Lorraine Hansberry was only 29 when she created great lines and characters for her play, A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Inspired by childhood events, when the Hansberry’s refused to move out of an all-white neighborhood, they were sued. The case Hansberry v. Lee went to the Illinois State Supreme Court and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court which overturned the state’s decision making it illegal to push African-Americans out of neighborhoods. You can read the complete history behind this play from Broadway.com here: Evolution of Raisin in the Sun.
Whether on the stage or the screen, the wisdom of the characters is the strength of the play. It highlights race conflict, specifically desegregation at the height of the Civil Rights movement in America; however, the heart of the tale transcends color-lines and focuses on relationships within the Younger family. Raisin in the Sun is a universal story about pride, unfulfilled dreams, motivations for sin, and redemption. Set in the early 60s in the slums of Chicago, the members of the Younger family are passionate and stubborn. Mama Younger is the queenly matriarch who imposes her will and stifles the growth of her son, Walter Lee. Beneatha, an intellectual feminist who aspires to become a doctor, constantly argues with her brother, Walter Lee. Ruth, the wife of Walter Lee, is an unappreciated wife and mother to their only child, Travis. Exhausted with the hardships of life, when Ruth discovers she is pregnant, she considers abortion. Side plots include two suitors who vie for the affections of Beneatha. The men represent a cultural awakening during the 1960s featuring George Murchison, a new Negro, as the pompous, educated, wealthy, assimilationist. His foil is Asagai, the wise Nigerian who inspires Beneatha to get in touch with her ancestral roots.
Walter Lee Younger “Why can’t I buy pearls for my wife?”
Act I, scene ii
It’s easy to dislike him. He bellows and has temper tantrums and is irresponsible. When you think about it, he dreams of a fancy lifestyle for his family. Don’t many of us? For Walter, money brings freedom and pride because materialism is a measurement of success. Seeing his wife overworked and unresponsive only exaggerates his damaged ego. Ruth makes Walter feel like a failure. His dream of financial independence is the motivation behind his foolhardy decisions.
Mama: Oh – So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life – now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . .
Walter: No – it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.
Mama: No . . . something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too . . .
Walter will learn from his mother that pride is not attached to a dollar, but pride comes from living out one’s life with integrity. Have you seen the 1961 classic starring Sidney Poitier? Ruby Dee won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Ruth, the haggard wife to Walter Lee.
Asagai “I live in the answer!”
In Act III, Beneatha, cries on the shoulder of her suitor, Asagai the Nigerian, a leader of his people attempting to gain independence from British colonization. He fell in love with Beneatha at the University where she attends college to become a physician. She is bitter and bemoans the catastrophe of her brother’s infamous mistake on her life. She feels the financial setback has ruined her and wishes Walter Lee were dead. There’s a wonderful philosophy explained about the progress and evolution of society. The history of humanity is cyclical according to Beneatha. Violence and wars reign; humanity does not seem capable of improving over time. Asagai, however, sees human progression as a linear journey, an infinite line where progress transpires in starts and stops. Setbacks always happen; one must learn how to move on. She points out that if his Nigerian revolution occurs and his village achieves independence, it won’t erase violence or death. Instead of a British soldier who takes his life, it will be one of his own countryman.
How do you see history? Linear or cyclical?
“In my Mother’s house there is still God.” Amen for that.
Lena Younger is a colossal woman filled with virtue and piety who tries to hold the strong personalities of her family together. She illuminates the simple truths of life. She is a role model for her family and for the audience. Tribulations are a part of life, and that’s a fact. How do you survive with dignity? How do you change your attitude toward those who have hurt you? In Act III, Mama advises Beneatha:
“Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning – because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so!”
This call for compassion is a start toward healing and a great life lesson. What happens when our dreams won’t come true? Perhaps the answer is to try another dream.