A Raisin in the Sun

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Authors: Joyce Moss and George Wilson
Date: 1997
Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)

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A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

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THE LITERARY WORK

A play set in Chicago in the late 1940s; published in 1958 and first performed in 1959.

SYNOPSIS

Facing racial discrimination when trying to move into a white neighborhood, a black family struggles to maintain its belief in the American dream.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry, born in Chicago in 1930, won acclaim in 1959 with the stage debut of her first play, A Raisin in the Sun. Depicting domestic life for a working-class black family in Chicago after World War II, the play became the first work by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry’s promising career would be cut short just six years later, when she died of cancer at age thirty-four.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Great Migration

Between 1915 and 1970, millions of African Americans moved from their rural homes in the Deep South to the rapidly growing industrial cities of the North. Called the Great Migration, this long process of resettlement amounts to the largest mass movement in American history. It took place in two major phases of particularly heavy migration, 1915-30 and 1940-70, that were separated by a period of lighter migration during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The last period (1940-70) of migration was the most significant, with over 5 million blacks moving North during its three decades.

Southern blacks moved to every major Northern city, but the largest number migrated to New York City and Chicago. New York City had become black America’s cultural center by the 1920s, and the black community of Harlem in upper Manhattan was home to the artists, writers, and jazz musicians who made up the cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance. By 1940, however, Chicago had begun to challenge Harlem’s position as the nation’s leading black community. Between 1915 and 1940, the city’s black population had grown from 50,000 to 277,000, and over 60,000 more arrived during World War II, drawn by the increased job opportunities in wartime manufacturing. Postwar prosperity had brought that number to almost a half million by 1950.

The Black Belt

Like other cities with large immigrant populations, Chicago was a mosaic of ethnic neighborhoods. Poles, Italians, European Jews, Irish, and other groups had settled among their own ethnic kind, both happy to be in somewhat familiar surroundings and pushed by exclusion from other areas. Most of Chicago’s blacks lived in the area known as the South Side, a strip extending south along State Street from the Loop, the city’s central business area. A Raisin in the Sun is set on the South Side, where Lorraine Page 310  |  Top of ArticleHansberry was born and where her family lived in the 1930s.

By the 1940s, the influx of Southern blacks had led to severe overcrowding in the South Side. Population density there averaged about 90,000 people per square mile, as compared with 20,000 for white areas. Wedged between Lake Michigan and Chicago’s famous stockyards, by the 1930s the South Side had little room for expansion except further southward into white neighborhoods. A pattern emerged in which better established black families, seeking to escape the crowded conditions, expanded slowly south into formerly white areas, leaving the older areas to deteriorate behind them.

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HOUSING AND RACIAL VIOLENCE

Lorraine Hansberry could remember being narrowly missed by a brick thrown through the window of her family’s new house as an angry white mob stood outside. Such incidents were common when blacks tried to find homes outside the ghetto. During the 1940s, Chicago’s leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender (established 1905), repeatedly called for the city to protect blacks from such attacks and to outlaw the restrictive covenants that encouraged them. The following appeared in the Defender on June 23, 1945: “Hate-crazed incendiaries … have in the past several months attacked some 30 homes occupied by Negroes on the fringes of the black belt, solely because these colored citizens have desperately crossed the unwritten boundary in their search for a hovel to live in. Buildings have been set afire, bombed, stoned and razed. Their occupants have been shot and slugged. To date the Chicago Police Department has done virtually nothing to apprehend the guilty” (Drake and Cayton, p. 213)

The only other residential area in which blacks settled in large numbers was the West Side, a poor and undesirable section of town. The South and West Sides together made up a ghetto often called the “Black Belt.” Throughout the Black Belt, landlords (both black and white) charged as much as twice the rent that comparable or better housing would cost in a white area. Because of the overcrowding, they had little problem finding renters despite the exorbitant rates. Blacks who wanted to leave the Black Belt altogether had only one choice: to move into a white neighborhood, where housing was less expensive.

Restrictive covenants

In the 1920s, some established working- and middle-class black families had begun to move into white neighborhoods, though not in large numbers. Occasionally, black families leapfrogged beyond the congested area along the Black Belt’s expanding borders, but more often they settled within this southward-moving border zone. White neighborhoods responded by drawing up “restrictive covenants,” which prevented property from being sold or rented to blacks. By 1930 such agreements bound 75 percent of the city’s residential property.

