A Raisin in the Sun: A Feminist Statement on the African American Condition
“For above all, on behalf of an ailing world which sorely needs our defiance, may we, as Negroes or women, never accept the notion of ‘our place’”- Lorraine Hansberry. Lorraine Hansberry’s tragically brief life (1930-1965) occurred during a time of revolution for women and African Americans in the United States. Hansberry, the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, found success with A Raisin in the Sun, which provided her with a platform as a prominent voice for women’s and African American rights. A critique of American money values, criticism of the suppression of African American culture in America and female stereotypes of the 1950s, A Raisin in the Sun was considered to be ahead of its time. For strong women and African Americans, it was about time for their voices to be heard. A Raisin in the Sun won many accolades during its time on Broadway-- eventually being adapted into three separate films. Loosely based on her own life; Hansberry’s Raisin is about the impoverished Younger family awaiting a life-changing check for $10,000. The goal of this essay is to examine the portrayal of male and female characters, assimilation vs integration, and Hansberry’s critique of the American money values and way of life, all through a feminist lens.
Some would say that Hansberry’s portrayal of male characters is damaging to the representation of black men; however, further examination into A Raisin in the Sun leads to uncovering a criticism of the patriarchal system in the United States. The first major male character, and, arguably, the protagonist of A Raisin in the Sun introduced to the reader is Walter Younger. Hansberry portrays Walter as an incredibly desperate and selfish man; although he undergoes several major transformations throughout the screenplay, by the end he is still the same lazy and selfish man he was at the beginning. Walter’s desperate attempts to become the head of household over his mother, Lena, by investing in a liquor store with her money shows that he feels emasculated due to his inability to fill what he believes is his role as the man of the family. Walter is convinced that money is the most important thing in life “Because it (money) is life, Mama!” (Hansberry 814) while both Lena and Walter are trying to improve their lives; Walter is most concerned with his role in the household as a man. Hansberry rips Walter apart as much as possible in the opening scenes. Throughout A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry is constantly belittling Walter. Walter is unable to support his family, he chooses not to show up to work, he is not as smart as his sister, and he depends on his wife for money. She undermines “Walter’s manhood throughout the first two acts. She shows his subordination to his mother, intellectual inferiority to his sister, financial dependence on his wife, and irresponsibility to his employers. Here he is belittled again: he is incapable of protecting his child” (Ward 3). By attacking Walters sensitive manhood, Hansberry is bashing patriarchal society. Walters naïve and failed attempt to invest in a liquor store and become a wealthy businessman earns him some deserved criticism from his sister “He made an investment! With a man even Travis wouldn’t have trusted” (Hansberry 840). Walter also holds very conservative beliefs towards the role of a woman in the household. He criticizes his sister, Beneatha, for her desire to become a doctor “Who the hell told you you had to be a doctor? If you so crazy ‘bout messing ‘round with sick people—then go be a nurse like other women—or just get married and be quiet...” (Hansberry 797). Walter believes that Beneatha should take a job that he believes is more suited for a woman or get married and be a stereotypical housewife. George Murchison, son of a well-off realtor and a college student, is a friend of Beneatha’s who is more interested in kissing her on the couch than talking with her. George does not really care about an education or Beneatha’s thoughts. “I didn’t go out with you to discuss the nature of ‘quiet desperation’ or to hear all about your thoughts—because the world will go on thinking what it thinks regardless... It’s simple. You read books—to learn facts—to get grades—to pass the course—to get a degree. That’s all—it has nothing to do with thoughts” (Hansberry 825). George is not in school to try and do important things or learn everything he can like Beneatha; he is only there because he feels like he has to be. George is a snob and disapproves of the traditional African garbs that Beneatha wears. “Through this character, whom Beneatha ultimately pronounces ‘a fool’, Hansberry ridiculed the shallow outlook and unearned complacency of the mid-century black middle class” (Chapman 452). Through George; Hansberry is criticizing the African American middle-class men for doing only what they must do- and nothing more. Hansberry portrays the male characters George and Walter negatively due to their conservative and sexist beliefs to criticize the patriarchal society in the United States.
