A Raisin in the Sun

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2006
Literary Themes for Students: Race and Prejudice
Publisher: Gale
Series: Literary Themes for Students
Document Type: Biography; Plot summary; Book review
Pages: 14
Content Level: (Level 4)

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A Raisin in the Sun
LORRAINE HANSBERRY
1959

INTRODUCTION

Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun opened on March 11, 1959, at the Ethel Barry-more Theatre on Broadway and ran for 530 performances. Directed by Lloyd Richards and starring Sidney Poitier in the role of Walter, it was the first play ever written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. Its overwhelming success led to a New York Drama Circle Award for Hansberry, who also became the youngest person to win in the 1958–1959 season. A Raisin in the Sun is a domestic drama set in an apartment building on the South Side of Chicago sometime between 1945 and 1959. The play's title refers to a line from the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem," also known as "A Dream Deferred": "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?"

The play examines the "deferred dreams" of the Younger family, who live in a tenement building on the South Side of Chicago. Mama and her daughter-in-law Ruth both dream of a better place to live than their cramped apartment, while Walter hopes for the financial independence he believes will come if he can open a liquor store. Beneatha, the only formally educated member of the family, hopes to become a doctor. All these dreams hinge on a ten-thousand-dollar insurance check that comes to the family as a result of Big Walter Younger's death, but as is soon shown, not everyone's dream can survive. Events within the family as Page 413  |  Top of Articlewell as outside of it cause each person to make a choice that none of them could imagine making at the beginning of the play.

Set between the end of World War II in 1945 and the full momentum of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, A Raisin in the Sun examines racial prejudice and discrimination from several perspectives. When the Youngers buy a house in the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park, they are subjected to racist neighbors who try to keep the black family out of their neighborhood. In addition to this external racism, the Youngers also grapple with prejudice and racial identity within their own family. From Beneatha's desire to commune with her African heritage to Walter's rejection of what he calls "the world's most backward race of people," the expectations of race within the Younger family are complex and varied. Each character sees his or her responsibility to their race differently, which creates tension and disagreement until they are able to, temporarily, unite against Karl Lindner, who has come to make a racist offer to the family on move-in day.

The play was significantly cut before its first staging in 1959 to reduce its runtime. The Vintage Book edition of the play restores the cut scenes that were initially excluded. It is considered the most complete edition available. Hansberry is also the author of several other plays, including The Drinking Gourd (1960) and The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1965), and an autobiography: To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words (1970).

A Raisin in the Sun continues to be one of the most performed and anthologized plays in the history of American theater. A revival was performed on Broadway in the summer of 2004, starring Sean "Diddy" Combs as Walter and Phylicia Rashad as Mama. The success of the revival and the four Tony Award nominations it received underscore the enduring truth present in Hansberry's play.

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BIOGRAPHY

LORRAINE HANSBERRY

Lorraine Hansberry was born in Chicago on May 19, 1930. She was the youngest of four children born to schoolteacher and civil rights activist Nannie Perry and her husband, prominent real-estate broker Carl Hansberry. When Hansberry was eight, the family moved into the all-white neighborhood of Woodlawn in Chicago. Despite vicious acts of vandalism and visits from angry mobs, Mr. Hansberry defended his family's right to live there—even taking the matter as far as the Supreme Court (he won in Hansberry v. Lee, 1940). This transition period and the experiences of racism and sexism that followed it played a significant role in Hansberry's childhood, growing up as an African American child in a white, middle-class neighborhood.

Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin from 1948–1950 and later studied African culture and history with legendary scholar W. E. B. Du Bois at the Jefferson School for Social Sciences in New York. During that time, she also wrote for Paul Robeson's Freedom magazine. In 1953, Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish literature student, songwriter, and activist. The couple divorced in 1964.

Just six years after her initial success with A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry died of lung cancer on January 12, 1965, at the age of thirty-four.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act 1, Scene 1

The play begins with lengthy stage directions. It is set on Chicago's South Side "sometime between World War II and the present," which at the time was 1959. The scene opens at the Youngers' house, in what "would be a Page 414  |  Top of Article
Lorraine Hansberry Lorraine Hansberry The Library of Congress comfortable and well-ordered [living] room" that is beginning to show its wear. While it is apparent that at one time the objects in the room were carefully selected and cared for, it is clear now that "Weariness has, in fact, won in this room." Concern about decorum and comfort has given way to the simple act of living. Hansberry establishes this space as one that represents financial struggle, strain, and depression.

It is early on a Friday morning when Ruth Younger, a woman in her thirties with a look of "disappointment [that] has already begun to hang in her face," wakes to assist her family in getting prepared for the day's activities. She rouses her ten-year-old son Travis from the living room couch where he sleeps. He heads toward the washroom that the Youngers must share with other families in their apartment building. Next, Ruth goes to the bedroom to wake her husband, Walter Lee Younger. Walter is described as an "intense young man in his middle thirties, inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits." While Travis is bathing, Walter and Ruth chat as she prepares his breakfast. Shortly thereafter, Travis emerges from the bathroom and his father hurries to take his place. Travis reminds his mother that he needs fifty cents to bring to school, but Ruth tells him, "I ain't got it." When Walter returns, he disagrees with Ruth's decision not to give Travis the money. He gives the boy the fifty cents he requested for school, and an additional fifty cents for "fruit … or [to] take a taxicab to school."

