Written from a realist’s point of view, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun centers around the family of Walter Younger, an African-American family living in Chicago in the 1950s and their quest at achieving their dreams in a racially discriminatory and hostile environment.
Just before the play started, Big Walter, the head of the family and husband to Lena, dies, leaving behind an insurance payment of $10, 000. The family, being a poor African-American one, all eagerly awaits the check, with each, having conflicting plans for the money whenever it arrives: Lena Younger, the matriarch of the play, at first, is unsure of what to do with the money, but later plans to fulfill her late husband’s dream of owning a house. Beneatha, Mama’s daughter and Walter Lee’s sister, aspires to become a medical doctor (a rare achievement amongst the minority African-Americans) and thus feels running her medical school with the inheritance will be a nice idea, of which her brother, Walter strongly disapprove of and instead suggests that she gets married. Walter Lee, a drunkard and Mama’s son, on the other hand desires to run his liquor store with the insurance payment.
Ruth, his wife completely agrees with him on this, with a feeling that he would finally change his wayward ways if he has a business running. However, she changes her mind and goes with Mama’s option of owing a house the exact day the check arrives, when she discovers she is pregnant and that moving to a more spacious apartment would be great for her, her son (Travis) and her unborn child.
To satisfy Walter, Mama uses part of the money as a down payment on a new house and then forfeits the remaining to Walter so part could go to his store and the remaining sun on Beneatha medical school fee, who in turn hand over the money to Willy Harris.
At exactly a week later, Karl Lindner a white man representing the neighborhood the Youngers plans to move into pays them a visit with the news that another white man in the neighborhood wants to buy the house, of which Walter blatantly refuses. Just in time, Bobo, Walter’s friend rushes in to inform them that Willy Harris, the man he handed the balance Mama gives to Walter, has vanished with the money.
Perturbed, Walter calls back Mr. Linder to tell him he will continue with the deal of selling the house. However, just before the deal gets seals, Walter remembers his late father’s wish of having a house of their own and thus reclaimed his dignity by changing his mind to tell Mr. Lindner they will not go on with the offer.
The play ends with the family, moving to their new apartment in Clybourne Park. They are aware living there will not be easy considering they will be only black living in van all-white neighborhood. Still, to fulfill their longtime dream, they press further.
Though the contributions of each character to the development of the text cannot be overlooked. However, Beneatha, Walter Lee’s sister and Mama’s daughter is a personality that cannot be eluded. Beneatha Younger represents a woman ahead of her time. She stands for a new generation of civilized Black Americans who incessantly challenges the idea surrounding the culture, race and religion with which she grows up with. While in college, schooling, she encounters two men of different races, with whom she intends a relationship. First is George Murchison, a very rich African-American and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian. In fact, one would not be wrong to label Asagai ‘a Yoruba by tribe’. This is because of his frequent use of Yoruba expressions in his speeches. For an instance in page 60 he uses the word, ‘Alaiyo’ (loosely interpreted as a person who is always hungry) for Beneatha, the moment he comes in and greets her “Hello Alaiyo” (Page 60). Interestingly, a closer look at the word ‘Alaiyo’ as used in Act 1, scene 2 connotes a deeper meaning as to what Beneatha represents. Asagai while speaking says: “it means… it means one for whom Bread- food- is not enough.” What Asagai has done here is to summarize Beneatha’s personality from his own perspective. The name ‘Alaiyo’ has connotatively depicted her unceasing thirst for not only knowledge but her constant yearn for more than just survival. Similarly in page 61, scene 2, he uses the expression ‘Oh-pay-gay-day’ and ‘oh-gbah-mu-shay’ (Yoruba expressions for admiration), and through Asagai, she learns about life in Africa and especially women liberation.
Although no part of the book can be overlooked, however, some parts are notably essential in discussing the ideas represented in the book. To begin with, one very essentially noticeable aspect of the play is the characters’ use of non-standard English in the play. Poor African-Americans and some others in the United States often speak with a “Black English” dialect, which differs a little from Standard English in both grammar and vocabulary. As noticed in the speeches of the Younger family especially, the following are some obvious instances from the play:
“Ain’t he out yet?” (Act 1, scene 1) ‘Ain’t’, a common word among the then African American minorities, of which its factual form should be “isn’t”). Also in page 28 where the following conversation ensued:
TRAVIS: You think Grandmama would have it?
RUTH: No! And I want you to stop asking your grandmother for money, you hear me?
TRAVIS: (Outraged) Gaaaleee! I don’t ask her, she just gimme it sometimes!
