22 Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun

Prof. Niladri Chatterjee

epgp books




This module will focus on Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. During 1950s a volcanic change swept over America. It was during this decade that a number of social problems such as racial prejudices come to a head. Post-War African American drama raises such issues prominently to attract the notice of the white world.


Life of Lorraine Hansberry-


Lorraine Hansberry was the first Afro-American to win the Best American Play award from the New York Drama Critics circle. As an Afro-American she also produced a play on Broadway for the first time. She was born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago. Her parents used to live in the South side of Chicago in a separated place for the blacks. Her family purchased a home in a white neighbourhood and then, with the help of NAACP, waged successfully all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to live there. Educated in painting and writing at the Chicago Art Institute, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, Hansberry moved to New York City in 1950 where she married Robert Nemifoff, a music publisher. There she grew interest in theatre and politics. Her husband encouraged her to write. She started writing from childhood and fought for the minority causes. She helped edit Paul Robinson’s monthly journal, Freedom which is a reaction against the white-run journals. From 1952 she became the associate editor of the journal and took keen interest in Civil Rights Movement and other political issues.


It is during this time that she started writing A Raisin in the Sun which was produced on Broadway in 1959. It was an enormous success. Hansberry drew on some autobiographical incidents while writing this play. It received many awards. As a social drama it touches off many burning issues of the day hitherto not treated in drama. It ran continuously for nine months on Broadway and she also wrote a screenplay for it.


Her second play was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window which was produced on Broadway 1964. It also dealt with social issues such as prejudices against Jews and homosexuals in contemporary world. Here Hansberry has come a long way from the constricted black/white parameters of cultural debate. Her world now is inhabited by Jews, homosexuals and other minority groups. It received mixed reviews. During this time she was diagnosed with cancer. During the time of her death she left an unfinished play called Les Blancs.


In all the works of Hansberry we find the need for understanding each other. For her it is the lack of understanding that sows the seeds of separation. She demands that white America should feel empathy for the blacks and should not look down upon them with disdain. She is bold enough to pick out the wrongs of societies which has bade farewell to tolerance. Behind the facade of militant agitation that rings through her plays, Hansberry evinced genuine artistic talent by overcoming the simple emotional possibilities of social drama. Her characters do not live in isolation but form a part of the whole process where things have fallen apart. Characters like Lena Younger, Sidney Brustein are wallowing in a world driven by centrifugal forces. Against such divisive forces Hansberry prioritizes group solidarity to launch a diatribe against the white world. Through her preoccupation with the minority culture Hansberry tries to remodel the contours of dominant culture. Her appreciation of problems is often issue-specific. Her political vision in Afro-American drama comes over to us today as one of the most powerfully moving enterprises of a race within a nation.

Context of Afro-American Drama and emergence of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

Afro- American drama made its presence felt with the start of what were called ‘ revues’, a form of theatrical entertainment that includes music and dance. From the 1920s the lives of black people were articulated by white authors such as Eugene O’ Neill, Paul Greene. However, the dearth of serious drama led the great Du Bois to establish the Krigwa Little Theatre movement in 1926. The movement proved unsuccessful. The emergence of Harlem Reanissance was a watershed moment in the history of Afro-American literature. Langston Hughes’s Mulatto was a grand success on Broadway. During the 1940s, the establishment of American Negro Theatre gave a solid foundation for the efflorescence of theatre. The black man’s striving to find an anchorage in a world not of their own making reverberated in such plays. 1960s was a time of great social and cultural upheaval. The optimistic image of America who is the leader of the world received a blow. J.F.Kennedy failed to repress the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In spite of the revolutionary judgement made by Supreme Court that annulled separate public schools for black and white students that supplanted earlier notion of ‘separate but equal’ the real scenario did not change much. The policy of segregation was in full swing in most of the public spheres. At that time also emerged the heroism of Martin Luther King with his credo of non-violence which caught black men in a frenzy. During such a crucial phase in the history of America appeared A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. It became a cultural response to the hard time. James Baldwin said, ‘Never before in the entire history of the American theatre had so much f the truth of Black people’s lives been seen on the stage.’ Through the saga of the Younger family Hansberry presents before the audience a snapshot of contemporary American life with all its aspects. At a time when the concept of family was getting jeopardised, Hansberry’s preaching of a unified family value won huge acclaim.