In 1938, when Lorraine Hansberry was eight, her father decided to test the covenants’ legality by moving his family into a white neighborhood. When the local property owners’ association filed an injunction restraining him from occupying the property, Carl Hansberry took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, and then to the United States Supreme Court, which overruled the state court’s ruling against him in 1940.

The Hansberry case won national attention, not least because Hansberry was supported in his legal struggle by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, the victory was less than complete, for the Supreme Court ruled only that the covenants were not legally enforceable. In other words, it did not rule that they were illegal in themselves, but merely that they could not be enforced in court against those who violated them by selling property to blacks. The covenants continued to exist, but during the 1940s white homeowners wishing to exclude blacks had to resort to methods other than lawsuits to enforce them.

The modern era of racial violence in Chicago goes back to the massive race riots of 1919, in the early days of the Great Migration. During this era, violence often broke out over issues such as jobs. Blacks, for example, were excluded from most unions until after World War II, and so were often hired as strikebreakers, incurring the hostility of striking white union members. By the 1940s and 1950s, however, housing had become Chicago’s most explosive racial issue. Between 1945 and 1950, almost five hundred attacks on black residences were reported, many of them incidents of arson, and nearly all taking place in the border areas into which blacks were moving.

African American families and jobs

In ghettos such as Chicago’s South Side there were strong pressures on black family structure. During the 1940s (as well as in more recent times) these pressures often stemmed from the harsh economic circumstances prevalent there. For black men in

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Northern cities, jobs—even when available—were most often of the lower-paying type and less desirable than those available to whites. Because these jobs offered so little income, a relatively high proportion of black women also had to work to help support a family. Servant work was a common field of employment for both genders. In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee Younger works as a chauffeur for a rich white man but pins his dreams on opening a liquor store.

On the other hand, Walter’s sister Beneatha is studying to become a doctor. While both ambitions were difficult for blacks to realize in Chicago during the 1940s, they were not impossible. Between 1940 and 1950, employment opportunities for blacks showed improvement in Chicago, especially for black women. For men, the number doing service work dropped from a third to a fifth of the total employed, as wartime industry needs made it possible for blacks to enter the manufacturing sector. The number of black women doing service work dropped too, while the number doing clerical work doubled to 14 percent. One in twenty working black women filled professional positions, such as the position of doctor to which Beneatha aspires in the play.

Although job opportunities for Chicago blacks improved modestly in the 1940s, they still enjoyed far fewer opportunities than whites. For example, more black women now had clerical jobs, but their total of 14 percent fell far below the 50 percent of working white women in such positions. Similarly, black women were only half as likely as white women to work as professionals. By 1950 there was also a large racial gap between the 10 percent of black male professionals and the 2.8 percent of white male professionals (the number of black male professionals had actually dropped over the decade). Such statistics suggest that if Walter had wished to become a doctor, his chances for success would have been even lower than his sister’s.

Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, some African Americans organized to resist first slavery and then racial oppression in the United States. Outward signs of these efforts, such as community or national economic organizations or blackoperated newspapers, have been grouped under the term black nationalism. From its early stages, this movement in America had an international equivalent called Pan-Africanism, which stressed the common African heritage of blacks all over the world. Closely related at their inception, the national and international movements remained linked as they developed in the nineteenth and Page 312  |  Top of Articletwentieth centuries. In the 1920s, only a couple decades before the play takes place, there was a “back-to-Africa” movement in the United States. Led by Marcus Garvey, it attracted thousands of followers who hoped to establish a black nation in Africa that would be led by African Americans.

Despite such links between some American black leaders and their counterparts abroad, the majority of African Americans had little or no knowledge of African culture and history. In A Raisin in the Sun, Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian student studying in America, gives the American black woman Beneatha Younger a Nigerian dress, urging her to take an interest in Africa. By the late 1940s, leadership of the Pan-African movement had shifted from African Americans to Africans themselves, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Nnamdi Azikwe (later the presidents of Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, respectively). At the same time, such leaders also agitated for independence from the European colonial powers that had ruled much of the African continent since the nineteenth century. Like Joseph Asagai in the play, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikwe studied in America in the 1940s, returning to help lead their nations out of colonial rule, as the play’s character Joseph Asagai hopes to do.

