The Drama of Race and Upward Mobility

Scene from A Raisin in the Sun with the legendary Sidney Poitier as Walter

Scene from A Raisin in the Sun with the legendary Sidney Poitier as Walter


This week marks this course’s first venture into reading drama as literature. As you know, a play is written differently from fiction and poetry, and thus it must be read differently in order to appreciate its literary merit. Before you start reading A Raisin in the Sun, I would like you to consider the following tips for analyzing a play. When you read, imagine you are the director and you are using Hansberry’s notes for putting on the play in your head. Consider the following as you visualize the play in your imagination:


Background on A Raisin in the Sun

Headline Featuring the Resolution of Hansberry's Housing Ruling from 1940

Headline Featuring the Resolution of Hansberry’s Housing Ruling from 1940

A Raisin in the Sun was inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s own experience of housing discrimination as a young girl. I’d like you to read the following biography and description of the case from The City of Chicago’s web page on preserving the house as a historical landmark:

_____Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was born May 19, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois, the youngest (by seven years) of four children. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a successful real estate broker, United States Marshal, and member of the activist Chicago branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. Her mother, Nannie Perry Hansberry, was a schoolteacher who entered politics and became a Republican ward committeewoman. Hansberry’s parents were prominent activists committed to political and social reform in Chicago. The Hansberry’s home was a unique social and intellectual atmosphere, where the family often entertained luminaries including Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens and W.E. B. DuBois.

_____Hansberry was a self-described “rebel” whose willingness to engage in social protest was born of the early battles that she witnessed when her family moved to a white neighborhood. In 1937 when Hansberry was just seven years old, her parents purchased a small apartment building at 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue in the Washington Park subdivision. Because the property was subject to a racially restrictive real estate covenant, it was purchased by the Hansberrys through their attorney, Jay B. Crook. Covenants like this emerged in response to the influx of African-Americans to Chicago between World War I and World War II, when many white property owners became increasingly agitated by what they saw as an invasion of black residents. As a result, many white property owners joined organizations like the Woodlawn Property Owners’ Association and signed covenants that barred them from renting or selling their properties to African-Americans.

_____On November 12, 1940, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in favor of Hansberry and unanimously ruled to reverse the decision of the lower courts. Although the constitutionality of restrictive covenants was not acted upon at that time, the ruling of the Supreme Court declared that this particular covenant was deficient because it failed to secure the necessary supporting signatures in the neighborhood to render it valid. The Chicago Defender published the entire text of the Hansberry v. Lee decision on November 23, 1940, and the African-American community in Chicago became encouraged that judgments rendered in lower courts which sustained restrictive covenants on the basis of earlier litigation would be nullified.

______Despite the favorable ruling, discriminatory real estate practices in Chicago continued much as before, however, from a legal standpoint Hansberry v. Lee was seen locally as an important battle in the war to outlaw racial covenants in housing. The Chicago branch of the NAACP meanwhile continued its struggle against all racially restrictive covenants as part of a national effort. (Restrictive covenants would be determined to be unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1948 in Shelley v. Kraemer.) Carl Hansberry’s outrage over continued housing discrimination in Chicago despite the extraordinary financial sacrifices, traumatic physical attacks, and complex litigation that his family endured, prompted him to move to Mexico in 1946.

_______In protest to segregation, her parents sent Lorraine Hansberry to public schools rather than private ones. She attended Betsy Ross Elementary School, then in 1944 she was enrolled in Englewood High School. Recalling her personal experience, Hansberry’s memoirs detailed the “substandard quality” of the educational system that was provided for African-American children in Chicago and the violence that she encountered during race riots while attending the predominately white Englewood High School. She broke the family tradition of enrolling in African-American colleges and enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she majored in painting. She was soon to discover that her talent lay in writing, not art. After two years she decided to leave the University of Wisconsin for New York City.

______In New York City, Hansberry’s commitment to fighting for the rights of African-American people emerged. From 1950 to 1953, she worked for Paul Robeson’s progressive black newspaper, Freedom. In a letter to a friend she described the paper as “the journal to Negro liberation.” In 1953 she married Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish activist and songwriter. After marriage, she worked as a waitress and cashier, writing in her spare time. In 1956 she devoted all her time to writing The Crystal Stair, a play about the struggles and frustrations of the Younger family, a working-class black family in Chicago’s South Side during the 1950s. The play was later renamed, A Raisin in the Sun.

Themes in A Raisin in the Sun

Yes, that's P. Diddy (Aka: Puff Daddy, Aka Sean "Puffy" Combs) as Walter in a newer adaptation of the play)

Yes, that’s P. Diddy (Aka: Puff Daddy, Aka Sean “Puffy” Combs) as Walter in a newer adaptation of the play

Dreams and Aspirations Versus Reality

As you have read in the biography, Hansberry’s play was named after a line in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” and it was originally titled after another line from his poem “Mother to Son.” I would like you to read each poem in the anthology (p.559-560) and consider why Hansberry found inspiration in these short poems. What central themes do both Hughes and Hansberry address in regards to the experience of African Americans in the 1950s?