Plot Outline-


The play circles around the life of a working class black family living in Chicago’s south side in the 1950s. It focuses on the Younger family who live from hand to mouth. The family is excited about how they will spend a ten thousand dollar insurance cheque that it has got after its patriarch’s death. Each of the family members has a dream of his own about spending the amount and they fail to come to a unanimous conclusion. Walter wants to invest the money in a liquor store in order to leave his menial job of working as a chauffeur. His mother Lena Younger(Mama) opposes the plan. She wants to buy a house that has been her lifelong dream. Ruth, Walter’s wife, is at a loss as she gets pregnant and fears that a new member might exacerbate the problems of family. Much against her own wish, she wants abortion. Beneatha, Walter’s sister, aspires to be a doctor and wants to use the money for that purpose. Ruth requests Lena to give some portion of the money to Walter. However, she refuses and instead puts a down-payment on a house. She also wants to use some portion of it for Beneatha’s education. On learning that Walter is very upset, she yields and tells him that he can take the rest of the money and lay by something for Beneatha’s education. Walter thinks that money rules the roost. Things take a different turn when the family is visited by a guest, Karl Lindner who offers the Younger family a huge amount of money to buy the house as Lena has bought the house at a place where Afro-Americans are not wanted. The family members fly to a rage and drive him away. Another shock comes to the Younger family when they learn that the money Walter invested has been stolen. This puts the family into a serious pressure. Extreme penury almost drives Walter to accept Lindner’s offer and get out of the difficult situation. However, Walter overcomes this tragedy with resilience in the teeth of great difficulty and eschews misplaced values only to learn new identity and courage.

Gender Issues-


The play deals with feminist issues. It presents before us three generations of women having a different conception as a woman. Mama typifies the stereotype of the Black matriarch who usually considers the Black male as undependable and prioritizes the idea of motherhood. She would protect her children against all odds. As a devoted mother, Mama thinks for the safety of her children. She even gives some portion of the received money to Walter to pursue his goal. In keeping with the notion of the Black matriarch she is devoted to religion. Her unflinching faith in God is evident throughout the play. She even slaps her daughter.

Beneathea when she doubts the existence of God. Children are the be-all and end-all of her life. She does not want to utilize the money for herself but thinks for the well-being of her family. Her act of making a down-payment on the house issues out of pure maternal love. She also sets some amount of the money for the education of her daughter. While Mama represents the typical Black matriarch, Ruth and Beneatha are modern new woman who do not suppress their emotions. They are more vocal than Lena in articulating their desires. While Walter objects to Beneatha’s education lest it should put more pressure on the family’s financial condition, she does not give up her dream. She is bold enough to challenge her brother in pursuance of her dream. Anne Cheney aptly remarks on the character of Beneatha: “At twenty, Beneatha is very much the new woman; she is planning to become a doctor, she will delay marriage until she completes her training, she doubts God and various social institutions and she toys with diverse forms of expression.” She is willing to come out of her kitchen-space into a broad area with a range of possibilities. Although Hansberry does not don the mantle of a feminist in this drama the gender issues are addressed to some extent.

Title –


Title of a literary masterpiece is not a thoughtless whim of the author. In the hands of great authors the titles are loaded with rich symbols which offer a flood of light on the central theme. Hansberry takes her cue for the drama from a poem by Langston Hughes entitled ‘Harlem: what happens to a dream deferred?’:

“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?”


The dream motif which runs through the play is highlighted by the title point-blank. Hansberry with great sympathy for black Americans tries to project through the play the dormant dream that needs to be fulfilled to nullify black/white binary.


American Dream-


American Dream is a rosy concept. This dream derives its origin, perhaps, to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence , “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To put it simply, this notion of American Dream posits that every single human being irrespective of their origin, is capable of rising from rags to riches by dint of hard work, perseverance and uprightness. However, writers in the twentieth century hold a contrary notion to this dream. Time and again they have depicted through their literary works that dream and reality are at loggerheads. In spite of the promised concept of the dream the harsh reality with its division of class, gender and other fissiparous units shatters this dream into multiple fragments. Arthur Miller, for example, in his masterpiece Death of a Salesman presents before us how the Great Depression of 1929 proved fatal to society that compelled common men like Willy Lowman to commit suicide only to give their dream a validity. Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie presents this crisis from the inside. Her characters like Amanda, Laura, Tom fail to realize the society that has put on a mechanical demeanour, to see through the modus operandi of a highly commercialised society that knifes personal relationships and sets great store by artificial gestures.


Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun also gives a severe jolt to the validity of the Great  American Dream. Through the plight of the Younger family during the 1950s Hansberry articulates the ethos of the tumultuous era crisscrossed by nefarious evils of labour problem and housing discriminations. Her husband exemplifies the plight of a man who has faced job discrimination due to the segregative policy. The play unravels the dance macabre of racism sapping the vitality of the nation. The first half of the twentieth century saw the ugly manifestation of violence in the South. The untold oppression compelled many Afro- Americans to leave South and move to northern cities such as New York, Chicago with a view to getting a job and shirk disgrace.


