Racism as exhibited in: A Raisin in the Sun
A Raisin in the Sun is a play written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. The setting is Chicago shortly after the great depression. It is the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. Also it is the first play with a black director, Lloyd Richards. It is a historical first.
The title is adapted from Langston Hughes Harlem.
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
Langston Hughes, Harlem
The deferred dream refers to Walter Lee’s dream of his own business and the family’s dream of a new home and an education. Each family member has their own dream.
The experiences in the play are loosely based on Hansberry’s father’s experience involving a lawsuit, Hansberry v Lee. The family fought for the right to defy the neighborhood association in a class action suit about racially motivated restrictive housing covenants. These covenants were common during this time and racial steering still persists today in some areas of the country.
This story illustrates the flavor of racism which was present in Chicago and many other parts of the country during the 1950’s.
During the time of the play’s setting, blacks were prohibited from owning homes in certain neighborhoods by covenants. White property owners made covenants or agreements to only sell their property to other whites. The Younger family managed to find a white property owner to sell to them because the time setting of the play is shortly after the depression. Buyers were scarce and the Younger family acquired money from their father’s life insurance payoff. This is a policy the parents struggled to pay over the years. This is the most money the Younger family has ever had.
The matriarch in the play represents strength in the family. Mama is Walter and Beneatha’s sensitive mother and the head of the Younger household. She demands that members of her family respect themselves and take pride in their dreams. (Notes)
She has dreams of a better home for her family and an education for her daughter.
The daughter Berneatha is studying to be a doctor and she is also searching for her African roots. Berneatha is a bit lost and she is searching for her identity as an African American woman. She meets a friend, Asagai, from Nigeria and shares her dreams about the money with him. Her friend Asagai remarks: “Then isn’t there something wrong in a house—in a world—where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man? Berneatha is also dating an African American but she is happiest with Asagai because he gives her a sense of identity. Asagai encourages her to wear natural hair and African clothing to establish her identity. He is very proud of his African heritage and he shares that pride with Berneatha.
The son, Walter Lee, is suffering the same fate as many black men of his time: underemployment. He has not been given opportunity to advance like a white man could:
A man says to a woman ‘I got me a dream’ and the woman says ‘eat your eggs.’ I’m thirty-four years old, married eleven years and have a boy who sleeps in the living room
—Walter Lee Younger
This comment is Walter’s response to his wife Ruth. He is talking about his dreams and hopes and his wife tells him to eat. This scene symbolizes the frustration Walter feels about his limitations in society.
As Mama’s only son, Ruth’s defiant husband, Travis’s caring father, and Beneatha’s belligerent brother, Walter acts as both protagonist and antagonist of the story. The plot revolves around him and the actions and choices that he makes. His character goes through many changes throughout the story. His poor judgment and bad decisions really harm the family. Belatedly he finds his manhood becomes the hero in the last scene. (Notes)
Walter’s words express the frustration he feels about being unable to provide adequately for his family. Walter tells his son: “You wouldn’t understand yet, son, but your daddy’s gonna make a transaction . . . a business transaction that’s going to change our lives. . . . That’s how come one day when you ’bout seventeen years old I’ll come home . . . I’ll pull the car up on the driveway . . . just a plain black Chrysler, I think, with white walls—no—black tires . . . the gardener will be clipping away at the hedges and he’ll say, “Good evening, Mr. Younger.” And I’ll say, “Hello, Jefferson, how are you this evening?” And I’ll go inside and Ruth will come downstairs and meet me at the door and we’ll kiss each other and she’ll take my arm and we’ll go up to your room to see you sitting on the floor with the catalogues of all the great schools in America around you. . . . All the great schools in the world! And—and I’ll say, all right son—it’s your seventeenth birthday, what is it you’ve decided? . . . Just tell me, what it is you want to be—and you’ll be it. . . . Whatever you want to be—Yessir! You just name it, son . . . and I hand you the world!
Walter has big dreams. He wants to do well by his family but racism is in his way.
It is a frustration felt by many Black men in this country over the years as they were not given a fair chance at employment. Many black men during that era and still today are self employed and earn a living independently because of racial discrimination in hiring and promotion. Even blacks who served in the Armed Forces were not given the same benefits of home ownership as white veterans.
