the opportunist, the expedient in life, how can one have the deepest, most profound moral outrage about the the condition of the Negro people in the United States?” she asked.

While the rank stench of Cold War anti-Communism has continued into our present, one could probably say that the ruinous taint of “Communism” has now been supplanted by the all-encompassing epithet of “anti-Semitism,” with the same repressive silencing of activists and artists. However, Hansberry’s “challenge” to artists suggests another way forward – a way forward that is committed to defending the people’s rights, to “paint them, sing them, write about them.” While these actions may not be fashionable in these days of fear and opportunism, Hansberry would argue that to not move in this way, to not righteously speak to the confusion and contradiction and incoherency of the world, means that artists are “indulging in a luxurious complicity — and no other thing.”

Hansberry lived up to this challenge in the plays, speeches, and writings she produced over a tragically short life. She died of pancreatic cancer before she turned 35. But her challenge remains. We would honor her legacy by taking it up. Hansberry’s “A Challenged to Artists” is reproduced below.
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A Challenge to Artists
Lorraine Hansberry

I am afraid that I haven’t made a speech for a very long time, and there is a significance in that fact, which is part of what I should like to talk about this evening.

A week or so ago I was at my typewriter working on a scene in a play of mine in which one character, a German novelist, is trying to explain to another character, an American intellectual, something about what led the better portion of the German intelligentsia to acquiesce to Nazism. He says this: “They [the Nazis] permitted us to feel, in return for our silence, we were nonparticipants—merely irrelevant if inwardly agonized observers who had nothing whatsoever to do with that which was being committed in our names.”

Just as I put the period after that sentence, my own telephone rang and I was confronted with the voice of Dr. Otto Nathan, asking this particular American writer if she would be of this decade and this nation and appear at this rally this evening and join a very necessary denunciation of a lingering American kind of travesty.

It is the sort of moment of truth that dramatists dearly love to put on the stage but find as uncomfortable as everyone else in life. To make it short, however, I am here.

I mean to say that one can become detached in this world of ours; we can get to a place where we read only the theater or photography pages of our newspapers. And then we wake up one day and find that the better people of our nation are still where they were when we last noted them: in the courts defending our Constitutional rights for us.

This makes me feel that it might be interesting to talk about where are our artists in the contemporary struggles. Some of them, of course, are being heard and felt. Some of the more serious actresses such as Shelley Winters and Julie Harris and a very thoughtful comedian such Steve Allen have associated themselves with some aspect of the peace movement and Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte have made significant contributions to the Negro struggle. But the vast majority—where are they?

Well, I am afraid that they are primarily where the ruling powers have always wished the artist to be and to stay: in their studios. They are consumed, in the main, with what they consider to be larger issues—such as “the meaning of life,” et cetera….I personally consider that part of this detachment is the direct and indirect result of many years of things like the House Committee and concurrent years of McCarthyism in all its forms. I mean to suggest that the climate of fear, which we were once told, as I was coming along, by wise men, would bear a hitter harvest in the culture of our civilization, has in fact come to pass. In the contemporary arts, the rejection of this particular world is no longer a mere grotesque threat, but a fact.

Among my contemporaries and colleagues in the arts the search for the roots of war, the exploitation of man, of poverty and of despair itself, is sought in any arena other than the one which has shaped these artists. Having discovered that the world is incoherent, they have some—of them—also come to the conclusion that it is also unreal and, in any case, beyond the corrective powers of human energy. Having determined that life is in fact an absurdity, they have not yet decided that the task of the thoughtful is to try and help impose purposefulness on that absurdity. They don’t yet agree, by and large, that simply being against life as it is not enough; that simply not being a “rhinoceros” is not enough. That, moreover, replacing phony utopianisms of one kind with vulgar and cheap philosophies of accommodation is also not enough. In a word, they do not yet agree that it is perhaps the task, I should think certainly the joy, of the artist to chisel out some expression of what life can conceivably be.

The fact is that this unwitting capitulation really does aim to be a revolt; really does aim to indict—something. Really does aim to be partisan in saying no to a world which it generally characterizes as a “brothel.” I am thinking now, mainly, of course, of writers of my generation. It is they, in whom we must depend so heavily for the refinement and articulation of the aspiration of man, who do not yet agree that if the world is a brothel, then someone has built the edifice; and that if it was the hand of man, then the hand of man can reconstruct it—that whatever man renders, creates, imagines, he can render afresh, re-create and even more gloriously re-imagine. But, I must repeat, that anyone who can even think these days is held to be an example of unparalleled simple-mindedness.

Why? For this is what is cogent to our meeting tonight; the writers that I am presently thinking of come mainly from my generation. That is to say that they come from a generation which was betrayed in the late forties and fifties by the domination of McCarthyism. We were ceaselessly told, alter all, to be everything which mutilates youth: to be silent, to be ignorant, to be without unsanctioned opinions, to be compliant and, above all else, obedient to all the ideas which are in fact the dregs of an age. We were taught that agitational activity in behalf of changing this world was nothing but an expression, among other things, of our “neurotic compulsions” about our own self-dissatisfactions because our mothers dominated our fathers or some such as that. We were told in an age of celebrated liberations of repressions that the repression of the urge to protest against war was surely the only respectable repression left in the universe.