However, all such efforts proved futile as the same class hierarchy, discriminations were in operation. The black migrants were treated with nothing but contempt. Every salubrious habitation was reserved for the whites. The worst habitation was allotted to the blacks and violence was meted out to them whenever they tried to move outside of their ghettoised places.


A Raisin in the Sun is a response to the zeitgeist. Hansberry imbued with humane sensibility tries to come to grips with the harsh reality and promotes group solidarity. The housing discrimination in the North is a harsh commentary on the great American Dream. When Mama’s dream of owning a house in an area that is mostly populated by the Whites receives a blow as Mr. Lindner, the white mouthpieces of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association discourages her to buy a house there:

“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”


Here Lindner almost dons the mantle of a judge and seems to have passed a verdict. When he comes to the understanding that the Younger family is not convinced by his suggestion, he offers the temptation of money to get rid of them: “Our association is prepared, through the collective effort of our people, to buy the house from you at a financial gain to your family”. This remark confirms the prevalent practice during the 1950s in contemporary American society.


The horrible plight of job discrimination is depicted not only through the story of Big Walter Lee but also through the crisis of his son Walter. The story of two successive generations reiterate the continuous trouble of the blacks. The policy of racial politics has hurled the likes of Walter to choose such professions as working as a car driver. This job is abhorrent to him as Walter thinks it robs him off his self identity: “ A job. (Looks at her) mama, a job? i open and close car doors all day long. I drive a man around in his limousine and I say, “Yes, Sir; no, sir; very good, sir; shall i take the Drive, sir?” mama, that ain’t no kind of job . . . that ain’t nothing at all. (Very quietly)Mama, i don’t know if i can make you understand.” Although Hansberry does not offer revolutionary antidote to colonial domination as Amiri Baraka prescribes in The Dutchman, yet she initiates the process of self- regeneration through this play.

Use of Symbols-


Symbols are objects that stand for something else. In drama the employment of symbols enhances the theme and covers the central issue with the resplendence of imaginative insight. Symbolism has got nothing to do with the material world but activates our mind to see into the life of things. According to W.A.Nitze, ‘The Symbolist wishes to create in the reader a certain state of the soul.’ Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun deals with multiple symbols to project different abstract ideas to the reader.


A pivotal symbol in the play is Mama’s plant. It symbolises Mama’s own existence and her dream. From the beginning of the play we are aware of the presence of the plant. Mama’s act of taking care of the plant is indicative of her act of taking care of the welfare of her children. This also hints at her harbouring of the dream of owning a house.


Money is another important symbol. It stands for the corrupted version of the original American Dream which appreciates hard work, perseverance. In the twentieth century American Dream has become synonymous with amassing money which is indicative of its deteriorated image. Walter is a victim of this materialistic world. For him money can do anything. At the end of the play realization dawns on him that money is not enough which helps him get over the existential crisis. His act of rejecting the financial offer of Lindner affirms that he has overcome the love of money and eked out selfhood.

Search for identity-


Search for the identity is a central theme in major Afro-American literature. The crisis of identity of the black man buffeted by the hegemony of white society drives him into the zones of liminality and non-existence. Racial complexity haunts the black men so much so that it almost drives them to the brink of psychosis. In Afro-American writing evidences of such psychosis come out again and again. Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun throws a flood of light on this issue through the story of the Younger family. Identity formation is a continuous process which is also constructed by societal norms. Hansberry writes drama with a political propaganda to show the way out of the impasse.

In this play the search for the self is mostly indicated by the character of Walter Lee. In the beginning of the play we find that he has internalised the racism prevalent then and loathes himself. He has a distorted dream that equates money with success and considers mammon worship as the motto of life. He considers himself like the narrator in Eliison’s Invisible Man who is looking for admissibility into white world. He also hurls abuses at her sister out of such complexity.


That A Raisin in the Sun is not only about racial complexity but also about vindicating the dignity of the black man is enunciated by the transformation of Walter towards the end of the play when he overcomes the inferiority complex: “We have decided to move into our house because my father my father – he earned it. We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes – but we will try to be good neighbours.” He has come out of the arsenal of complexities. Hansberry also promotes the African heritage to shake off the inferiority complex. The character of Asagai is created to inject the seeds of selfhood into other characters. He dreams of the liberation of Africa and encourages African ideals in lieu of Westernized values.

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