After Travis leaves, Ruth and Walter continue arguing about their precarious financial situation. The Younger family is expecting a life insurance check for ten thousand dollars as a result of Walter's father's death. The money is due to arrive the next day and everyone in the household is anticipating the relief it will bring. Walter works as a chauffeur for a man named Mr. Arnold, and he hopes to use some of the money to put a down payment on a liquor store. Ruth reminds Walter that the check is really his mother's to spend and encourages her husband to finish his breakfast and get to work. It is clear from their dialogue that Walter is dissatisfied with his job and is looking for a way out, but his idea to co-own a liquor store with his friends Bobo and Willy is a risky one that conflicts with Ruth's more cautious approach to survival. Walter equates his wife's hesitance to sabotage and tells her, "That is just what is wrong with the colored woman in this world … Don't understand about building their men up and making 'em feel like they somebody. Like they can do something."

Walter's sister Beneatha enters, "about twenty, [and] as slim and intense as her brother … [but] not as pretty as her sister-in-law." She and Walter engage in morning banter and the topic of conversation quickly turns to Beneatha's ambition to be a doctor. Both Walter and Ruth muse at the rarity of Beneatha's aspirations, noting there "Ain't many girls" who decide to become doctors. The sibling rivalry continues when Walter accuses Beneatha of "acting holy 'round here," because she is in school while the rest of the adult household must work grueling, thankless jobs just to make ends meet. Beneatha responds to Walter's accusation by dropping to her knees and pleading, "forgive me for ever wanting to be anything at all!" It seems that everyone has a reason to want a portion of the money to come—Walter to Page 415  |  Top of Articlebecome an entrepreneur and Beneatha to become a doctor.

The argument comes to a halt when Walter and Beneatha's mother enters the room. Mama, "a woman in her early sixties, full-bodied and strong," wants to know what the ruckus is about. Her first act of the day is to tend to a "feeble little plant growing doggedly in a small pot on the windowsill." Ruth and Mama discuss all the possibilities that the ten-thousand-dollar check allows the family. After listening to Ruth's suggestions, Mama reminisces about her late husband, Big Walter, whose lifelong struggle to provide for his family makes her decision regarding how to spend the money that much more challenging. She tells Ruth that Big Walter once said to her, "Seem like God didn't see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams—but He did give us children to make them dreams seem worth while." This leads Beneatha to denounce the existence of the God, telling her mother that she gets "tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort." Beneatha's outburst sends her mother reeling. She tells Ruth that her household is changing, with Walter always thinking about money and Beneatha talking about things Mama does not understand. Mama daydreams of owning a house with a garden in the back she can tend. While looking out the window, she does not notice that Ruth has fainted.

Act 1, Scene 2

The following morning, the Youngers are cleaning the house. They are interrupted by a visit from Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian student whom Beneatha has recently met on campus. Asagai, who is referred to by only his last name, senses tension in the household. When he asks Beneatha why she looks so "disturbed," she jokingly responds, "we've all got acute ghetto-itis." In truth, Ruth has just returned from the doctor, having learned that she is two months pregnant. The information is not good news, especially considering the family's already cramped living arrangements. Ruth's pregnancy reveals the dire nature of the Youngers' financial situation. Asagai has come to court Beneatha, bringing some records of Nigerian folk music as well as a traditional Nigerian woman's robe from his sister's own wardrobe. Beneatha is thrilled with the gifts and accepts the compliments Asagai gives her. His only criticism involves Beneatha's "mutilated hair"—so called because it has been straightened and is therefore unnatural. Beneatha disagrees with Asagai's use of the word "mutilation" to describe her hair, defending her decision to straighten her hair because "it's so hard to manage when it's, well—raw." The two of them discuss how assimilation and identity relate to both African and African American cultures. Asagai attempts to convey his romantic intentions towards Beneatha, telling her, "Between a man and a woman there need be only one kind of feeling. I have that for you." The feeling is not reciprocated, and she tells him, "I'm not interested in being someone's little episode in America." As Asagai prepares to leave, Mama enters the room and exchanges pleasantries with Asagai. Having already been warned by Beneatha to avoid seeming ignorant to their guest, Mama casually mentions, "I would love to hear all about … your country. I think it's so sad the way our American Negroes don't know nothing about Africa 'cept Tarzan and all that." Asagai bids Beneatha farewell, calling her "Alaiyo." He tells her it means "One for Whom Bread—Food—Is Not Enough."

After Asagai leaves, the mailman delivers the much-anticipated insurance check. Mama is reminded that her husband had to die in order for the family to have this money. Walter arrives shortly thereafter, excited by the prospect of his latest endeavor. The first words from his mouth are, "Did it come?" Mama informs him that she will not be using any of the money to help him open a liquor store, no matter what the arrangements are between him, Bobo, and Willy. Outraged by what he believes to be a betrayal of their relationship, Walter asks his mother, "Do you know what this money means to me? Do you know what this money can do for us?" Mama tries to console her son, but his frustration and hopelessness persist. Unsure of how to reconcile the disagreement, Mama tells Walter that Ruth is expecting another baby and considering having an abortion. Walter reacts to the news with disbelief: "You don't know Ruth, Mama, if you think she would do that."

Ruth, whose voice the stage directions indicate is "beaten," tells Walter that she would, in fact, have an abortion. Mama, who clearly does not support this option, turns to Walter. She tells him she is waiting to hear him act like his father and tell Ruth that their family is not the kind Page 416  |  Top of Articlethat would "destroy" a child. Walter says nothing and leaves. Mama continues, saying that he is a disgrace to his father's memory.

