Lorraine Hansberry, an American playwright holds a record for being the first black woman whose drama, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ was produced on Broadway. She was an author interested in writing stories of individuals, who try not only to defend their dignity but also respect others’ dignity. Born in Chicago, Hansberry, along with her parents shifted to a place in a white neighborhood. What awaited them was a racist mob, following which they filed a civil rights case. ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is a semi-autobiographical play, which won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The play narrates the struggle of a black family, as they try and fail in fulfilling their dreams in a society dominated by white people. The play takes place in a black family consisting of a mother Lena or Mama as she is called in the story, her son Walter Lee, Lena’s daughter Beneatha, Walter’s wife Ruth, and their son Travis.
The characters are members of an African family who have been in America for generations. The play represents the struggle of thousands of immigrants in America, who survive with the hope of fulfilling their American dreams. At the beginning of the play, the family is all set and ready to receive ten thousand dollars, as insurance amount, which they are to get after Lena’s husband, Younger’s death. The family hopes to end all their poverty and hardships with the amount, but each of them has a different dream of spending the amount. Their dreams conflict with one another’s and a lot of problems occur in the family due to this. As the family is on the verge of breaking up, Lena wins over her children by showing what real love is. The others too understand their mistakes and they decide to remain close to each other forever. They learn to be proud of themselves, their color, and their race. The play successfully presents contrasting themes of pain and pride. A detailed analysis of the family’s lost dreams, hope, and identity is the aim of writing this essay.
The Younger family in the play depicts an ordinary African family in America, who have settled in America for generations. Though their ancestors were in America, most of them were slaves or laborers. Like their precedents, the present generation is not economically well-off. Lena, who is an old woman, and her daughter-in-law Ruth, work in the kitchens of other people to earn their living. Walter is a chauffeur, who is not at all happy with his job or lifestyle. He wants to be rich. He wishes to be his boss but moves on with his current job since he knows he is not in a position to begin any kind of business. Beneatha is Walter’s sister. Her ambition is to become a doctor but is doubtful about it because of her family’s poor condition. The problem that the family faces is that they have only dreams and no money to fulfill them.
As they know that they are about to get ten thousand dollars, each character begins dreaming of fulfilling their wishes. However, their dreams are not the same and there arise arguments as each one tries to justify their dream. Lena dreams to fulfill her wish of buying a house. She believes it is important to live in one’s own house, and that it is a matter of pride. She is not interested in the money as such. She does not wish to be rich or financially better. Owning a house was her dream for a long time since her husband spoke to her about it. He could not fulfill it when he was alive, and she believes this money which they get at his death must be utilized to fulfill his dream. Also, Lena is proud of her ancestors and their dignity. She thinks that buying a house will raise the family’s dignity. She is “a more conventional figure, the force, compounded of old virtues and the strength of suffering that holds the family together. She is a sentimentalized mother figure.” (Weales) She even dreams about how the rooms would be allotted to each member of the family. She is a representative of the older generation. Walter is fed up with his monotonous life as a chauffeur.
He hates having to remain below his employee and calling him ‘Sir.’ He wants to bring change in his life, by becoming richer. This is out of his wish to be like the white people. According to Washington, Walter has an “iron will” (112) and is highly determined. Hansberry does not depict the good qualities of Walter until the final part of the play, giving him “the role of villain.” (112) (provided by the student). He says that he dreams of himself as rich whenever he sees the white youth sitting in restaurants and talking about huge amounts of money. For this, he plans to open a liquor store and he dreams of investing the money in it. He represents the new generation, who thinks that money is more important than anything else. According to him, his family will be safe only if he becomes rich. As Washington notes, to Walter, it is the “power that money brings. Power being the essence of the only kind of manhood he is willing to accept.” (118) (provided by the student). In his attempts to convince his mother and wife, he does not think about the needs of his sister or mother. This difference of opinion between Walter and his mother helps Walter in identifying himself. That does not mean that he does love his mother or sister. His priorities are different. He wanted to be rich to make his family safer. He knows that since his father is dead, the responsibility of the family is on his shoulders. He, like his father, wishes to provide a better life to his family.
