The Raisin In the Sun
A Raisin in the sun is a play that epitomizes the struggle of the African American community in America, during the Jim Crow era. The slavery shackles had been removed and many rights were bestowed on the Blacks during that period, but all those legislations and laws could not erase from the hearts of the people the racial disparity, which had grown strong roots over centuries. This play written by Lorraine Hansberry, won the award for the Best American Play and Hansberry went on to become the first American writer to get this award which was given New York Drama Critics Circle. (Morrin, 1994)
The title of the play is inspired by the lines that appear in the poem written by Langston Hughes, which again talks about racial discrimination. The poem titled ‘deferred dreams’ discusses as to what happens to an unfulfilled dream, will it dry and wane off, or will it grow even stronger. This play too deals with the dream of a poor Black family who has the typical American Dream, of having a decent house for their family, which is challenged by the racial prejudice of the society. This essay aims at analyzing how the author has used various literary elements like plot, characterization, dialogues and motifs to convey the theme of racial oppression.
The beauty of the plot of the play is that, the author is able to maintain the theme of racism while narrating an interesting story about a poor family and their relationship with each other and their collective struggle against poverty. (Kelly, 2003) The younger family lives in a poor neighborhood of Chicago and each of them is struggling to make their dreams come true. The matriarch of the family Lena Younger is expecting an insurance amount, which is due to her on account of her husband’s death, and each member of the family has different designs based on that $10,000. Mama (Lena) wants a better home, her son Walter Lee wants to invest it in a liquor business, and her daughter Beneatha wants to use it for her medical studies.
They find a compromise with Mama buying a house in a predominantly white neighborhood with part of the money, and giving the rest to Walter with a promise that he will spend some of it on Beneatha’s education. Walter loses the money by the treachery of his friend, and the white neighbors in their new neighborhood are unhappy with a Black family moving in. So they try to buy them out by giving them a generous amount of money, which initially Walter decides to take to solve their financial woes. But later the family decides to put pride over money and move to their new neighborhood.
The plot of the story not just delineates the poverty in which the Younger’s, and in those days most Black families led their life, but also throws light on the discrimination in the covenants of housing allocation of those days. The story is based on a real law suit which the Hansberry family fought against the, covenants of the racially restrictive housing legislations of the 1950s. (Shay, 2012) So the story is a reflection of the reality on the ground of the Jim Crow era, whereby the Blacks were treated by the law as ‘equals but separate’.
Characterization, is another tool the author has used, to throw light on the impact racism had on the society, in particular the African Americans. Lena is a proud African American, who has seen her husband work hard to provide a decent living to his family and feels embittered by the fact that he had not been given his due recognition. When the check of $10,000 dollars is given to her she says to her daughter-in-law,
Ten thousand dollars. Put it away somewhere, Ruth. (She does not look at Ruth; her eyes seem to be seeing something somewhere far off.) Ten thousand dollars they give you. Ten thousand dollars. (Hansberry, 1959, 519, Act I Scene II)
She clearly think her husband’s efforts and dreams are valued much lesser than their worth. She understands the need of the money for her family, yet she thinks a decent home is what the family needs now more than anything else. A house according to her is a status symbol and one which her husband has earned for her family, to keep it together.
Walter Lee is a typical Black American of the 1950s who is regretful of his family’s past, frustrated about his present and hopeful about his future. He too realizes that an African American has to move up the social ladder to be taken seriously. He is more obsessed with alleviating their poverty rather than asserting their pride. He thinks only if a Black man takes risk and invests in new ventures, he can improve his financial status. Though Walter too wants to restore the family pride and wants the development of the Black community, he tries to achieve these ends by means of amassing wealth rather than by moral and principles. His change of heart in the last scene is the author’s way of saying which path the Blacks of the country should take if they are to get their rights.