Act 2, Scene 1

Later that same day, Beneatha dons the traditional Nigerian robes Asagai brought for her. While she is listening to her new folk music records, Walter enters the room, drunk. Beneatha is dancing what she says is the traditional dance of welcome that Nigerian women use upon their men's return from the hunt. Beneatha and Walter engage in an impromptu performance celebrating their African heritage. Ruth watches disapprovingly, "embarrassed for the family." George Murchison arrives to take Beneatha out to the theater. Beneatha's enthusiasm for her African heritage is cut short by George's comment: "Look honey, we're going to the theatre—we're not going to be in it."

Beneatha takes off the headdress and reveals her new hairstyle—a short, natural afro. Shocked by Beneatha's decision to change her hair, Ruth asks her, "You expect this boy to go out with you with your head all nappy like that?" Beneatha responds by telling Ruth that she hates "assimilationist Negroes." Then Walter starts talking to George about business ideas and says that they should get together to talk about them. George reacts to the suggestion with indifference. Infuriated, Walter insults George, calling him a "busy little boy," too preoccupied with his own privileged college life to "be a man." George and Beneatha manage to leave before Walter's anger escalates to the boiling point. Ruth reassures her husband by telling him that "life don't have to be like this."

When Mama returns, she announces that she has placed a down payment on a house at 406 Clybourne Street in Clybourne Park, an all-white, working-class neighborhood. Ruth is thrilled at the prospect of moving, but worried about moving into an all-white neighborhood. She embraces the joy of the news and goes to see to Travis. Walter feels completely defeated and accuses his mother of shattering his dreams: "So you butchered up a dream of mine—you—who always talking 'bout your children's dreams."

Act 2, Scene 2

A few weeks later, on Friday night, Beneatha and George return to the apartment after a date. He tries to kiss her but she wants to talk. They argue about the nature of their relationship. Mama returns as George leaves, and the women talk about Beneatha's feelings for George. Beneatha explains that she is unable to continue her relationship with him because he refuses to engage her as an equal. Beneatha appreciates her mother's understanding.

Mrs. Johnson, a gossipy neighbor, knocks on the door. Her perspective about blacks is noticeably limited, as she makes statements like, "I always thinks like Booker T. Washington said that time—'Education has spoiled many a good plow hand.'" Her antagonism is most apparent when she suggests that the family's impending move to a white neighborhood, although "wonderful," will result in headlines like "NEGROS INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK—BOMBED!" This bigoted attitude leads Beneatha to tell her mother, "if there are two things we, as a people, have got to overcome, one is the Ku Klux Klan—and the other is Mrs. Johnson."

After Mrs. Johnson's visit, the family learns that Walter has not been to work for three days. When he says that he has spent the time drinking in a jazz club, his mother feels bad for ruining his dreams. She gives Walter the sixty-five hundred dollars she has left over from the house down payment. She tells him to put aside three thousand dollars for Beneatha's schooling and spend the rest as he wants. Walter, who is shocked by his mother's unexpected support, tells Travis, "Daddy ain't going to never be drunk again." Walter and Travis discuss manhood and their own dreams for the future. The scene ends with Walter telling him, "You just name it, son … and I hand you the world!"

Act 2, Scene 3

It is one week later on moving day. The curtain opens on Ruth and Beneatha discussing their plans for their new home. Even Walter is agreeable, dancing with his wife as the excitement spreads. In the midst of everyone's happiness, a white man who identifies himself as Karl Lindner of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, comes to the door. Mr. Lindner explains that as chairman of the welcoming committee, it is his job to "go around and see the new people who move into the neighborhood and sort of give them the lowdown on the way we do things out in Clybourne Park." He tells the Youngers that the community in Clybourne Page 417  |  Top of ArticlePark would rather that blacks stay in their own neighborhood. To encourage this, they have pooled their money to buy the Youngers' new house back from them at a price higher than they paid for it. Mr. Lindner reminds the Youngers "of some of the incidents which have happened in various parts of the city when colored people have moved into certain areas"—a comment referring to acts of violence, the equivalent of a politely worded threat.

By mentioning that the community he represents is made up of those who are "not rich and fancy people; just hard-working, honest people," Mr. Lindner hopes that the racist agenda of his visit will be instead thought of as a means to achieve "the happiness of all concerned." Even after Walter tells Mr. Lindner to leave, the man protests, saying, "You just can't force people to change their hearts, son." As the only white character in the entire play, one might expect Mr. Lindner to be unnecessarily demonized. However, the script notes much to the contrary, indicating that Mr. Lindner is not a tyrant but, "a gentle man; thoughtful and somewhat labored in his manner."

When Mama returns, Beneatha informs her of Mr. Lindner's visit. Mama asks if he threatened the family. Beneatha tell her, "they don't do it like that any more…. He said everybody ought to learn how to sit down and hate each other with good Christian fellowship." Beneatha and Ruth speculate as to why the community has a problem with black neighbors, suggesting sarcastically that the whites are afraid they might "eat 'em" or "marry 'em." As Mama carefully prepares her little plant for the trip, the family teases her for even wanting to bring it to the new house.

