Discrimination against blacks by whites is a theme that has been explored on various levels and Langston Hughes’ poem ‘Harlem’ is no exception. Here, the poet seems to be bemoaning the fate of the young black man who can never achieve his dreams – they are always deferred, if he is not unlucky enough to end up hanged from a tree in an all too common lynching. The theme of dreams deferred is also strongly present in Lorraine Hansberry’s play, ‘A raisin in the Sun’ that also follows the Hughes poem liberally, even taking its title from a line in the poem.
The characters in the Hansberry play are imbued with a sense of defeatism that makes their life all the more desperate and in a downward spiral. There is a contrast between the two main characters who are Walter and Ruth with the former constantly aspiring to be rich, while the latter is content with her lot. Walter is full of dreams, but living in the Chicago South side makes him slightly out of kilter with his surroundings. Hughes’ says: ‘Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?’ – this is a direct reference to a dream that founders into nothing.
The racist tendencies of the all-white neighbourhood into which Beneatha buys a house are an important part of the plot. She decides to spend her inheritance on this house in an attempt to better her social standing, as well as that of her family. Walter is aghast at the way Beneatha spends her inheritance money since he feels entitled to it and wants to make something of himself in the world, but it looks like he will have to remain out in the cold. Here again, one has to observe the Langston Hughes poem where it is stated that; ‘Maybe it just sags – like a heavy load’ – the load is the weight of Walter’s dreams that continue to sag as he sees himself ever farther from his aspirations in his miserable job as a taxi driver.
Matters grow far worse when Walter enters into a financial scheme with other friends Bobo and Willy – these end up vanishing with the money, another setback for Walter’s dream and a further allusion to the dreams deferred concept in Harlem. The plot continues to develop, and the stark reality of racist inferiority is demonstrated when a white man offers to buy Walter’s family out of the housing project in an effort to avoid racial tension. It is made starkly clear to them that they have no place in all white neighbourhoods even in Chicago which is not the Deep South.
The later encounters with Joseph Asagai and George Murchison continue to reveal the possibility of opportunity for the black family but only if they leave the country. Although this is probably not the way Hughes intended it, the play’s plot does focus on the possibility of dreams that can become reality. Hansberry craftily uses the raisin analogy in a direct comparison to Walter, who finally ends up accepting his lot while the rest of his family leaves for an uncertain future in another country. However the moral of the play seems to be that Walter cannot pursue the American dream because he is a black man in white America, the most severe handicap of all.