Gimme, as used above, is just another colloquial for “give me’, that has predominantly been acculturated into the language of the Black American minority.
Lorraine Hansberry also employs the fusion of some relatable and sage quotes that not only affect the characters in the play, but to some extent have ways of appealing to the feelings and thoughts of the audience.
For an instance, as seen in Act 1, Scene 1 where Mama says:
“In my mother’s house, there is still God”
This statement emanates from Mama’s style of viewing the world. In fact, one would not be wrong to say that Beneatha is simply agnostic, considering her stance as to how the world evolves. She is a staunch believer that the progress or retrogression of man rests solely with him and that only he can control it. Mama thus reminds her on the need to put the driving force of the family first before her personal ambitions.
Similarly in Act 1, scene 2, Mama averred that:
“Once upon a time, freedom used to be life- now it is money. I guess the world really do change.”
This statement ensues during one of Mama and Walter Lee’s arguments, where mama asked Walter why he always talks about money and Walter has answered her that: “Money is life.” As for Mama, she feels freedom to live peacefully and make one’s decisions without any influences is what life should center on. Thus, she makes the statement to express her bewilderment at what life has turned into and particularly to her son, Walter Lee, who feels financial buoyancy is all there is to life.
Likewise as seen in Act III, Mama articulates a very striking point when she says that “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.”
One would not be actually wrong to conclude that Mama says these words not only to Beneatha but also to the reading audience. She makes this statement when Beneatha expresses her distastes for her brother, Walter, after losing the money for his liquor investment. Mama explains to her that Walter needs to be shown some empathy and be supported.
Aside some of the notable points in the play discussed above, other vital themes Hansberry has infused to project clearly the concept of race and the struggle for survival amongst the blacks in a white-dominated environment, worthy of mentioning are:
Hansberry has found a way to examine the concept of money as not only a necessity but also as a line on which the dreams of the Younger family hang. Little wonder the entirety of the happenings happening in the play centers around money, no wonder Walter articulates in Act 1 scene 2 that “Money is everything. The fate of the family is tied on money. In fact, the realization of their dreams can only come true through money. Beneatha’s medical school fee, Walter Lee’s liquor store, Mama’s dream house, even the opulent life Walter has promised Travis, all, center on money.
The Importance of Dreams
Every member of the Younger family has each an aspiration which can be termed as individual dream. As evident in the play, Beneatha wants to become a doctor and Walter wants to have money so he can afford luxury for his family. The Youngers struggle to attain these dreams throughout the play, and much of their fulfillment or failure is unequivocally related to their attainment or failure to attain, these dreams.
Resistance Against Racial Discrimination
The main white character in the play, Mr. Lindner makes the theme of racial discrimination evident in the text. The governing body of the Youngers’ new neighborhood, the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, sends Mr. Lindner to convince them on selling the house to another white man, reason being the color of the Younger family’s skin. At the latter, the Youngers respond to this discrimination with courage and defiance. The play critically teaches the dire need to battle racial discrimination anywhere it is encountered.
The play evidently portrays how much a family can achieve when they come together in unison. The Youngers struggle economically throughout the play but their unity in the ends gets them the house they desire. Mama strongly believes in the importance of family, and she tries to teach this value to her family as she struggles to keep them together and functioning. Towards the end of the play, when they begin to put the family and the family’s wishes before their own, they are able to overcome their archrival, Mr. Lindner and the white racists.
As seen from the demonstrations above, the play centers essentially on the question of race and racial discrimination. It technically examines the life and struggle of the Younger (A family of Black Americans) and their struggle to survive in a Black-hostile environment. A Raisin in the Sun is essentially about dreams, as the main characters struggle to deal with the hostile circumstances that rule their lives.
Notably too, some of the recurrent motifs in the works of African-American writers include: The Question of Race (Racial superiority, Racial violence, Racial Inferiority, Racial Discrimination and Racial Identity), Avowal of Racial Pride, Meaning of Ancestry, Struggle of the Black Man to Survive in Hostile Environments, American Dream, etc.
If you, the readers, are lovers of African American writings and wish to read further literatures produced on the question of race, the question of race and quest for racial identity, then looking at Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, Children of the Sea by Edwidge Danticat, The Man Who Was Almost A Man by Richard Wright and works of Derek Walcott is not a bad idea.
Judging from the way the authoress has deployed her style of language to project the events in the texts, scoring her 8 out of 10 is completely an honest choice. Beyond controversy the play stands as one of the best to have ever revealed and exposed racial questions amongst its counterparts produced in the 1990s.
Adewumi can be reached at email@example.com
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