Ruth, Walter, and Beneatha present a gift of gardening tools to Mama in preparation for her dream house, and Travis gives her a large gardening hat. The family tries to recapture the excitement that Mr. Lindner's visit had interrupted earlier. Bobo arrives at the door with more bad news. Willy, Bobo and Walter's friend and would-be business associate, has apparently fled with all their money. Walter reveals that instead of following Mama's directions and setting aside money for Beneatha's schooling, he gave all sixty-five hundred dollars to Willy as an investment on the liquor store. The family is shocked and silent at Walter's revelation. Mama "looks at her son without recognition," hitting him in the face. She speaks of her late husband, saying, "I seen him grow thin and old before he was forty … working and working and working like somebody's old horse … and you—you give it all away in a day." Mama looks up to the heavens, begging God to give her strength.

Act 3, Scene 1

One hour later, Asagai enters, "smiling broadly, striding … with energy and happy expectation," unaware of what has just transpired. He has come to help with the packing and asks Beneatha what is wrong. Beneatha tells him that Walter gave away the insurance money in an investment not even Travis would have made. Beneatha explains to Asagai why she has wanted to be a doctor since she was a child and how now it is pointless because "it doesn't seem deep enough, close enough to what ails mankind!" Disillusioned by her brother's betrayal and Asagai's attempt to put it in perspective with idealism, she tells Asagai that his idealism is useless, and that he thinks he can "Cure the Great Sore of Colonialism … with the Penicillin of Independence." Asagai attempts to restore Beneatha's optimism by inviting her to come live with him in Africa. He leaves her to contemplate his offer.

When Walter enters the room, Beneatha, disgusted, calls him "Monsieur le petit bourgeois noir (Mr. little middle-class black)…. Symbol of a Rising Class! Entrepreneur!" Walter leaves as his sister hurls insults after him. Mama and Ruth discuss whether or not to call and cancel with the movers. Mama thinks they cannot afford the house now, but Ruth insists that the four of them can. Walter announces that the family is "going to do business" with Mr. Lindner (whom he also refers to here as "The Man," "Captain Boss," "Mistuh Charley," and "Mr. Bossman"). Walter demonstrates how he plans to "get down on [his] black knees" and beg Mr. Lindner for the money he had offered. His mother and sister are appalled at his "groveling and grinning" behavior because they feel that accepting the payoff is the same as admitting that they are not good enough. Mama agrees to let him accept Mr. Lindner's offer as long as he does so in his son's presence so the boy understands what Walter is doing and why. When Mr. Lindner returns, Walter shocks everyone by refusing his offer, telling him "we come from people who had a lot of pride," and that the Youngers "don't want to make no trouble for nobody or fight Page 418  |  Top of Article
Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNiel in a stage production of A Raisin in the Sun Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNiel in a stage production of A Raisin in the Sun AP Images no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors." Mr. Lindner leaves and the Youngers celebrate the reemergence of Walter's pride. As the family leaves the apartment to meet the movers, who have arrived downstairs, Beneatha tells Mama of Asagai's proposal. While the family goes downstairs, Mama returns to get her plant from the window.

THEMES

Internalized Racism

While scholars debate the meaning of internalized racism, critics agree that this concept is key to a complete understanding of A Raisin in the Sun. In "Internalized Racism: A Definition," Donna Bivens, co-director of the Boston Theological Institute, defines internalized racism as "the situation that occurs in a racist system," when members of an oppressed group maintain or participate in "the set of attitudes, behaviors, social structures and ideologies that undergird the dominating group's power." In other words, when characters such as Walter, George, and Beneatha start to believe the stereotypes about their own race, they have internalized racism.

In act 2, scene 1 of A Raisin in the Sun, George tells Beneatha that her African heritage "is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts." With this statement, he clearly demonstrates his own internalized racism. A member of a well-to-do black family, George distances himself from his African heritage, preferring instead to adopt the attitudes and tastes of affluent white Americans. Beneatha describes George's family as "honest-to-God-real-live-rich colored people, and the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich white people are rich colored people." Emphasis on George's wealth accompanies his presence throughout the play. Presumably, Page 419  |  Top of ArticleGeorge's status as both "rich" and "colored" set him apart from other characters, who see him as a fake.

The echo of internalized racism continues to resonate when Walter, a poor chauffeur, complains to his wife, "we all tied up in a race of people that don't know how to do nothing but moan, pray, and have babies!" This statement reveals Walter's own internalization of anti-black/pro-white racism. In an article titled, "Levels of Racism: A Theoretical Framework and a Gardener's Tale," Camara Phyllis Jones insists, "It is important to note that the association between socioeconomic status and race in the United States has its origins in discrete historical events," and that "Institutional racism manifests itself both in material conditions and in access to power." In this way, one can see that regardless of their differing economic positions, both Walter and George are affected, and consequently defined, by their own internalized racism.

External Racism

Though the dynamics within the Younger household indicate various levels of internalized racism, racism from external forces also finds its way into their living room. When Mama receives the insurance check from her husband's death, she uses part of the money to put a down payment on a house with a garden, which is her dream. The family is excited to be moving into a house with more room and in a nicer neighborhood. That happiness is temporarily dashed when Karl Lindner from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association pays them a visit on the day they are set to move. He tells the family that he is there to "give them the lowdown on the way we do things out in Clybourne Park." That "way" turns out to be striving to keep the neighborhood all white. Though Lindner tells the Youngers he is here to talk to them "friendly like," his message is anything but friendly. In order to keep the black Youngers out of white Clybourne Park, the neighbors have pooled their money together to try and buy out the Youngers' house:

I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn't enter into it. It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.

