In “The Negro Writer and His Roots: Toward a New Romanticism” (1959), a speech she delivered shortly before A Raisin in the Sun premiered in New York, Hansberry outlined her artistic credo as well as analyzed the roots of her political radicalism. She asserted the responsibility of black writers to disprove certain myths widespread on the American scene. They must challenge the faulty assumptions that art should not be social in its impetus; that individuals exist independent of their sociocultural environment; that the values of middle class, industrialized society necessarily represent those of the lower class; and that the United States has unlimited time to eradicate inequality among its citizens. As her mentor W. E. B. Du Bois foretold, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”
As is true in her plays as well, Hansberry’s perspective in the essay is a balanced one; blacks themselves can be slaves to a perverted materialism rather than champions of freedom, prone to color prejudice of their own, to romanticizing the sensuality and sleaziness of urban black life, and to apologizing for having been victimized in the past. Yet, having accepted all that, it remains true that “in this most hostile nation,” her black sisters and brothers are not really free citizens who enjoy equal job opportunities and who can vote without harassment or partake of other basic rights of American life. Therefore, along with her protagonist in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, she proclaims: “The ’why’ of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents; the ’how’ is what must command the living. Which is why I have lately become an insurgent again.”
Hansberry opened her talk by quoting from Sean O’Casey, whose ghetto melodramas about the powerlessness of oppressed Dublin families living in the midst of enormous political upheaval are forerunners of plays such as A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry treasured O’Casey for his compassionate humanity, ironic humor, and implied belief in human potentiality despite failures and foibles. Also influential was the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose realistic, well-made problem dramas exemplify Hansberry’s dictum “that there are no plays which are not social and no plays that do not have a thesis.”
Rather than embrace naturalism, which aspires to a photographic representation of “the world as it is,” Hansberry espouses a realism which incorporates “what is possible . . . because that is part of reality too.” Further, a realistic framework allows for the inclusion of highly symbolic scenes—for example, those in which her protagonists attempt to reach back to some primeval energy: in A Raisin in the Sun, Walter’s primitive dance on the table; in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Sidney’s dreamlike retreat into Appalachia; in Les Blancs, Tshembe’s ritualistic union with the African warrior god.
Just as Hansberry mistrusts a naturalism that subordinates free choice to a biological or environmental determinism, so, too, does she reject the absurdism popularized by the post-War French intellectuals. She intended her television fable, What Use Are Flowers?, in fact, as a response to Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), the chief dramatic embodiment of the philosophy that life is meaningless, senseless, without purpose. In her plays, Hansberry champions meaningful advance over hopeless repetition, faith over despair, engagement over acquiescence.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha, the college-age daughter in the Younger family, debates with Asagai, her Nigerian friend, the question of historical change. She argues that “there isn’t any real progress . . . there is only one large circle that we march in, around and around.” He corrects her, claiming, “It isn’t a circle—it is simply a long line . . . one that reaches into infinity.” In The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry satirizes absurdism when David writes a successful play that is set inside a refrigerator; in the face of its philosophy of isolation, alienation, and desolation, Sidney must discover a reason to go on. In Les Blancs, withdrawal into a safe Eurocentrism is challenged when Tshembe must return to his African roots and take up the cause of independence from Western colonialism, through violent means if necessary.
The philosophical position that Hansberry develops might best be termed a rational humanism. Although she understands the widespread need for religious belief and even “rather admired this human quality to make our own crutches as long as we need them,” she (like Beneatha) puts her belief firmly in “man . . . who makes miracles!” In short, “Man exalts himself by his achievements . . . and his power to . . . reason!” Hansberry treasures as the highest virtues individual dignity and integrity, a mantle hard-won through suffering and not always easy to bear once achieved.
To show her protagonists’ dynamism as they pursue this end, Hansberry structures her plays using a series of plot reversals that continually challenge the characters to question and move away from the status quo. Insofar as her characters create their essence—what they are—through the moral choices that they make, Hansberry’s dramas might be termed existential. The triumph over the seeming absurdity of life is not only possible but necessary if humankind is to prevail. Above all else, as Sidney Brustein’s sister-in-law Mavis remarks, “ordinary people” look ultimately to the creative artist to provide “understanding . . . in this quite dreadful world.” It is a challenge that Hansberry consistently meets....
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