Beneatha’s dream is to become a doctor. She demands her mother to keep some money aside for her studies. As she knows that her brother will spend all the money if he opens a liquor store, she supports Mama. She represents the typical career-oriented girl of the new generation. Her ambition to become a doctor also means her dream of having a better status in society. She wants to be considered equal to successful white people. Ruth is a different character altogether. She is a very sensible, loving woman. She supports Mama out of her love for the family, instead of standing on her husband’s side to start a business. She sincerely wishes for the welfare of the family. While Beneatha thinks only about her individualistic success and improvement, Mama and Ruth think about the family’s betterment. Their ultimate dream is the welfare of everyone in the family and a happier future. Walter too, dreams of giving a happier life to his family but takes the wrong decision to invest it in business.
Dreams and hope play major roles in the play and the Youngers family. It is dreams and the hope of fulfilling them that drive the characters forward in the play. According to L. M. Domina, by “choosing life, they defy their struggle. In defying their struggle, they refuse the possibility of defeat.” (Domina). At every point, the characters envision their dreams coming true and hope to fulfill them. They strongly believe that they will have a happier time in the future. This is what makes them put aside their dreams at the end of the play. “That struggle to maintain hope against unremitting frustrations is brought boldly to life by the Penumbra Theatre’s poignant new production of A Raisin in the Sun.” (Richason). There are differences of opinion regarding how to use the insurance money. However, all of them want to improve their living conditions. Their dreams are suggestions as to how they can be realized. Even in between these disputes, they remain together in the same house in the hope that their plans will come true and that they will be economically safer.
By the end of the story, the members are seen compromising on their plans. They decide to move together to make a common dream true. Mama decides to give money to Walter to start a business and leave some money for Beneatha’s studies. Initially, she had no plan to allow her son to begin a new business. However, seeing his earnest desire, she decides to allow some money for his business. Thus, she gives hope to him of successfully becoming an entrepreneur. Beneatha is also given hope of finishing her higher studies. After Walter realizes that he has lost money in business, they stick on together and make preparations to shift to their newly bought house. Beneatha loses her faith in Walter, but Walter again gives her hope of pursuing her studies. He tells the white man from their new neighborhood that his sister is going to become a doctor. However, she decides to marry Joseph, a Nigerian, who promises her that he would help her complete her studies and take her to Nigeria with him. Beneatha, who dreams of returning to her homeland, readily agrees to this offer, though only at the end of the story.
The story also describes the different ways in which people react when they know that their dreams are shattered. In the play, Walter quits his job. His earning was very important to the family and he knew it. Still, he stops going to his employee’s house in his desperation. He goes weak on finding that his friend ran away with the money, which was meant for the business and Beneatha’s studies. The blame for his failure is put on his life and especially his mother. He says, she “butchered up a dream.” Ruth, who is depressed about the disputes created in the family due to dreams, and thinks of abortion when she knows that she is pregnant. Though she dreams of a happier future, the harsh realities in their lives, force her to take such a decision. Mama, gives way for Walter’s dreams when she sadly realizes that there are differences between the dreams of old and new generations. Ironically, that teaches Walter what his identity is and how to hold on to his dignity. “Throughout the play, Mama has been trying to lead Walter into the realization of his dignity, and it is finally through her forgiveness and trust that he achieves it.” (Domina). Beneatha becomes very angry and says that she does not love her brother anymore because he wasted the only money they had to save themselves. She turns into a cynic which is evident from her interaction with Joseph.
Though the members of the family have individual dreams, ultimately all their dreams seem to have the same meaning; to have a better status in society as enjoyed by the white people. They wish to be considered as equals by the dominant people. Youngers’sfamily represents a typical African family in America, who struggles to create higher standards of living in the white society. Even a realization about the futility of maintaining hopes does not prevent the family from dreaming of a more successful and happier life in the future.
The major reason for the futility of their hopes is the centuries-old racial discrimination shown against Africans in America. The general condition and emotional state of African Americans in the 1950s are effectively expressed in it. This was a time when they had to strive very hard to create their own identity in America. The play aims at strongly pointing a finger at this issue. Every other issue is a part of this huge problem faced by thousands of African Americans. The Africans were brought to America as slaves or laborers, who worked for the white people. They were considered inferior to the whites based on color and race. In the story, there are frequent mentions of how their ancestors were laborers and slaves in America. Youngers’s family is a very ancient one, which is settled in America for five generations, because of which the members of the family have taken America for granted. They consider themselves as a part of America, but below the white people. It is a general belief brought into the minds of the black people due to generations of slavery. Though they wish to be given equal status in society, they think about their problems more in terms of money rather than social status. The loss of identity is a major problem faced by Africans in America. Identity is another issue brought up by the play.