Although Lindner is careful to point out that the actions of Clybourne Park residents are not a matter of "race prejudice," that is exactly the case. The neighbors fear the prospect of blacks moving into their white neighborhood, and do everything they can to stop it. When Walter throws Lindner out of the house, Lindner tells the family that they have nothing to gain "by moving into a neighborhood where [they] just aren't wanted." Soon after, Walter learns that Willy has run off with the rest of the insurance money. He suddenly thinks the family should take Lindner up on his offer after all. But Mama refuses: "ain't nobody in my family never let nobody pay 'em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn't fit to walk the earth." When Walter meets Lindner again, he tells him that the Youngers will be moving into their new house because their father "earned it for [them] brick by brick." Selling out to the Clybourne Park neighbors might otherwise have seemed a windfall, but the option is untenable because it would make the Youngers complicit in their own oppression.

African Heritage

African heritage and culture play a significant role in A Raisin in the Sun. The Nigerian Asagai represents the entire continent and culture of Africa for the Younger family. When Beneatha first mentions Asagai to Mama, she reminds her not to "ask him a whole lot of ignorant questions," like "do they wear clothes and all that" because Beneatha is acutely aware that popular conceptions of Africans are often negative. Beneatha says, "All anyone seems to know about when it comes to Africa is Tarzan." Upon learning that Asagai is Nigerian, Mama mistakenly assumes, "that's the little country that was founded by slaves way back." Beneatha corrects her mother's mistake, indicating that it is Liberia, not Nigeria that was founded by slaves. Mama responds, "I don't think I never met no African before," revealing an extremely limited understanding of Africa.

With the character of Asagai, the author creates an avenue through which to educate both her characters and her audience about certain details of African culture. By doing this, she also points out the fact that many African Americans have the desire, but not the resources, to reconnect with their African ancestry. Because slavery largely prevented African Americans from preserving their various Page 420  |  Top of ArticleAfrican cultures, assimilation became the primary method of survival for black African slaves and their descendants in America. Beneatha, who has a strong interest in African heritage and appears in act 2, scene 1 dressed in tribal clothing and singing traditional songs, tells Ruth that she "hate[s] assimilationist Negroes!" She defines an assimilationist as "someone who is willing to give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant, and in this case oppressive culture." This assessment does not acknowledge why one might employ assimilationist tactics to survive. For example, George Murchison, who embodies this "assimilationist" viewpoint, is depicted in a negative light in the play—however, he is the play's most socioeconomically successful character. George's disdain for his own African ancestry is set in stark contrast to Beneatha's embrace of it.

This dynamic plays out in act 2, scene 1, when Beneatha emerges "grandly from the doorway … thoroughly robed in the (Nigerian) costume Asagai brought," and she and Walter enthusiastically enact what they imagine to be scenes from their African heritage. The performance includes much dancing, yelling, posturing, and references to such things as warriors, drums, flaming spears, lions, and chiefs—all of which call to mind the image of "the noble savage," a people unspoiled by civilization, which has often been romanticized in literature and film. This cultural reclamation highlights Beneatha and Walter's limited knowledge of their ancestral past. It is Asagai who represents the true Africa, and Beneatha's attempts to claim her identity by connecting with him seem absurd in the light of the overtly dramatic portrayal of African-ness that dominates this scene.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

Chicago and the Great Black Migration

In the wake of the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction, hundreds of thousands of black Southerners moved north to escape the legalized oppression of Jim Crow laws and find work in industrialized cities. Chicago became a main destination for these migrants in the early twentieth century. The so-called "Great Black Migration" of the early twentieth century changed the makeup of Chicago, which until then had been largely inhabited by Irish and other European immigrants. According to Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, the black population in Chicago was 44,000 in 1910. After World War II and during the time in which A Raisin in the Sun is set, the black population had increased tenfold. By 1960, there were nearly 813,000 blacks residing in Chicago.

Despite their optimism about life in the North, African Americans discovered that racism and prejudice were not strictly southern problems. Discrimination and rapid population growth soon created separate black neighborhoods, including the South Side of Chicago. While many blacks flourished in the community and became entrepreneurs and business owners, those who could not find suitable work fell into poverty. The South Side, also known as the "Black Belt," became a cultural, musical, and educational capital for African Americans in the 1940s, much like New York's Harlem in the 1920s.

In the mid-1960s, Congress passed open-housing laws that helped give blacks and other minorities a greater choice of neighborhoods in which they could live. As I. F. Stone notes in an article entitled "The Rat and Res Judicata," prior to this legislation, residents of Chicago's Black Belt had been paying some of the highest rent in the city relative to income. Because they were not entitled to live wherever they pleased, there was a crunch for available housing that led to exorbitant rents. This reality is reflected in Mama's choosing a house in Clybourne Park—a white neighborhood—over a house in an African American neighborhood. As Mama explains, "Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses."

