“The Drinking Gourd” (1960) was an American television show about slavery written by Lorraine Hansberry for NBC. It never aired. NBC thought it was too violent and “divisive”. It did not see print till 1972. It was not till 1977 that black slavery was shown on American television from a black point of view: “Roots” by Alex Haley.
Spoiler alert: the rest of this post gives a short outline of the story (spirituals and debates about slavery left out).
The Drinking Gourd of the title is the Big Dipper. For a slave in the South it pointed the way north, the way to freedom. Hannibal, the main character, is a slave about 19 years old who is thinking about running away.
Hannibal says the only good slave is a bad slave. To keep his human dignity he breaks tools, works slowly, plays sick and often disappears for hours at a time.
Because his mother is the master’s most trusted slave – she cooks for him – the master never comes down hard on Hannibal. But then he gets old and sick and his 30-year-old son Everett takes over.
Everett works the slaves harder and longer because the soil is giving out. He hires an overseer – a piece of white trash in Everett’s eyes.
The overseer, even before he is hired, believes in slavery every bit as much as the slave owners do – even though he owns no slaves, even though the slave owners take all the best land making life hard for him, even though the owners look down on him, even though the preacher tells him that having anything to do with slavery is wrong.
The overseer makes an example of Hannibal: for working too slowly he whips him across the face. That does not stop Hannibal from disappearing the next day. When Everett and the overseer find him in the woods he is playing a banjo for the master’s 11-year-old son. But then they see something far, far worse: a story about the stars in bad handwriting. The boy had been teaching Hannibal his letters so that Hannibal would teach him how to play the banjo.
Hannibal tells them that he cannot unlearn how to read and points out that he can read even though the overseer cannot (true). They could kill him on the spot for the crime of knowing how to read. Instead the overseer blinds him (off stage with terrible screaming).
That night the old, sick master comes to visit Hannibal and his mother to tell them how sorry he is. A few minutes after he leaves he has a heart attack and falls down. He cries out for help. One by one in each of the slave quarters the doors close and the lights go out. Hannibal’s mother sings a song so she does not hear his cries. He dies.
The next morning she takes the master’s gun (she has the keys to everything) and with Hannibal, her little son and Hannibal’s girlfriend they run away.