There is cultural significance in the fact that as a black man, Walter Lee sees the insurance money as his only hope to become a success. When he loses the money, he almost loses his self respect by selling his soul to the racist neighborhood improvement association representative. He redeems himself when he tells the association representative: “We have decided to move into our house because my father-my father-he earned it for us brick by brick. We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that all we got to say about that. We don’t want your money.” He makes this statement in front of his young son to reaffirm the family pride. His mother is relieved because she was afraid he would forget the values she instilled in him.
The fact that so many years after slavery, Walter Lee is limited to a job as a chauffeur is a comment on race relations of the time as is the existence of the racist neighborhood organizations. It gives the audience a feel for the racial sentiments in Chicago at the time and the picture is not pretty.
His mother knows that even if he gets the business deal he is looking for; white racist society has a lot more challenges in store for him even if he started his own business. She supports him because she is hoping he will be successful although she knows it is unlikely. She feels his anxiety about the lack of money and opportunity: When they discuss money mama says:”Oh so now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life-now it’s money. I guess the world really do change.
Walter replies:” No- it was always money, Mama, we just didn’t know about it.
Mama replies: “No….Something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time, we was worried about not being lynched…You aint satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home, that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar- You my children- but how different we done become.”
This statement by Mama highlights generational differences between Walter Lee and his mother. Her expectations are much lower than his because she has come through the civil rights movement and she remembers being forced to sit on the back of the bus and other indignities blacks were forced to endure. She thinks they have made progress as a race. Walter’ actions indicate that he does not agree.
Racism was a significant part of black life in the 1950’s but things were even direr after the depression. Many whites were out of work and they harbored resentment against blacks who had jobs, even menial jobs. The mother is very aware of how far blacks have come and how hard they fought.
Many advances were made in the fight for equality during the 1950’s. Rosa Parks made her stand on the bus. Martin Luther King came into prominence and schools were desegregated by the Supreme Court.
During this time, it was very common for whites to form organizations similar to the neighborhood improvement association encountered by the Youngers. They called themselves “white citizen’s council” or “neighborhood improvement associations” or some other title which implied they were looking out for the society as a whole rather than enforcing segregation.
Racism was pervasive during this time. Historically, the United States of America has always been defined by racially segregated neighborhoods. This is a carryover from negative attitudes which persisted since slavery. Urban Planning up to the 1960s has been documented as one of the causes of this phenomenon. Urban planners practiced early forms of racial steering. They accomplished this through the use of the restrictive covenant, and the establishment of zoning laws between World War I and World War II. The use of Urban renewal policies between the 1940s and 1960s, aided in the development of racially segregated neighborhoods as well. Whites commonly felt that when blacks moved into their area, the values of the homes dropped. With this in mind, they tried very hard to segregate neighborhoods and direct blacks to less desirable areas. (Wikipedia) The restrictive covenant was the practice used in this play. Some argue that people tend to “self segregate”. They are more comfortable around their own people. This is clearly not the case in black America where great effort has been put forth to segregate blacks from white in housing and education. The housing and education offered to blacks is almost always inferior.
The white characters in the play portray racism at its worse. The neighbor looks out her window and is disgusted by the fact that blacks are moving in. She does not know them. She has no idea what kind of neighbors they will make. All she knows is they are black. Her behavior is very prejudicial.
She undoubtedly contacts the neighborhood association who sends out a representative to “buy them off”.
The representative sent by the association approaches them as though he is doing a favor for them. His entire attitude is offensive to them. Mama is horrified by the prospect that Walter may accept their offer.
At issue is the pride of the Younger family. The mother is very proud and she is proud to be able to purchase the new home, a home they need very badly given their cramped conditions. The mother is clearly the nurturer of the family.
A culturally significant fact about this work is the fact that it comments on black feminism. The women defer to Walter because they feel his spirit is in need of hope. He becomes angry and insolent when he thinks he will be denied his one great opportunity.
Beneatha is an attractive college student who provides a young, independent, feminist perspective, and her desire to become a doctor illustrates her great hopes and ambitions. Walter’s wife wants a better home. Each family member has a vision of what the life insurance can bring to their life.
The play was reproduced many times after its initial debut in the theatre. It is a commentary on black life that has proven to be timeless in American History.