During this period, the Southern states followed a policy of segregation officially, which forms the main plot of the story. The black people were forced to live in a black neighborhood and they were alienated from the dominant group. They lived in a world of their own, below the world of the whites. Hansberry writes this story out of her personal experience as a child. Her family shifted from a black neighborhood to a place where there were lots of white people. She and her family had to undergo a lot of troubles due to this, which led them to file a civil rights case. Even after they shifted to their new neighborhood, she went to a separate school where only black students studied.
This problem is faced by the Youngers family as they buy a new house in a white neighborhood. The author shows how they were isolated from the rest of society. The family, like many other African families, lives in utter poverty, because of their low-paid jobs. Walter is a chauffeur and his mother and wife work in others’ kitchens. Society discriminates against them from everything in society. Throughout the story, there are mentions of the kind of prejudice shown towards them. The author also shows the family’s desperation because of the alienation that they suffer. They don’t believe it is right to segregate the black community from the whites, but they do not have enough money to overcome it. Walter believes that he has no individuality because his job requires nothing more than occasional replies to his employee.
Despite the discrimination made against them, they consider themselves Americans, which is evident from their style of living. They wish to live with the white people, in a rich neighborhood, which is the reason Mama buys a new house in that locality. Since Mama was born and brought up in America, she has adopted American ways of living. Though she had experienced racism in her youth, it did not “destroy her self-esteem, they did color her outlook on life, narrowing her perspective and restricting her beliefs about what a Black person could reasonably expect to achieve in American society.” (113) (provided by the student). It is she who takes the initiative to move to the white locality. Everyone in the family including Mama is ignorant of their actual traditions, which were long lost from the family. They left their culture in Africa when they migrated to America. Mama has wrong notions about Africa like many other Africans. Asagai, who is a Nigerian, explains that this is the case with most immigrants. He says Africans often ask him stupid doubts about their homeland due to their ignorance. What the family faced is that they were ignorant about their traditions and culture since they live in America, but they were also not accepted by the American society as equals. Their color and race make them different. This makes them want to succeed in life and enjoy all the facilities given to the white people.
Their continuous struggle to form their identity in society is the crust of the story. What is interesting is that despite the troubles they face in America, they do not wish to go back to their land. Beneatha alone makes frequent efforts to know more about her land to Asagai, though. She leaves George and decides on Joseph for this reason. She knows that Joseph will be able to provide reliable information about Africa and its people. She is not sure about what she to follow or how to live. Don Rubin says that Beneatha is confused about “Many things, including her identity.” (Rubin, 424). There are, however, pieces of evidence of American culture in her. Initially, she straightens her hair following the American youth trend. She decides to change it only when Joseph mocks at her. Beneatha plans to be a doctor with this intention in mind. She wants to make her own identity, thereby which she can stand on her own two legs and make decisions by herself. She doesn’t want to be dependent on her mother and brother anymore.
She gets the confidence to go for higher studies and stand up to her family, from the American culture in which she was brought up and does not wish to leave America. At the same time, what is contrasting is she does not feel happy with her African American boyfriend and refuses to marry him. Instead, she decides on Joseph Asagai, who is a Nigerian, who is happy to return to his homeland to serve his people. George and Asagai are two different characters in the story. The author intends to bring in the issue of cultural identity and its importance through these characters. It “represents a system of values, a way of life and an identity.” (Rubin, 424). Walter dreams of living like the whites whenever he sees groups of them sitting in restaurants and talking about huge amounts of money. The Africans tend to follow the whites instead of developing an individual culture of their own. Walter is an example of this. Walter, Mama, and Ruth accept America as their land, but they wish to live with equal status as the Americans. Walter and Mama want to develop their own identity and wish to be of good help to the family. As laborers or slaves, they have no identity of which they can be proud. They want their voices heard in white society.