Furthermore, consider the idea of a “dream.” If Hughes says that one of the possible outcomes of a dream deferred is that it will dry up “like a raisin in the sun” and Hansberry used this very line to describe the problems facing the Younger family, then what is she saying about their dreams? How might the play be different if she had used The Crystal Stair from “Mother to Son” as the title? Would it suggest a different focus of the play and its themes?

One of the best ways to look at some of the political and social issues in this play is to consider each character’s dreams.

Beneatha’s Dreams

As a young, gifted college student, Beneatha is often interpreted as standing in for Hansberry herself. Beneatha’s dreams stand in for the dreams of the thousands of young African Americans who are intelligent and capable of achieving great things, but must over come racism and lower socio-economic status in order to achieve them. Her dreams are to overcome and achieve the following:

Overcome sexism:

Think about how Beneatha is affected by gender roles. She wants to become a doctor, but her brother does not respect her ambition and wishes she would do more “womanly” work. Ruth and Mama pressure her into marrying George because he is rich and can provide for her instead of becoming an independent woman:

BENEATHA Oh— : I like George all right, Mama. I mean I like him enough to go out with him and stuff but, —

RUTH (for devilment): What does and stuff mean?

BENEATHA: Mind your own business.

MAMA: Stop picking at her now, Ruth. (She chuckles—then a suspicious sudden look at her daughter as she turns in her chair for emphasis.) What DOES it mean?

BENEATHA (wearily): Oh, I just mean In couldn’t ever really be serious about George. He’s—he’s so shallow.

RUTH: Shallow—what do you mean he’s shallow? He’s Rich!

MAMA: Hush, Ruth.

BENEATHA: I know he’s rich. He knows he’s rich, too.

RUTH: Well—what other qualities a man got to have to satisfy you, little girl?

BENEATHA: You wouldn’t even begin to understand. Anybody who married Walter could not possibly understand.

Overcome poverty:

As you probably know, college ain’t cheap! Set in the 50s, this play predates a lot of the scholarships and grants that minorities and low income students could get. Therefore, the family has to scrimp and save to put her through college. Consider how this creates drama for the family. Does the fact that she gets to go to school while everyone else works impact how everyone treats her?

Forge an Independent Identity:

Along with her studies, Beneatha is trying to become her own woman. Part of this is complicated by her race. In the late 50s and early 60s, great changes were taking place in the African American culture with new philosophies, political beliefs, and art forms changing the way African Americans viewed themselves and others.

One of the more prominent changes featured in this play is the “Back to Africa” movement. Many thinkers and leaders in the African American community believed that racism would never be solved in America and that African Americans should move back to their ancestral lands in Africa where newly independent countries were beginning to emerge as the indigenous people revolted against the colonizers. This inspired many African American people to explore African art and culture. This is dramatized by her romance with Asagai, a wealthy Nigerian student who brings her dresses and African records. Yet, as Hansberry suggests, even though they are both black and share an ancestral home, African Americans are a completely different culture and people than Africans born in Africa:

BENEATHA (Turning suddenly) My hair what’s wrong with my hair?

ASAGAI (Shrugging) Were you born with it like that?

BENEATHA (Reaching up to touch it) No … of course not.
(She looks back to the mirror, disturbed)

ASAGAI (Smiling) How then?

BENEATHA You know perfectly well how … as crinkly as yours . . . that’s how.

ASAGAI And it is ugly to you that way?

BENEATHA (Quickly) Oh, no not ugly . . . (More slowly, apologetically) But it’s so hard to manage
when it’s, well raw.

ASAGAI And so to accommodate that you mutilate it every week?

BENEATHA It’s not mutilation!

ASAGAI (Laughing aloud at her seriousness) Oh … please! I am only teasing you because you are so very serious about these things. (He stands back from her and folds his arms across his chest as he watches her pulling at her hair and frowning in the minor) Do you
remember the first time you met me at school? . . . (He laughs) You came up to .me and you said and I thought you were the most serious little thing I had ever seen you said: (He imitates her) “Mr. Asagai I want very much to talk with you. About Africa. You see, Mr. Asagai, I am looking for my identity! 
(He laughs)

BENEATHA (Turning to him, not laughing) Yes                                                                            (Her face is quizzical, profoundly disturbed)

ASAGAI (Still teasing and reaching out and taking her face in his hands and turning her profile to him) Well . . . it is true that this is not so much a profile of a Hollywood queen as perhaps a queen of the Nile (A mock dismissal of the importance of the question) But what
does it matter? Assimilationism is so popular in your country.