Beneatha on the other hand is in a quest for identity and her American dream is one of acceptance. Yes, she wants to pursue her education but her main quest is not a medical degree but a search for identity. Her two boyfriends, George Murchison and Joseph Asagai, in their own way depict the two different facets of her inner self. George, who tries to assimilate with the White society by completely disowning his black heritage and imitating the ways of the White people, typifies the part in Beneatha which wants to mingle into the American society by letting go of her African heritage. Her straightening of her hair is a part of the act she puts up to look more ‘American’ like, and changing her identity for the sake of acceptance. Joseph on the other hand reflects the part of her, which is proud of her ancestry and seeks recognition for what she is. In the end by rejecting George, she denounces her pretences and embraces her identity as an African American with pride.
The character of Karl Lindner though plays a tiny part in the story, carries huge significance. This character not just represents the White neighbors of the Younger family, but also is the representation of the American Society of the early and middle twentieth century. The majority of the Whites during that period were uncomfortable with Black neighbors, bullying Blacks and attacking Black properties were common occurrences. Lindner tries to change the decision of the Younger family by luring them with greed, but when they refuse to sell their house, he warns them that they better know what they are letting themselves into. This arrogance and prejudice exemplifies the society of that era. To take on this social problem and reflect that in a play not just showcases Hansberry’s literary talent, but also her courage and commitment. (Washington, 1988)
The plant which mama lovingly takes care of acts as a motif in this play, and is used by the author as a symbol of the resilience and plight of the Younger family. The plant is well taken care of and watered by Mama and even Ruth comments about her care for the plant. It is much like the dream which Mama has for moving to a comfortable house, which she takes care of in her heart and nurtures it by hope. In their deprived dwelling the plant does not find enough sunlight to grow, much like how the dream of the family is not able to prosper in an old house which has seen years of wear and tear.
But still the plant does not wither off, just like the dream which is not been forgotten by the family and always lingers in their heart even though the reality around them discourages them. At last when the family moves to their new house the final act of Mama is to retrieve the plant from the old house. This is a symbolic way in which Hansberry conveys that both the plant and the dream have found a new house where they can grow to their fullest potential. Thus, the dream of the family is not just a house but a dignified living and the house is just a means to obtain that end.
The dialogues are used effectively by Hansberry so that they accurately capture the characters’ emotions, and convey to the audience the impact racial prejudice has on the Blacks of the country. An example to this fact is the strong and insightful words said by Walter Lee to Lindner. He says,
“This is my son, and he makes the sixth generation our family in this country. And we have all thought about your offer.And we have decided to move into our house because my father—he earned it for us brick by brick.”(Hansberry, 1959, Act III)
These are not just words about the Younger family but are words uttered on behalf of the entire Black community of the America. They have toiled in the plantations of the South for hundreds of years and have enriched this nation’s wealth with their sweat.
The efforts of each of those Black people have paved way for a society where the future generation can lead a dignified life. The present society is a culmination of the efforts of six generations of African Americans who were oppressed and endured many hardships. These efforts would go in vain if Walter (or his generation) accepts money in exchange of their dignity, and allow the White people to say to them that they are not fit enough to walk on the same earth. As Walter says his father and his ancestors has earned the house for Walter and his son, brick by brick.
Thus through effective usage of literary elements Hansberry has conveyed to his audiences what happens to the American Dream of the Younger family. It does not dry like a raisin in the sun or fester like a sore, but it is kept alive and nurtured and allowed to grow.
Kelly, Amanda. The Art of Social Criticism: Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. University of Michigan. April 14, 2003. Web. December 9, 2013. http://www.umich.edu/~eng217/student_projects/araisininthesun/historicalcontext.html
Shay, Alison. Publishing The Long civil Rights Movement. The University of North Carolina. November 12, 2012. Web. December 9, 2013. https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog/index.php/2012/11/12/remembering-hansberry-v-lee/
Washington, J. Charles. A Raisin in the Sun Revisited. Black American Literature Forum. Vol. 22, No. 1, Black Women Writers Issue. Spring, 1988. Web. December 9, 2013. pp. 109-124. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2904153>
Morrin, Maxine. A Raisin in the Sun MAXnotes Literature Guides.USA: Research & Education Assoc., 1994. Print. Pg. 1
Lorraine Hansberry. A raisin in the sun. 1959. Web. December 2, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.myteacherpages.com/webpages/tpalacios/files/ela11araisininthesun.pdf