Though the family is consists of black people, they are half-Americans in their beliefs and culture. There are ample examples of this fact. Mama plans to get her daughter married off to George who is an African American. She does not find any fault in him or Beneatha marrying him. She is happy with her being married to a person who lives the American way. At the same time, she does not initially show much interest in marrying Asagai, even though he is a Nigerian. He is a person with perfect knowledge of his culture and is highly proud of it. Mama does not find it necessary to know about Nigeria any more than an American. They speak English and follow Christianity like the Americans. Even in this, Beneatha is an atheist and does not believe in any religion. The problem that Africans face is that though they want to follow the white culture and living styles, they are not accepted in society. The purchase of a new house in a white neighborhood is an effort by the Youngers family to mingle with more white people. The response to their efforts is not very encouraging. Even before they shift to the new house, the neighbors try to avoid them by giving them more money to change their minds. Mama’s effort to marry Beneatha to George is also a part of this intention.
There is a general belief among a few Africans that they are inferior to white people. The story provides an example of this. When mama says that she booked a house in Clybourne Park, which is in a rich white neighborhood, Ruth exclaims that it is a white-dominated area and asks Mama why she bought a house there. This kind of notion has developed because of their bitter experiences with the whites. The family does not give much importance to the African culture, they talk, think, and behave in terms of American culture. By the end of the play, there appears to be a change in this feeling. Walter talks proudly about his ancestors and family to Karl Lindner, who represents their new white neighborhood. Margaret Wilkerson says, he “signals the wave of the future. He is restless, hungry, angry – a victim of his circumstance but at the same time the descendant of proud forebears.” (Wilkerson) Lindner, in general, represents the white people’s attitude towards Africans. They do not at all support the individual development of black people. Instead, they try to oppress them from emerging as powerful identities in American society.
Joseph Asagai is, on the other hand, a character who takes pride in his culture and traditions. He is aware of his cultural identity and has exact plans of how he will live in the future. Though a stranger in American society, he is confident about his life. He has a different identity whereby he decides to return to Nigeria to serve his people. He does not get influenced by the American culture and its colors. His individuality is so strong that he even influences and convinces Beneatha to change her decision about her hairstyle and her plans. He encourages her to become a doctor but asks her to return to Nigeria with him to live with his people. He says she must not depend on her father’s money if she wants to pursue her studies. He teaches her to be independent and Beneatha understands how to find one’s identity and how to be individual. Beneatha learns African folk songs and folklore and begins to wear African traditional dresses, marking a drastic change in her notions. He is a character that Hansberry purposefully includes in the play to contrast with the other Africans who do not take pride in their culture. Her message is to be proud of the African race, color, and culture which is historically known for its richness in traditions, rather than ignoring it.
Through the play, the author describes what the African Americans have lost. They do not know any of their cultural traditions, yet they are not completely Americans as well. The period witnessed a lot of tension between both communities. The black people were not only perplexed about the white community but about theirs too. They didn’t know what to follow and what not to follow. As a result, they appeared as comedians in America, with no culture of their own. They adopted everything that was American, rather they Americanized themselves. The initial resistance by older generations eventually faded off, and African youth began to live like Americans, as is the case with Beneatha. Racial problems together with economic problems made the lives of African Americans pathetic.
The title ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ which justifies the theme of the play, is a conscious decision of the author. Adopted from the famous poem ‘Harlem,’ it compares the family’s deferred dreams to raisin. Like grapes shrink under the sun to become raisins, the family’s dreams failed under the limitations and restrictions put on them by white society. They remain as mere fruitless dreams in the minds of the family. However, they move with even more hope of social integration. They hope that they would have a better life in their new house with an improved social status and living conditions. They dream of being saved from racial discrimination and prejudice, which has haunted generations of Africans in America. The writer presents the issues of unfulfilled and futile dreams and hopes of the African Americans and racial discrimination and prejudices against them by the white people, based on their history and color.
Hansberry through this play presents the exact picture of a middle-class black family, who struggles relentlessly to survive in the white society. She uses no exaggeration in the depiction of characters or anywhere else in the story, partly because it is a semi-autobiographical work and partly because she wants the readers to think seriously about the issues in it, but creates a dramatic tension throughout. This structure also “points to the primary meaning of the play: the tragedy of Walter’s reach for the American Dream.” (Washington, 112). Though her family was attacked in reality, she gives a milder description of the white people’s reaction towards their moving to their locality. The author through this play conveys strong messages which are thought-provoking to the readers. She says that segregation of Africans in the white society and racial discrimination are evils that must not be practiced. The actual development of identity occurs when one realizes how to be individual and independent. As far as cultural identity is concerned, it is important to understand one’s culture and traditions and be proud of them. The Africans must realize that the white people are no better than themselves in culture and dignity.
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