Hansberry v. Lee

As a child, Hansberry's family moved to a white neighborhood in Chicago known as Woodlawn only to be faced with racist mobs. Upon learning of the race of her new neighbors, white Woodlawn resident Anna M. Lee filed suit against the seller of the house and the Hansberrys for one hundred thousand dollars, alleging that both had violated the restrictive race covenant in the neighborhood designed to keep blacks out the area. This covenant was not unique to Woodlawn; it is estimated that at the time, some eighty percent of Chicago housing was Page 421  |  Top of Articlecontrolled by similar covenants. Both a circuit court and the Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the covenant and found in Lee's favor. The Illinois Supreme Court even called for the Hansberrys' property to be confiscated. Hansberry's father took his family's right to live in this neighborhood all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Hansberry v. Lee (1940), which reversed the decision of the Illinois courts. It did not, however, find fault with the existence of restrictive covenants. This was nearly thirty years before the Federal Fair Housing Act outlawed such restrictions. Hansberry v. Lee rocked the perception that the North was any more welcoming to blacks than the South had been.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

When Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959, no one knew it would become such a huge success. In a 1959 article for the New York Times, Sam Zolotow notes that all seven major New York drama critics endorsed the play; however, many critics were not as positive in their assessments. In his article "A Raisin in the Sun Revisited," J. Charles Washington points out that

In the eyes of some critics … [the play] was passe almost before it closed, because they saw it only as a protest play or social drama about a Black family's struggle to buy a house in a white neighborhood.

Washington also cites critic C. W. E. Bigsby's review of the play, quoting, "[A Raisin in the Sun] is an unhappy crossbreed of social protest and reassuring resolution." The negativity of these reactions was hardly unusual, and stemmed from a general discomfort surrounding political and racial issues at the time. Washington also refers to critic Harold Cruse's evaluation that the play is "the most cleverly written piece of glorified soap opera" that he had ever seen. From this feedback, one might be surprised that A Raisin in the Sun is considered a classic of American theater. However, aside from the less-than-exultant response to the play's obvious political message, many critics praised the play's universality, noting the far-reaching appeal of the individual characters, whose eloquence and dignity make them accessible to a diverse audience.

In "A Raisin in the Sun's Enduring Passion," Amiri Baraka notes that at the time of its staging, the play itself was "political agitation," explaining, "It dealt with the very same issues of democratic rights and equality that were being aired in the streets." In this way, A Raisin in the Sun has come to represent not only the humanist ideals embodied by the Younger family, but also the far-reaching socio-political conflicts that continue to affect life in America. In "Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun," David Cooper surmises that at its heart, this play is about "the human condition, human aspiration and human rela-tionship—the persistence of dreams, of the bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new." With these timeless themes, A Raisin in the Sun has continued to thrive both on and off the stage.

That the play continues to be performed is a testament to its universal and lasting qualities. As Robert Nemiroff notes in his introduction to the Vintage Books edition of the play, the revivals staged on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the play were warmly received. He quotes a New York Times review that says, "The events of every passing year add resonance to A Raisin in the Sun. It is as if history is conspiring to make the play a classic." Nemiroff also quotes a Washington Post review that calls it "one of a handful of great American dramas." In a 1999 review of the play for Curtain Up, Elyse Sommer notes, "The play's surface issues may have changed but … this compassionate human drama still works its magic on our emotions." David Chadderton's review of a London staging for The British Theatre Guide applauds Hansberry's ability to create "a number of characters—none of which is portrayed as wholly good or wholly bad—that represent radically different points of view convincingly." A 2004 Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Phylicia Rashad and Sean "Diddy" Combs, also met with critical praise. In a review of the revival, Anna Deavere Smith of the New York Times writes in "Two Visions of Love, Family and Race Across the Generations" that A Raisin in the Sun offers "a new and refreshing lens on our history and on the theater's potential." The production was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2004, including Best Revival of a Play.

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CRITICISM

Robin Bernstein

In the following excerpt, Bernstein provides a favorable evaluation of the play, and discusses the dynamic of universalism in the critical reception of A Raisin in the Sun.

When Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959, the vast majority of white critics praised the play's "universality." One reviewer wrote, "A Negro wrote this show. It is played, with one exception, by Negroes. Half the audiences here are Negroes. Even so, it isn't written for Negroes … It's a show about people, white or olored … I see A Raisin in the Sun as part of the general culture of the U.S." The phrase "happens to be" appeared with remarkable frequency among reviews: the play was "about human beings, who happen to be Negroes" (or "a family that happens to be colored"); Sidney Poitier played "the angry young man who happens to be a Negro."

Other white reviewers, however, praised the play not for its universality, but for its particularity. "The play is honest," wrote Brooks Atkinson, critic for the New York Times. "[Hansberry] has told the inner as well as the outer truth about a Negro family in the south-side of Chicago at the present time." "This Negro play," wrote another reviewer, "celebrates with slow impressiveness a triumph of racial pride."

How can a play be simultaneously specific and universal? This apparent paradox is easily resolved with the assertion that African-Americans are precisely as human—and African-American cultures just as universal or particular—as any other group. Hansberry herself pointed out the non-existence of the paradox:

Interviewer: The question, I'm sure, is asked you many times—you must be tired of it—someone comes up to you and says: "This is not really a Negro play; why, this could be about anybody! It's a play about people!" What is your reaction? What do you say?

Hansberry: Well[,] I hadn't noticed the contradiction because I'd always been under the impression that Negroes are people … One of the most sound ideas in dramatic writing is that in order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific.

Hansberry's solution to the apparent paradox did not go unnoticed or unremarked. Novelist John Oliver Killens, for example, wrote,

Lorraine believed that … the literary road to universality is through local identity. Many critics said of Raisin that it is "universal," that it isn't specifically about Blacks. "It is about people. It could be about anybody." But a play that could be about anybody would most probably be about nobody at all. Lorraine was very clear on this point [in the above-quoted interview].