BENEATHA (Wheeling, passionately, sharply) I am not an assimilationist!

In this passage, Asagai illustrates the ways in which Africans and African Americans are different. He also calls it “assimilation”, suggesting that Beneatha has changed parts of her life to conform with white society. Why do you think she takes offense to this accusation?

Walter’s Dreams

Economic Prosperity

Walter dreams of becoming rich by investing in a liquor store. Just like his sister, he dreams of upward mobility and raising his standard of living. Unlike Beneatha, he is not looking for some kind of intellectual enlightenment. However, he is not purely materialistic either. Rather, for Walter, becoming rich means becoming powerful in a way that he is no longer subjected to the indignities of being a black man in a racist world. This problem of dignity and race comes up in a conversation between Mama and Mrs. Johnson:

JOHNSON: I know but sometimes she act like ain’t got time to pass the time of day with nobody ain’t been to college. Oh I ain’t criticizing her none. It’s just you know how some of our young people gets when they get a little education. (MAMA and RUTH say nothing, just look at her) Yes well. Well, I guess I better get on home. (Unmoving) ‘Course I can understand how she must be proud and everything being the only one in the family to make something of herself. I know just being a chauffeur ain’t never satisfied Brother none. He shouldn’t feel like that, though. Ain’t nothing wrong with being a chauffeur.

MAMA There’s plenty wrong with it.


MAMA Plenty. My husband always said being any kind of a servant wasn’t a fit thing for a man to have to be. He always said a man’s hands was made to make things, or to turn the earth with not to drive nobody’s car for ’em or (She looks at her own hands) carry they slop jars. And my boy is just like him he wasn’t meant to wait on nobody.

Mrs. Johnson represents the many individuals who feel threatened by those who want to raise their status in life, fearing that the others think they are “better” than her. Consider why being a chauffeur is not good enough for Walter. Is it just because they are not paid well, or does it have to do with the nature of the work itself?

Becoming a Man

Early in the play, we see that Walter doesn’t get too much respect. He wants to be the typical “man of the house,” but he’s constantly questioned and undermined by his mother, wife, and sister. He thinks that if his get rich quick scheme with the liquor store succeeds, he’ll be able to become the sole breadwinner and establish himself as the man of the house. When he mismanages his mother’s money, his hopes for manhood seem all but dashed. At the very end of the play, his manhood is put to the test when he initially plans on taking Lindner’s money to give up the house, but then, instead, stands up for his family.

WALTER: What I am telling you is that we called you over here to tell you that we are very proud and that this —(signaling to TRAVIS) Travis, come here. (TRAVIS crosses and WALTER draws him before him facing the man.) This is my son, and he makes the sixth generation of our family in this country. And we have all thought about you offer—

LINDNER: Well, good . . . good

WALTER: And we have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us brick by brick. (MAMA has her eyes closed and is rocking back and forth as though she were in church, with her head nodding the Amen yes.) We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all we got to say about that. (He looks the man absolutely in the eyes.) We don’t want your money. (He turns and walks away.)

LINDNER: (looking around at all of them): I take it then—that you have decided to occupy . . .

BENEATHA: That’s what the man said.

LINDNER (t0 MAMA in her reverie): Then I would like to appeal to you, Mrs. Younger. You are older and wiser and understand things better I am sure . . .

MAMA: I am afraid you don’t understand My son said we was going to move and there ain’t nothing left for me to say (briskly) . You know how these young folks is nowadays, mister. Can’t do a thing with ’em! (As he opens his mouth, she rises.) Goodbye.

A page later as they begin moving, Mama remarks to Ruth, “finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain.” How does this scenario “earn” Walter his manhood? How has shifting his focus from wealth and the liquor store to his family and providing a house allowed him to truly become “the man of the house”?

Ruth and Mama’s Dreams

A House/Home

As mothers, both Ruth and Mama dream of a safe and spacious environment to raise their family in. Consider the circumstances of their home, with Travis having to sleep on the couch. Is this the environment they had in mind for their children. When Mama gets her insurance check from her deceased husband, she knows this is is final act of providing for his family, and as part of his legacy, she wants to fulfill his dream of providing a home for the family.

As you read about how Ruth and Mama talk about the home they dream of, I want you to analyze the significance of the features and qualities it embodies. For example, consider Mama’s sad house plant and her dream of working in a garden. What might the significance of having a garden be? Think about the symbolism of the home. Why do we treasure the home so much in our culture? What would it be like to grow up in a home like the Youngers’ where everyone is cramped and cannot individually blossom? How might a home contribute to the growth of the individuals inside it?

About drdimock

Dr. Chase Dimock teaches Literature and Composition at Broward College
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