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The Scars of the Ghetto

The article that appears below is reprinted from the February 1965 issue of Monthly Review. Despite her small body of work and short life, Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965) is considered one of the great African-American dramatists of the twentieth century. Her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) is required reading, and performed regularly, in high schools and colleges nationwide, as well as on Broadway and London’s West End. Hansberry’s association with the left, and especially with Monthly Review, began in her teenage years. When she moved to New York, she became good friends with Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy. In spring 1964, although terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, she left her hospital bed to speak at a benefit for Monthly Review Press; her speech appeared posthumously as the article below.
Hansberry was a thoroughgoing socialist and radical, committing her time and skills to causes like the peace movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Indeed, A Raisin in the Sun, which draws on events in her own life, is also a biting critique of capitalism, its corruptions, and its devastating human cost. Her father, Carl Hansberry—who had some success in Chicago real estate despite being black and the 1930s depression—was unable to buy a house for his family in a largely white neighborhood because of the then-common restrictive covenants, now called “redlining,” which were used to enforce residential segregation.

He sued and won an ostensibly landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court, Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940) outlawing such covenants. However, the decision was widely ignored or unenforced. As his increasingly radical daughter saw it, the system of residential segregation trumped the legal niceties, leaving the everyday racist reality essentially unaffected by the decision. Moreover, the stress of the long litigation, and the fierce attacks the senior Hansberry was subjected to by white supremacists in the community, caused his health to break down; he died in 1946 at age fifty. None of this tragedy was lost on his only daughter who saw in this family catastrophe a profound failure of “the system.” In the last decade of her short life, Lorraine Hansberry put her writing talent entirely in service to her radical sensibility and her search for revolutionary solutions.

—John J. Simon

 

The most exciting and purposeful events which are presently and regularly occurring in our country are those which involve the efforts of the Negro people of the United States to wrest their birthright of full citizenship from a laggard and oppressive nation. It is, contrary to the myth, an old, old struggle. There isn’t such a thing as the new Negro, if by that term we are made to understand that the present militant surge of the Negro people is without historical precedent. I make a point of saying this everywhere because it seems to me to need a great deal of emphasis. After all, even though it’s not as well known as it should be, the Negro people have sustained one of the most heroic resistances to tyranny in the history of man. Our African ancestors came to the New World fighting slavery by mutiny on the high seas and by suicide. The very character of slavery in the United States was defined by the black man’s repudiation of his enslavement, with which he daily did battle by sabotage, work stoppage, acts of violence against those who enslaved him, and of course, most telling of all, by running away by the thousands from slavery. And when the time came to give the fatal blow to the slave system, Negroes by the tens of thousands fell into the ranks of Lincoln’s Union Army to serve in any way they could to destroy that hideous cancer against human dignity that was the Confederacy. They served as cooks, spies, work battalions, thousands and thousands of men and women. Every moment that could be spared, the ex-slave begged and harassed his liberator to teach him the alphabet and figures. To know of the esteem in which education is held requires some intimacy with the cultural traditions and folkways of Negroes. Suffice it to say that black folk in America have historically regarded education with reverence. All the more poignant and ugly, then, that the withholding of education has been one of the prime instruments of the oppressors of American Negroes—oppressors who have seen to it that even when education could not be entirely withheld it could certainly be made substandard.

I am, for instance, the product of a Jim Crow grade school system. One result of that fact is that to this day I cannot count properly. This despite the fact that my reading scores as a grammar school pupil supposedly reflected the capabilities of the exceptional or so-called gifted child. Apparently something had to suffer. I was given during the grade school years one-half of the amount of education prescribed for each child by the Board of Education of my city. This was so because the children of the Chicago ghetto were jammed into a segregated school system. To this day, I do not add, subtract, or multiply with ease. Our teachers, devoted and indifferent alike, had to sacrifice something to make that system work at all, and in my case it was arithmetic which got put aside most often. Thus, the mind which was able to grasp university level reading materials in the sixth and seventh grades had not been sufficiently exposed to elementary arithmetic to make even simple change in a grocery store. This is what we mean when we speak of the scars, the marks that the ghettoized child carries through life.

To be imprisoned in the ghetto is at best to be forgotten, or at most to be deliberately cheated out of one’s birthright. Equipment, books, actual building space are all cut back on when it comes to the ghetto child. I cannot, also for instance, swim. The reason for this is that there was no pool in our grade school, and a very poorly equipped gymnasium. But here is the truly heart-breaking part. I am speaking of what was not then an old building. On the contrary, it was a relatively new and modern building. It had been built that way purposely without a pool and with inadequate facilities; its substandard quality had been planned from the drawing board. From its inception it had been earmarked as a ghetto school, a school for Negro children, and therefore one in which as many things as possible might be safely thought of as expendable. After all, that’s why the building was built, that’s why the ghetto itself was and is maintained, not to give education but to withhold as much as possible, just as the ghetto exists not to give people homes but to keep them out of as much decent housing as possible.

If one is really to speak of the hatefulness of the oppressive system under which Negroes live, then no matter how much one despairs when one confronts such facts, one must do so, for at this moment the paramount crime in the United States is the refusal of its ruling classes to admit or acknowledge in any way the real scope and scale and character of their oppression of Negroes. That oppression is not a random, helter-skelter, hit-or-miss matter of discrimination here and there against people who just happen to be a different color. It’s not that at all. It is, as that ruling class perfectly well knows, a highly concentrated, universal, and deliberate blanket of oppression pulled tightly and securely over 20 million citizens of this country.

This matter of admitting the true nature of a problem before setting about rectifying it, or even pretending to, is of utmost importance. It cannot only save a great deal of suffering on the part of Negroes, but it can also save considerable embarrassment on the part of the rulers of this nation, for that is what their present course is destined for—the gravest embarrassment.

As we all know, there is something which we might call the “civil rights game” going on in this country, and it is being played right now in Washington. It is a game in which individuals, and indeed whole classes of individuals, who are in every way imaginable committed to the perpetuation of the oppression of Negroes, pretend for a whole variety of fashionable reasons that they are not. A portion of those who play this game go so far as to pretend that not only are they against the present condition of Negroes but they would like to alter that condition for the better; and according to the rules of the game, they are designated by their co-players as civil rights champions and, depending on what is happening on a given day, they debate with one another on the best methods of stalling Negro demands for equality while appearing to be laboring on behalf of Negro equality. Naturally whenever Negroes assert that their situation is intolerable, these game-players point to the game which is going on and say that if those Negroes do not shut up they will stop playing altogether and reveal their true sentiments with regard to Negro freedom—which of course would be one of the healthiest things that could happen to this not-so-healthy country.

That is why I have come here this evening to celebrate with you the recognition of the fact that there is only one place from which that desperately needed pressure on the game is going to come when all is said and done. It’s going to come from 20 million discontented black people who, however, must be led by a new and presently developing young Negro leadership—a leadership which must absolutely, if the present Negro revolt is to turn into a revolution, become sophisticated in the most advanced ideas abroad in the world, a leadership which will have had exposure to the great ideas and movements of our time, a Negro leadership which can throw off the blindness of parochialism and bathe the aspirations of the Negro people in the realism of the twentieth century, a leadership which has no illusion about the nature of our oppression and will no longer hesitate to condemn, not only the results of that oppression, but also the true and inescapable cause of it—which of course is the present organization of American society.

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