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

A Raisin in the Sun was adapted as a film directed by Daniel Petrie, starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Dee in 1961. It is available on DVD from Sony Pictures.

A Raisin in the Sun was adapted as a Broadway musical in 1973 produced by Hansberry's ex-husband Robert Nemiroff, and starring Joe Morton, Ernestine Jackson, and Ralph Carter. The original cast recording is available from Sony.

A Raisin in the Sun was adapted as a made-for-television film in 1989 directed by Bill Duke, starring Danny Glover, Esther Rolle, and several members of the original Broadway cast. It is available on VHS from Monterey Video.

An audio version of the play is available from Caedmon on audio cassette. It is narrated by Ossie Davis.

Historian and editor Lerone Bennett Jr. found precisely the same solution to the apparent paradox:

From my reading of Lorraine Hansberry, I get the feeling that she struggled all her life with the whole question of "universality." And I interpret her as having struggled against false definitions of "universality." … To my way of thinking, an artist is most universal when he's Page 423  |  Top of Articlediscussing the concrete issues of his own culture. It's the task of the artist to take the concrete and make it universal … She was universal in her particularity.

The paradox, then, is that a paradox was perceived at all, or that it continued to be perceived after Hansberry (and later, Killens, Bennett, and others) had publicly resolved it. Why did critics persistently categorize Raisin as universal or specifically black? Why, when critics noted the fact that the play successfully communicated both universal and particular concerns, did they remark on this fact as a paradox or contradiction? In other words, why was the appearance of a paradox created and maintained?

The claim that the play's characters are universal "people" without specific ties to African-American culture appears simply racist ("This is a well-written play; white people can relate to it; therefore it cannot be a black play"). Conversely, the assertion that the play is not universal but exclusively specific to African-Americans—that is, that the characters exist outside the category of "human"—seems equally racist. Upon closer examination, however, it is possible to discern both racist and anti-racist impulses in each claim.

The "particularizing" assertion can be separated into several different strands. In the most racist form, critics in this mode refused to acknowledge any difference between Hansberry's characters and stereotyped images of blacks. A few months after the play opened, Lorraine Hansberry noted "some of the prior attitudes which were brought into the theatre from the world outside. For in the minds of many, [the character of] Walter remains, despite the play, despite performance, what American racial traditions wish him to be: an exotic." If audiences went to the theatre to see "the simple, lovable, and glandular 'Negro,'" they would find him, regardless of what actually occurred on stage. Hansberry wrote,

My colleagues and I were reduced to mirth and tears by that gentleman writing his review of our play in a Connecticut paper who remarked of his pleasure at seeing how "our dusky brethren" could "come up with a song and hum their troubles away." It did not disturb the writer in the least that there is no such implication in the entire three acts. He did not need it in the play; he had it in his head.

Such blatant racism is related to the more subtle "people's culture" approach Eric Lott attacked in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Lott defined the "people's culture" position as one that views minstrelsy as a more-or-less accurate reflection or aspect of "authentic" Negro culture. Lott's attack on this approach's ahistoricity and inaccuracy might seem not to apply to Raisin, which was obviously and deliberately locatable in black culture. However, the "people's culture" stance resembled that of some of the reviewers in that both approaches sought—or demanded—access to "authentic" black culture, as evidenced in critics' repeated praising of Raisin as "honest drama" with "vigor as well as veracity." In other words, the "people's culture" approach and that of some of Raisin's critics shared a common impulse to access perceived authentic black culture. And in doing so, they re-asserted whiteness as the norm.

The play's ability to appear to encapsulate "Negro experience" in the readily knowable, digestible, and non-threatening form of theatrical realism arguably satisfied this impulse and thus constituted the primary reason for the play's success among white audiences. In other words, the play's realism satisfied its white viewers in much the same way that minstrelsy satisfied its viewers by providing them with easy access to consumable perceived "Negro culture." A Raisin in the Sun, then, by making black experiences appear understandable to and consumable by white audiences, simultaneously made those experiences collectable. The bourgeois white viewer could display his or her newfound knowledge much as one might display a collection of "primitive" art; as James Clifford argues, "cultural description [can be] presented as a form of collecting."

Collecting is a performance of power. To collect is to construct, limit, contain, display, and define. As Clifford observed, collections (even nonmaterial ones such as collected experiences of theatregoing) are necessarily organized taxonomically and hierarchically; thus collectors assert power over their possessions (which serve as menonyms for cultures). The impulse for the white theatregoer to collect knowledge of "authentic" black experiences—through minstrelsy or Raisin's realism—is therefore an impulse to perform (and thus actualize) white power.

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Collecting is closely related to conservation, another performance of power to which Clifford devoted some attention: "Collecting—at least in the West, where time is generally thought to be linear and irreversible—implies a rescue of phenomena from inevitable historical decay or loss." Clifford described the collecting of "primitive" visual art and the anthropological collecting of nonmaterial knowledge as similarly conservative projects: "both discourses assume a primitive world in need of preservation, redemption, and representation." White audiences' nonmaterial collecting of minority experiences through theatre attendance, then, could involve a similar conservative impulse. And as Clifford's colleague Donna Haraway noted, conservation is always intertwined with subjugation: "Once domination is complete, conservation is urgent."