The Play in Focus

The plot

The play is set entirely in the living room-kitchenette of the Younger apartment on Chicago’s South Side. The apartment was obviously once furnished in modest good taste, but its furniture and fittings are now worn and a bit seedy. Act I opens at dawn, as Ruth Younger, a black woman in her thirties, wakes her ten-year-old son Travis, who sleeps in the living room. While Travis gets ready for school, Ruth then wakes her husband Walter.

Walter and Ruth begin quarreling almost immediately and continue after Travis goes off to school. Ruth is angry that Walter has kept their son up late by occupying the living room with his friends till late the previous night. In response, Walter protests that Ruth doesn’t take his plans seriously—he intends to open a liquor store with those friends. Ruth dismisses Walter’s ideas scornfully, prompting Walter to complain that black women don’t give their men any support in life. When Walter’s sister Beneatha emerges from her bedroom on the left, Walter drags her into the fray. He reminds her that tomorrow their mother will receive a check for their father’s life insurance. Beneatha turns on him, saying that the money is their mother’s to do with as she likes; Walter accuses her of planning to use part of the money to help pay for medical school. Beneatha says that picking on her won’t make their mother invest the money in a liquor store.

Walter goes off to work, and Mama, a dignified, silver-haired woman in her sixties, enters from the bedroom she shares with Beneatha. After watering a plant by the window and inquiring after Travis, Mama asks what all the fighting was about. But she knows, and she clearly is against Walter’s plan. They’re plain working folks, she says, not business people. Surprisingly Ruth supports Walter’s plan against Mama’s objections. Ruth is tired, though, and gives up quickly. As Mama talks about her dream of buying a house, Ruth, exhausted, faints while ironing.

The next morning, a Saturday, Mama and Beneatha are cleaning house when Ruth comes home from the doctor and announces that she is pregnant. Mama’s happiness at the news contrasts sharply with Ruth’s obvious dismay. Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian student, visits Beneatha and gives her a present: records of Nigerian folk songs and a colorful Nigerian costume. He fondly teases her about her straightened hair, then leaves. The mail arrives with Mama’s insurance check. Pressing Mama about his liquor store plan, Walter receives a firm rejection from Mama. She tells Walter of Ruth’s pregnancy, and says she suspects that Ruth plans to get an abortion. Mama orders Walter to tell her not to. Walter will not comply, and as he leaves Mama accuses him of disgracing his father’s memory.

Act II opens later that day. Ruth is ironing when Beneatha enters wearing the colorful dress and headdress that Joseph gave her. She puts on one of the Nigerian records. As she sings along, Walter returns home. He has been drinking, and joins in with her. As the two are in the middle of their African chanting, Beneatha’s date, George Murchison, arrives to take her to the theater. George, wealthy and conventional, makes fun of African culture. When Beneatha disappears to change her clothes, Walter mocks George’s formal attire. Beneatha emerges without the headdress, revealing hair cropped into a short, natural Afro. She and George leave. Mama enters and reveals that she has put a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood—not because she wishes to live in a white neighborhood, but simply because it is the least expensive house she can find. Accusing her of ruining his dreams, Walter leaves.

A few weeks later the family is packing to move, and crates fill the living room. Mama tells Walter Page 313  |  Top of Articlethat in fact she has only used a third of the money for the downpayment—Walter is to deposit the rest in the bank, to be split between him and Beneatha. Joyful at the news and at his mother’s trust, Walter tells Travis that one day the family will be wealthy. Travis will have the chance to be whatever he wants when he grows up.

On moving day a week later, a white man, Karl Lindner, arrives from the homeowners’ association in the Youngers’ new neighborhood. Saying “people get along better … when they share a common background,” he makes an offer on behalf of the white homeowners to buy the Youngers’ new house—at a profit to them (Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, pp. 117-18). Walter indignantly kicks him out. Soon, one of Walter’s friends arrives to say that their partner has absconded with all of their money. Walter confesses that he had never deposited the money as his mother had instructed, but instead entrusted it all to his missing partner. Beneatha’s share is thus lost as well.

Act III opens an hour later. Joseph Asagai arrives to help with the packing. As they talk, Beneatha tells him of her urge to heal, which is why she has chosen to become a doctor. He tells her in turn of his dreams of helping lead his country to independence from British colonial rule. He asks her to marry him and return with him to Africa. After she asks for time to think about it, he leaves.