In contrast to the portrayal of male characters in A Raisin in the Sun; Hansberry’s female characters are presented to be strong cornerstones of their family. Beneatha Younger, who is loosely based on Hansberry with similar ideals; does not believe that she needs marriage or a man to be successful. “Listen, I'm going to be a doctor. I'm not worried about who I'm going to marry yet—if I ever get married” (Hansberry 802). Beneatha is alienated from her family for her modern views. “Beneatha’s sense of gendered alienation within her family sharply coalesces into this critical supplication. In this moment of the drama, Hansberry made clear that Beneatha’s freedom dream would not be entirely fulfilled by her brother’s eventual acquiescence to his female relatives’ right-thinking” (Chapman 451). Beneatha feels out of place in her family as they all wait for Walter to become mature enough to be the head of the family. After Walter loses all the insurance money, including the portion meant for Beneatha’s schooling, Beneatha rants about the decision to let Walter oversee the family’s fate. “While I was sleeping in my bed in there, things were happening in this world that directly concerned me—and nobody asked me, consulted me—they just went out and did things—and changed my life” (Hansberry 842). She feels left out of the decision making, because she is a woman, she is not considered a candidate to be the head of the family or take care of the money for her own schooling. Beneatha’s conflict with her family, particularly, Walter, is parallel to the way African American women felt invisible- left out of the recognition for their involvement in the Civil Rights movement. “African American women activists received lack of recognition for their involvement in the movement... the lack of recognition for these women is evident in modern civil rights film and they negatively portray African American women’s role during the movement” (Lott 1). Hansberry’s frustrated portrayal of Beneatha’s place speaks to all the African American women who felt left out or were not recognized during this time. Lorraine Hansberry paints Walter's failures as criticism of the culture of male-dominated society. “Beneatha is using her brother’s error as an excuse to give up on the ailing human race. Beneatha argues that Walter’s action is no different from the pettiness, ignorance and foolishness of other men who turn idealistic notions of freedom and independence into absurd dreams” (Wilkerson 700). Beneatha’s modern views highlight her strength as a person in contrast to her brother Walter’s desperation; Beneatha is an expression of Hansberry’s own opinions.
Ruth and Lena Younger do everything they can to support the household. During the first act of A Raisin in the Sun; Ruth Younger, Walter’s wife, has planned to have an abortion. During this time abortion was illegal and taboo- even to discuss. Ruth decided to have the abortion while Lena was strongly against it; even though their ideals contradict one another—they were both trying to do what they think is best for the family. “Mama embodies integrity and self-respect; when abortion appalls her, that moral horror is central” (Ward 336). The mere mention of abortion during this time speaks to Hansberry’s support of women’s rights. Walter quietly supports Ruth’s abortion, but his motivation is purely fiscal rather than idealistic. Walter is again only concerned with his own well-being while the women of the family are concerned with everyone’s needs. Ruth has grown tired of the way her husband treats her “Honey... life don’t have to be like this... You remember how we used to talk when Travis was born... about the way we were going to live... the kind of house... Well, it’s all starting to slip away from us” (Hansberry 821). Ruth is exhausted by the Younger family life “Ruth asks and expects nothing; her rights and will do not matter; that’s why Hansberry calls her “limp” and “beaten” in the stage directions to the scene where Walter hears of her abortion plans” (Ward 3). Ruth has no hope for her future, and her willingness to terminate her pregnancy shows her lack of faith in Walter’s ability to provide for the family. Ruth and Lena are constantly working behind the scenes to make Walter feel secure in his manhood “Lena: He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain... Ruth: Yes, Lena” (Hansberry 850). They are both working to keep peace in the family by pandering to Walter’s insecurity; his pathetic need to feel like the man of the house. Hansberry’s portrayal of a tired, beaten-down Ruth Younger speaks to her feelings on a woman’s lot in life during this time period.
Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun makes a powerful argument against assimilation and clearly defines the stark difference between assimilation and integration for African Americans. George Murchison is a symbol of assimilation who sees celebrating his roots as a waste of his time. Beneatha accuses George of being an assimilationist- and he does not deny it in his response. “Let’s face it, baby, your heritage is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts” (Hansberry 817). George has abandoned his African heritage to appear white in an attempt to find acceptance and success in American society. Lorraine Hansberry portrays George Murchison as a pompous sellout. “Hansberry embarked on such an exploration through her character George Murchison, younger sister Beneatha's bourgeois suitor. The son of a well ‐ to ‐ do black Chicago realtor, he disapproves of the Yoruba garb she adopts in the middle of the plot, is snobbishly dismissive of her brother Walter Lee's invitations to friendship and sneers at Beneatha's desire to think expansively” (Chapman 452). Hansberry uses Beneatha to criticize George, who is an allusion to the African American assimilationist. A classmate of Beneatha’s and a potential romantic interest, Joseph Asagai is proud of his African heritage. “My dear, young creature of the New world- I do not mean across the city- I mean across the ocean; home- to Africa” (Hansberry 843). Asagai is in love with Beneatha and wants to bring her back to Africa with him. The stark contrasts between George and Asagai represent Hansberry’s own struggle to hold onto her heritage “through stressing his African roots and racial pride, Hansberry juxtaposes two black conflicts, one against white racism in America and the other against white colonialism in Africa. Both battles are launched to attain freedom and claim a black identity” (Saber 461) a common dilemma of African Americans in the 1950s. Asagai accuses Beneatha of being an assimilationist “assimilationism is so popular in your country” (Hansberry 808). Because of Beneatha’s ‘mutilated’, unnatural hair, Asagai is suggesting that she is ashamed of her heritage. A common criticism of Hansberry is that she is an assimilationist. “Is not Lorraine Hansberry an Uncle (Aunt) Tom? Is not A Raisin in the Sun a sellout to the white power structure? Are not the Youngers really betraying themselves and their own? Is not their attempt to assimilate themselves into the white society, and to force themselves, however, peacefully, into the neighborhood where they are so obviously unwanted, simply a gratuitous attempt to become white?” (Saber 465). However, Hansberry criticizes the assimilationist African Americans through Asagai; “Asagai serves as the playwright’s mouthpiece most of the time, and the enthusiastic way he behaves throughout the play with his utopian visions and intellectual attitude and nationalist devotion” (Saber 462). Despite his playful criticisms, Asagai is also the only character who shows constant respect for Beneatha’s thoughts and feelings. Because she is a supporter of both the civil rights and feminist movements, Hansberry’s portrayal of Asagai is the only consistently positive example of a male character in A Raisin in the Sun. The contrast of the core values of George and Asagai simulates the dichotomy between assimilation and embracing one’s heritage.