As for those who went directly into science or industry it was all even less oblique than any of that. If you went to the wrong debates on campus, signed the wrong petitions, you simply didn’t get the job you wanted and you were forewarned of this early in your college career.

And, of course, things are a little different than in my parents’ times — I mean, with regard to the candor with which young people have been made to think in terms of money. It is the only single purpose which has been put before them. That which Shakespeare offered as a curse, “Put money in thy purse,” is now a boast. What makes me think of that in connection with what we are speaking of tonight? Well, I hope that I am wise enough to determine the nature of a circle. If, after all, the ambition in life is merely to be rich, then all which might threaten that possibility is much to be avoided, is it not? This means, therefore, not incurring the disfavor of employers. It means that one will not protest war if one expects to draw one’s livelihood from, say, the aircraft industry if one is an engineer. Or, in the arts, how can one write plays which have implicit or explicit in them a quality of the detestation of commerciality if in fact one is beholden to the commerciality of the professional theater? How can one protest the criminal persecution of political dissenters if one has already discovered at nineteen that to do so is to risk a profession? If all one’s morality is wedded to the opportunist, the expedient in life, how can one have the deepest, most profound moral outrage about the the condition of the Negro people in the United States? Particularly, thinking of expediency, when one has it dinned into one’s ears day after day that the only reason why, perhaps, that troublesome and provocative group of people must some day be permitted to buy a cup of coffee or rent an apartment or get a job — is NOT because of the recognition of the universal humanity of the human race, but because it happens to be extremely expedient international politics to now think of granting the things!

As I stand here I know perfectly well that such institutions as the House Committee, and all the other little committees, have dragged on their particular obscene theatrics for all these years not to expose “Communists” or do anything really in connection with the “security” of the United States, but merely to create an atmosphere where, in the first place, I should be afraid to come here tonight at all and, secondly, absolutely guarantee that I will not say what I am going to say, which is this:

I think that my government is wrong. I would like to see them turn back our ships from the Caribbean. The Cuban people, to my mind, and I speak only for myself, have chosen their destiny and I cannot believe that it is the place of the descendants of those who did not ask the Monarchists of the 18th century for permission to make the United States a republic, to interfere with the twentieth-century choice of another sovereign people.

I will go further, speaking as a Negro in America, and impose a little of what Negroes say all the time to each other on what I am saying to you. And that is that it would be a great thing if they would not only turn back the ships from the Caribbean but turn to the affairs of our country that need righting. For one thing, empty the legislative and judicial chambers of the victims of political persecution so we know why that lamp is burning out there in the Brooklyn waters. And, while they are at it, go on help fulfill the American dream and empty the southern jails of the genuine heroes, practically the last vestige of dignity that we have to boast about at this moment in our history; those students whose imprisonment for trying to insure what is already on the book is our national disgrace at is moment.

And I would go so far, perhaps with an over sense of drama, but I don’t think so, to say that maybe without waiting for another two men to die, that we send those troops to finish the Reconstruction in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and every place else where the fact of our federal flag flying creates the false notion that what happened at the end of the Civil War was the defeat of the slavocracy at the political as well as the military level. And I say this not merely in behalf of the black and oppressed but, for a change, and more and more thoughtful Negroes must begin to make this point, also for the white and disinherited of the South, those poor whites who, by the millions, have been made the tragic and befuddled instruments of their own oppression at the hand of the most sinister political apparatus in our country. I think perhaps that if our government would do that it would not have to compete in any wishful way for the respect of the new black and brown nations of the world.

Finally, I think that all of us who are thinking such things, who wish to exercise these rights that we are here defending tonight, must really exercise them. Speaking to my fellow artists in particular, I think that we must paint them, sing them, write about them. All these matters which are not currently fashionable. Otherwise, I think, as I have put into the mouth of my German novelist, we are indulging in a luxurious complicity—and no other thing.

I personally agree with those who say that from here on in, if we are to survive, we, the people, still an excellent phrase, we the people of the world must oblige the heads of all governments to become responsible to us. I personally do not feel that it matters if it be the government of China presently engaging in incomprehensible and insane antics at the border of India or my president, John F. Kennedy, dismissing what he knows to be in the hearts of the American people and engaging in overt provocation with our sister people to the South. I think that it is imperative to say “No” to all of it; no to war of any kind, anywhere. And I think, therefore, and it is my reason for being here tonight, that it is imperative to remove from the American fabric any and all such institutions or agencies as the House Committee on Un-American Activities which are designated expressly to keep us from saying– “No!”

 

-Lorraine Hansberry, “A Challenge to Artists,” speech delivered at Rally to Abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, Manhattan Center, New York, N.Y., Oct. 27, 1962, published in Freedomways 3 (Winter 1963), 31-35. Also available as “… My Government is Wrong!” on the vinyl long-playing record, Lorraine Hansberry Speaks Out – Art And The Black Revolution  (Caedmon Records – TC 1352), 1972.