Walter calls the white man who wants the family out of the neighborhood, Lindner. To the disgust of his mother and sister, Walter tells the man that his family has decided to accept the offer to buy their new house. Yet when Lindner arrives, Walter cannot go through with it, and again tells him that there will be no deal. Mama, who almost cancels the move, decides to go ahead with it, come what may. As the movers arrive, every one exits but her. She leaves, too, after coming back for the plant that symbolizes her dreams.

Race, class, manhood, and the American dream

Actor Ossie Davis, who played Walter Younger in the Broadway production of the play, observed that it succeeded partly because white audiences could think of the Youngers as just another middle-class family. Whites watching the play could interpret it as not about race, but about the common dreams shared by blacks and whites alike. But as Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s husband and literary executor, points out in his introduction to an edition of the play, the Youngers—“maintained by two female domestics [Ruth and Mama] and a chauffeur [Walter], son of a laborer dead of a lifetime of hard labor”—

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are not middle class at all (A Raisin in the Sun, p. 9). They are a working-class black family struggling not just to secure a future in a racist society, but to fulfill their dreams about that future. While Mama’s and Ruth’s dreams center around their domestic situations—Mama, for example, dreams of owning a house with a garden—Walter’s and Beneatha’s are more ambitious and thus more vulnerable.

Walter, in particular, has identified his very manhood with the fulfillment of his financial plans. When Ruth scorns his plan to open a liquor store, he says, “That’s just what’s wrong with colored women in this world.... Don’t understand about building their men up and making them feel like they somebody” (A Raisin in the Sun, p. 34). Having lost the money, he feels that his only chance at manhood is to recover some money from the situation: “I tell you I am a man—” he tells Beneatha after he decides to accept Lindner’s deal, “and I think my wife should wear some pearls in this world” (A Raisin in the Sun, p. 143).

This attitude is not peculiar to Walter, but is shaped by society’s expectations of how a man should behave. A man, Walter has been led to believe, ought to be able to “take over and run the world” (A Raisin in the Sun, p. 85). His inability Page 314  |  Top of Articleto do this is what induces him to call Lindner, as if in his frustration he has deceived himself into imagining that money alone, at the cost of pride, will make him a man. When Beneatha disowns him for this decision, she says, “That is not a man. That is a toothless rat” (A Raisin in the Sun, p. 144). Conversely, when Walter rallies and finally rejects Lindner, Beneatha explicitly recognizes him as a man. “That’s what the man said,” she tells Lindner when he asks if they really intend to occupy the new house (A Raisin in the Sun, p. 148).

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LANGSTON HUGHES’ “HARLEM”: SOURCE OF HANSBERRY’S TITLE

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
          (Hughes, p. 426)

The racism faced by the play’s characters is rarely of the overt kind. Lindner is pleasant, and claims not to be prejudiced. “Anyone can see that you are a nice family of folks,” he tells the Youngers, “hard-working and honest I’m sure” (A Raisin in the Sun, p. 117). Reasonable people like them, he continues, surely must admit that everyone is happier if people live among their own kind. Yet this “nice family of folks” can support itself only through Walter’s job as chauffeur for a rich white man, and Ruth’s and Mama’s jobs cleaning white people’s houses.

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Sources

As mentioned, Lorraine Hansberry’s South Side childhood, particularly her father’s battle to move into a white neighborhood, provided the background for the events in the play. If her characters are not middle class, though, her own family certainly was. Her father was a United States deputy marshall, whose law enforcement background may have contributed to the strength required to oppose not only his angry white neighbors, but also the black political machine in Chicago. (Black politicians often tacitly supported the restrictive covenants, for only black neighborhoods would elect black representatives in city government.) Whereas in the play Mama buys her house strictly for economic reasons—white neighborhoods were less expensive to live in—Carl Hansberry bought his deliberately to challenge the covenants’ legality.

Her father’s legal case was not Lorraine Hansberry’s only family exposure to events she would later draw upon for her play. Her father’s brother, William Leo Hansberry, became a leading scholar of African history at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In her youth Lorraine often met her uncle’s students at family dinners. Many of them were from Africa, like her character Joseph Asagai. Among her uncle’s students, in fact, were both Nnamdi Azikwe and Kwame Nkrumah, the future leaders of Nigeria and Ghana.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

African independence

By the 1950s, the independence that Joseph Asagai excitedly predicts in the play had begun to come true for African lands long under European rule. Preparations had begun decades earlier in some cases with the formation of political parties, elections, constitutional conventions, and treaties with the colonial powers. The black leader Azikwe, for example, had formed his African political party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, in 1944; Nigeria drew up a constitution in 1951 and became fully independent from Britain in 1960. In Ghana, Nkrumah began similar preparations in 1951, and they led to full independence in 1957. It was a time of great optimism for black Africans, as new nations emerged from colonial rule.