Finally, the assertion that A Raisin in the Sun was specifically and exclusively black effectively erased from the play Hansberry's class analysis. Many African-American critics and scholars have noticed and commented on this aspect of the play, but almost no white commentators have. Hansberry complained,

Some writers have been astonishingly incapable of discussing [the character of Walter's] purely class aspirations and have persistently confounded them with what they consider to be an exotic being's longing to "wheel and deal" in what they consider to be (and what Walter never can) "the white man's world."

The erasure of Hansberry's class analysis suggests white critics' unwillingness to engage with a black writer's intellect. In other words, white audiences who came to the theatre to see (and collect the experiences of) the "simple, lovable, and glandular 'Negro'" (and encountering, to their disappointment, non-stereotyped characters) could have preserved their mission by willfully ignoring anything that did not contribute to that project. Even the FBI, which investigated Lorraine Hansberry as a possible "danger to the Republic," labeled the play "not propagandistic." This description, regarded as flattering by the FBI, revealed an unwillingness to engage with—or even recognize—the politics of the play.

By ignoring Hansberry's politics and recognizing only the play's specificity to black culture, white critics erased Hansberry's authority to speak about anything but herself. This action positioned blacks as if in a fishbowl: they could look at each other, but not at anything beyond their immediate context. This fishbowl could sit comfortably, decoratively, on a shelf in a white household; white people could peer through the glass (which contained and controlled the exotics and simultaneously kept the white spectator safely separated from the creatures) and enjoy their collection. In other words, erasing Hansberry's authority to speak about anything but her (white-defined) culture created a "glass" barrier which separated white audiences from the play's black creators and characters and rendered the subaltern collectable—and thus produced white power.

Furthermore, this "fishbowl" dynamic created a unidirectional gaze; that is to say, it positioned blacks as the object of both blacks' and whites' gazes, and simultaneously positioned whites as the empowered, invisible inspector. This action reified blacks' lives and experiences as collectable and simultaneously precluded the possibility of blacks inverting the dynamic and collecting (and thus disempowering) whites and their experiences. The fish cannot collect the human outside the bowl.

Black audiences apparently also read the play in the context of racist stereotypes. According to James Baldwin, the play drew unprecedented numbers of African-Americans to the theatre because "never before in American theater history had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on stage." Overlap occurred, then, between the racist impulse to collect black experiences and the anti-racist impulse to see one's own experience reflected on stage (and to see stereotypes extirpated): both impulses hinged on the highly suspect notion of authenticity. The fact that two opposing impulses could exist in the same space contributed to the appearance of a paradox.

The play itself emphasized particularity within particularity through the character of Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian. According to Alex Haley, Hansberry achieved two goals through the character of Asagai. First, she helped to dispel the myth of the "cannibal" with a bone in his hair. Her educated African character … was certainly the first time a large audience had seen and heard an African portrayed as carrying himself with dignity and being, moreover, a primary spokesman for sanity and progress. It must also have been the first time a mass audience had ever seen a black woman gracefully don African robes or wear an "afro" hairstyle.

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Asagai, then, continued Hansberry's project of creating individual, specifically black characters who testified against stereotypes. Second, as Haley noted, A Raisin in the Sun was the first artistic work to popularize (on a large scale) the concept of a relationship between African-Americans and Africans. By teasing out this relationship that specifically separated African-Americans from all other Americans, Hansberry again employed the particularizing approach—but to anti-racist ends.

Source: Robin Bernstein, "Inventing a Fishbowl: White Supremacy and the Critical Reception of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun," in Modern Drama, Spring 1999, pp. 1-4.

SOURCES

"African-American Population Data," in Vol. 6 of Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 2d edition, edited by Colin Palmer, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006, p. 2567.

Baraka, Amiri, "A Raisin in the Sun's Enduring Passion," in A Raisin in the Sun; The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, by Lorraine Hansberry, edited by Robert Nemiroff, New American Library, 1987, pp. 9-20.

Bivens, Donna, "Internalized Racism: A Definition," Women's Theological Center, www.thewtc.org/Internalized_Racism.pdf (1995).

Chadderton, David, Review of A Raisin in the Sun, The British Theatre Guide, www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/raisininsun-rev.htm (January 16, 2006).

Cooper, David D., "Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun," in The Explicator, Fall, 1993, pp. 59-61.

Hansberry, Lorraine, A Raisin in the Sun, Vintage, 1994, originally published in 1959.

Jones, Camara Phyllis, "Levels of Racism: A Theoretical Framework and a Gardener's Tale," in American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 90, No. 8, August 2000, pp. 1212-15.

Nemiroff, Robert, Introduction, in A Raisin in the Sun, Vintage, 1994, p. 5.

Sommer, Elyse, "A Curtain Up Berkshire Review: A Raisin in the Sun," Curtain Up, www.curtainup.com/raisininthesun.html (July 22, 1999).

Smith, Ana Deavere, "Two Visions of Love, Family and Race Across the Generations," News and Reviews About A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, www.raisinonbroadway.com/news.html (January 16, 2006), originally published in New York Times, May 29, 2004.

Stone, I. F., "The Rat and Res Judicata," in Nation, Vol. 151, No. 21, November 23, 1940, pp. 495-96.

Trotter, Joe, Jr., "U.S. Migration/Population," in Vol. 4 of Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 2d edition, edited by Colin Palmer, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006, p. 1442.

Washington, J. Charles, "A Raisin in the Sun Revisited," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 109-124.

Zolotow, Sam, "A Raisin in the Sun Basks in Praise; 7 Critics Welcome Play by Miss Hansberry," in New York Times, March 13, 1959, p. 25.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2661800046