A Raisin in the Sun also presents a constant criticism of economic disparity and inequality in America. Hansberry describes the Younger family apartment as cramped, uncomfortable, and dirty. “... their primary feature is that they have clearly had to accommodate too many people for too many years—and they are tired... Weariness has, in fact, won in this room. Everything has been polished, washed, sat on, used, scrubbed too often. All pretenses but living itself have long since vanished from the very atmosphere of this room” (Hansberry 788). The Younger’s are hardworking blue-collar people. Walter is a chauffeur, while Ruth and Lena work as housekeepers. All the Younger family jobs are in servitude to the white upper class, and even with three incomes in the home the family still struggles to survive. After Lena puts a down payment on a home in a white neighborhood the family gets a visit from the only white character present in A Raisin in the Sun, Mr. Lindner. Hansberry uses the new Younger family home as a metaphor comparing the lack of opportunities for African American families in the United States. Lindner tries to convince the Younger family to sell the home back to the neighborhood for a profit. “... for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities... Our association is prepared, through the collective effort of our people, to buy the house from you at a financial gain to your family” (Hansberry 833). Although Lindner appears polite to the Youngers, everything he says to them is offensive, and Hansberry makes it clear that he is speaking down to them. Beneatha’s comment, “Thirty pieces and not a coin less!” (Hansberry 833) shows the intensity of Hansberry’s feelings on Lindner’s offer to the Youngers and later, Walter’s willingness to sell out his family’s wellbeing. The comparison Hansberry makes between Lindner’s offer and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus Christ can easily be overlooked; however, her meaning here is incredibly powerful. Any African American willing to make such an agreement with Lindner, according to Hansberry through Beneatha, would be equivalent to the selling out of Jesus. Walter eventually finds his pride after several arguments with his family and finally refuses to sell the new house back to Linder. The women of A Raisin in the Sun always knew that the right decision was to move into the house, no matter what. The way that Hansberry uses Walter’s eventual realization that he must do what is best for his family is to criticize the segregation of African Americans from white neighborhoods.
Overall, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is a feminist’s criticism of American values through the way in which Hansberry represents her characters. The first play produced on Broadway written and directed by an African American woman, A Raisin in the Sun is a classic. A Raisin in the Sun remains relevant today because it was far ahead of its time for its realistic portrayal of compelling female African American characters. “As of today, if I am asked abroad if I am a free citizen of the United States of America, I must only say what is true: No.” -Lorraine Hansberry.
Chapman, Erin D. “Staging Gendered Radicalism at the Height of the US Cold War: A Raisin in the Sun and Lorraine Hansberry’s Vision of Freedom.” Gender & History, vol. 29, no. 2, Aug. 2017, pp. 446–467. EBSCOhost
This article examines Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun alongside some of Hansberry’s speeches and interviews. Hansberry’s success gave her a platform to speak on her views-- which would have been considered radical at the time.
The article will be used to present a more in-depth look at Hansberry’s life and values. It will also be useful to examine her visions of feminism and the civil rights movement.
Hansberry, Lorraine. “A Raisin in the Sun.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, Kelly J. Mays, 13th ed., W.W Norton & Company, 2020, pp. 787-851.
Lott, Martha. “The Relationship Between the ‘Invisibility’ of African American Women in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and Their Portrayal in Modern Film.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 48, no. 4, May 2017, pp. 331–354. EBSCOhost
This article examines the lack of (and often, negative) representation of African American women in creative works during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Quotes from this article will be used to set an understanding of Lorraine Hansberry’s negative views of American society as an African American feminist.
Saber, Yomna. “Lorraine Hansberry: Defining the Line Between Integration and Assimilation.” Women’s Studies, vol. 39, no. 5, July 2010, pp. 451–469. EBSCOhost
This article discusses the African American identity; assimilation vs integration into American culture. The article continues to defend Hansberry against her critics who claim that she herself is an assimilationist.
The article will be used to provide some of the criticism of Hansberry at the time, and a defense of her stance. It will also be used to describe the difference between assimilating and integrating.
Ward, Bernadette W. “Silencing Lorraine Hansberry” Life and Learning X, Winter 2002, pp. 333-342. Print.
This excerpt from the textbook Life and Learning X examines the themes of A Raisin in the Sun. Ward also includes discussions with her English students, their thoughts and reactions to Raisin.
This piece will be used to describe the inner thoughts and feelings of Hansberry’s characters. Ward’s piece will also be helpful to examine the view other students have on Raisin.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. “The Sighted Eyes and Feeling Heart of Lorraine Hansberry.” African American Review, vol. 50, no. 4, Winter 2017, pp. 698–703. EBSCOhost
This article describes the themes of African American culture and values present in Hansberry’s works. It also describes how these works are relevant to American society.
The article will be used to present the parallels of Hansberry’s life with the struggles her characters faced in A Raisin in the Sun. It will also be used to illustrate the divisive reception of the play during its time on Broadway.
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