Civil rights movement

In America, too, blacks had begun to demand not independence but equality. Having fought for their country in two world wars, many African Americans were no longer satisfied to live in a society that enforced segregation both in law and by custom. In 1954, a few years before the play was produced, civil rights leaders won a major victory when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned decades of legal segregation in public schools with its landmark ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. The following year, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat at the front of a bus to the seats at the rear reserved for blacks. Her arrest sparked a boycott of the Page 315  |  Top of Articlelocal bus system, and the organized economic protest soon came under the leadership of a local minister named Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights movement had begun, and Lorraine Hansberry’s success as a playwright would make her a major figure in it. She met Dr. King and other civil rights leaders, working with them and making many speeches supporting civil rights (and African independence) before her death in 1965.

Production and reception

When Hansberry finished her play in 1957, she wasn’t sure it would ever be produced. She certainly couldn’t have expected it to open on Broadway. No play by a black woman had ever appeared there, and few plays about black issues had ever succeeded at the box office anywhere in America. Traditionally Broadway audiences were white. It took her about a year and a half to find financial backing for tryouts in New Haven, Connecticut. As Robert Nemiroff relates in his introduction, however, the audience reactions in New Haven easily attracted the support of a Broadway producer, and the show opened in New York on March 11, 1959, starring Sidney Poitier as Walter, Ruby Dee as Ruth, and Claudia McNeil as Mama.

After the opening, John McClain wrote in the New York Journal American that a “small hunk of history was made” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway: “A play by a Negro about Negroes with an almost all-Negro cast opened on Broadway and was a stupendous unsegregated hit.” The play proved, to McClain at least, “that when these people create and participate in something for themselves they can make the rest of us look silly … there is no condescension and no humility and no abnormal exploitation of the current racial problems” (McClain in Coffin, p. 345).

Ossie Davis, a black critic writing in Freedomways, observed that one of the play’s biggest selling points lay in the view that the Youngers, though black, were much like any American family. This view allowed “people of all color, strata, faiths and persuasions” to identify “with Lena Younger, and her family, and their desire to better themselves in the American way,” but audiences were mistaken, argued Davis, in assuming that this was the subject of the play (Davis in Gunton, p. 185). “The play was [rather] about Walter Lee, Lena’s son, and what happened to him as a result of having his dream, his life’s ambition, endlessly frustrated by poverty, and its attendant social and personal degradation” (Davis in Gunton, p. 185). Walter Lee’s dream of being somebody, says Davis, his dream of making it in the world, was not respectable to Mama, and it may not have been very important to the audience.

But it was his dream, and it was all he had! And that made it … dangerous … For it could explode if frustrated; it could destroy people, it could kill, if frustrated! That’s what Lorraine was warning us about.

(Davis in Gunton, p. 185)

In another review, the black critic Harold Isaacs draws attention to Hansberry’s use of an African character in the play. Hansberry, he writes, “has had a vision of a romantic reunion between Negro American and black African. But her vision is shaped by new times, new outlooks”—new in relation to the times of Langston Hughes, whose poetry had inspired the young Hansberry to write. “It is no longer a wispy literary yearning after a lost primitivism.... Nor is it any longer a matter of going back-to-Africa as the ultimate option of despair in America. In Lorraine Hansberry’s time it has become a matter of choice between new freedoms now in the grasp of black men, both African and American” (Isaacs in Gunton, p. 182).

The play proved to be a great success commercially as well as critically, running for 530 performances and winning its author the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best American play. Lorraine Hansberry herself adapted the play into a movie, which enjoyed less critical success than the original production. In 1973 Robert Nemiroff adapted the play into a musical, Raisin, which ran for 847 performances.

For More Information

Coffin, Rachel, ed. New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews 1959. Vol. 20. New York: Critics’ Theatre Reviews, [1960].

Drake, St. Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. Vol. 1. 1945. Reprint. New York: Harper, 1962.

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Gunton, Sharon R., ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. 1958. Reprint. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Hughes, Langston. Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad. New York: Viking, 1994.

Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Random House, 1991.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875100273