A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry

clybourne park

A Raisin in the Sun is a play by African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadway in 1959. The title comes from the poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes: ‘What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?’ The story tells a black family’s experiences in the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood as they attempt to ‘better’ themselves with an insurance payout from the death of the father.

Walter and Ruth Younger, their son Travis, along with Walter’s mother Lena (Mama) and sister Beneatha, live in poverty in a dilapidated two-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s south side. Walter is barely making a living as a limousine driver. Though Ruth is content with their lot, Walter is not and desperately wishes to become wealthy. His plan is to invest in a liquor store in partnership with Willy and Bobo, street-smart acquaintances of Walter’s.

At the beginning of the play, their father has recently died, and Mama is waiting for a life insurance check for $10,000. Walter has a sense of entitlement to the money, but Mama has religious objections to alcohol and Beneatha has to remind him it is Mama’s call how to spend it. Eventually Mama puts some of the money down on a new house, choosing an all-white neighborhood over a black one for the practical reason that it happens to be much cheaper. Later she relents and gives the rest of the money to Walter to invest with the provision that he reserve $3,000 for Beneatha’s education.

Walter passes the money on to Willy’s naive sidekick Bobo, who gives it to Willy, who absconds with it, depriving Walter and Beneatha of their dreams, though not the Youngers of their new home. Meanwhile, Karl Lindner, a white representative of the neighborhood they plan to move to, makes a generous offer to buy them out. He wishes to avoid neighborhood tensions over interracial population, which to the three women’s horror Walter prepares to accept as a solution to their financial setback. Lena says that while money was something they try to work for, they should never take it if it was a person’s way of telling them they weren’t fit to walk the same earth as them.

While all this is going on, Beneatha’s character and direction in life are being defined by two different men: her wealthy and educated boyfriend George Murchison, and her friend Joseph Asagai. George represents the ‘fully assimilated black man’ who denies his African heritage with a ‘smarter than thou’ attitude, which Beneatha finds disgusting. Asagai, however, patiently teaches her about her African heritage; he gives her thoughtfully useful gifts from Africa, while pointing out she is unwittingly assimilating herself into white ways. She straightens her hair, for example, which he characterizes as ‘mutilation.’

When Beneatha becomes distraught at the loss of the money, she is upbraided by Joseph for her materialism. She eventually accepts his point of view that things will get better with a lot of effort, along with his proposal of marriage and his invitation to move with him to Nigeria to practice medicine. Walter is oblivious to the stark contrast between George and Joseph: his pursuit of wealth can only be attained by liberating himself from Joseph’s culture, to which he attributes his poverty, and rising to George’s level, wherein he sees his salvation. Walter redeems himself and black pride at the end by changing his mind and not accepting the buyout offer, stating that they are proud of who they are and will try to be good neighbors. The play closes with the family leaving for their new home but uncertain future.

All experiences in this play echo a 1940 lawsuit (‘Hansberry v. Lee’), to which the playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s family was a party when they fought to have their day in court because a previous class action about racially motivated restrictive covenants was similar to her case. In 1968, the ‘Fair Housing Act’ made discrimination in housing unlawful and created the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The Hansberrys won their right to be heard as a matter of due process of law in relation to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court held that the Hansberry defendants were not bound by the Burke decision because the class of defendants in the respective cases had conflicting goals, and thus could not be considered to be the same class.

Lorraine reflects upon the litigation in her book ‘To Be Young, Gifted, and Black’: ’25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation’s ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.’ The Hansberry house, the red-brick three-flat at 6140 S. Rhodes in Washington Park that they bought in 1937, was given landmark status by the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Historical Landmarks Preservation in 2010.

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