The Play (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
According to Lorraine Hansberry’s stage directions at the beginning of the play, the action occurs sometime between the end of World War II and the 1950’s. The play is set in an urban ghetto and deals with the problems encountered by a poor black family as it tries to cope with the realities of life on Chicago’s South Side. It reveals the devastating effects of poverty and oppression on the African American family. Even before the play begins, Hansberry’s stage directions, both in tone and substance, suggest the extent of that devastation. The furnishings in the Younger family’s apartment, she says, are “tired,” and the “once loved couch upholstery” has to “fight to show itself from under acres of dollies and couch covers.” The very environment in which the Youngers live mirrors the struggle for survival that is waged daily in this household.
As the play progresses, the frustration born of this poverty and oppression mounts. The anger and hostility that it spawns begin to erode the foundations of the family structure. This erosion begins early in the play, exhibiting itself in the strained relations between Walter Lee and his wife Ruth as they argue over the disposition of money coming from insurance on Walter’s father. Walter Lee wants to use the money to purchase a liquor store. He is convinced that such a business venture will be his ticket out of the ghetto. His marriage threatens to collapse under the constant bickering. Ruth,...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
A Raisin in the Sun is a three-act play set entirely in the Younger family’s Chicago tenement apartment. As the play opens, Walter Younger, Sr., referred to as “Big Walter,” has recently died, leaving his widow, Lena, a life insurance policy worth $10,000. Lena wants to use the money as a down payment on a house in the suburbs so that her family can leave its crowded, shabby apartment. Lena’s son, Walter, wants to invest the money in a liquor store so that he can quit his job as a rich white man’s chauffeur and become his own boss. Beneatha, Walter’s younger sister, a college student, wants to use part of the money to pay for her medical school tuition. Ruth, Walter’s pregnant wife, sides with Lena.
The debate over how to spend the insurance money threatens to destroy the Younger family. Walter insults his sister by telling her to forget about medical school and become a nurse or get married like other women. Lena expresses misgivings about Walter’s plan to invest in the liquor business, and he, in turn, accuses his mother of destroying his dream of becoming a successful businessman and providing for his family. When Lena refuses to give Walter the $10,000 that he needs for his investment, he stops working and starts drinking heavily. Ruth considers having an abortion because she does not want to add another family member to the Youngers’ crowded apartment.
Watching her family unravel, Lena attempts a compromise that...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Chicago’s Southside. Primarily African American neighborhood of Chicago in which members of three generations of the Younger family struggle against poverty and racism. Recently widowed Lena Younger, her children Beneatha and Walter Lee, and Walter’s wife Ruth and son, Travis, occupy a three-room apartment with a bathroom down the hall that they share with other tenants. With its worn furniture and limited natural light, the apartment reflects the disappointment and growing despair of the family.
An expected insurance check has Walter Lee planning a business venture, but the scheme involves disreputable characters and the sale of liquor. Realizing that the cramped quarters of the apartment is detrimental to her family in much the same way that it is harmful to a houseplant that she is trying to nurture, Lena uses half the insurance money as a down payment on a three-bedroom house in Clybourne Park with a yard large enough for a garden.
Clybourne Park. White residential area of Chicago in which Lena makes a down payment on a house. Not considering the potential racial problems her family may face, she chooses the neighborhood because she wants “the nicest place for the least amount of money” for her family. After she makes the down payment, however, the Youngers are visited by a man representing Clybourne Park’s white residents, who offers to buy the house...
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The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
A Raisin in the Sun opens at dawn, in the shabby South Side apartment of the Younger family, which will remain the sole setting of the play. It is Friday, and Ruth Younger, the wife of Walter, rises and wakes her ten-year-old son, Travis, who is sleeping in the middle of the living room. The living room has seen better days, as have the furnishings. In the rear is a kitchenette. To the left is the bedroom of Lena Younger, the matriarch of the family, and her daughter Beneatha. To the right is the bedroom of Ruth and Walter.
After Travis is sent off to school, Walter, a lean, intense man in his middle thirties, begins complaining that Ruth does everything to keep him from getting ahead. He mentions that his friend Willy Harris wants to buy a liquor store and has asked Walter and Bobo, another friend, to become partners. When Ruth scoffs at the plan, Walter angrily charges that all black women seek to keep their men down. Then Walter quarrels with Beneatha, who has emerged from her bedroom, over the fact that Mama Younger is paying for Beneatha’s college education. Beneatha hopes to become a doctor. She insists that it is her mother’s right to do as she pleases with her money, including the life-insurance money Mama Younger will get (Walter and Beneatha’s father has recently died). The expected ten thousand dollars should be Mama’s to do with as she pleases and, Beneatha adds, should not be used for any of Walter’s harebrained schemes....
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Lorraine Hansberry uses few innovative dramatic devices in A Raisin in the Sun. Her play rests on tried-and-true methods of the domestic drama, with loud and emotional confrontations, as well as clear individual portraits. The setting remains the same throughout the play—the Youngers’ apartment in Chicago’s ghetto.
Ruth, a calm young woman who is rapidly growing old in her life with Walter, provides a contrast with her husband, who is emotional and unreasonable. Mama herself is a counter to her two children, both of whom are high-strung and self-willed. Mama remains solid and hard-thinking when dealing with difficult problems, although she is clearly too indulgent with Walter and Beneatha.
One device is used openly: the symbol of Mama’s plant. The poor, fragile houseplant is Mama’s symbol of the future, of her house-to-be, where she will have a garden of her own. The plant, at the end of the play, is almost forgotten by Mama when she leaves, but she returns to take it with her.
Diction also is a dramatic device that Hansberry uses to reveal her characters. Joseph Asagai speaks in an inflated language that promises great and wonderful things, but he has also a bit of the fraud in him. Beneatha, who is a college student, speaks with an educated diction; in stage directions, however, Hansberry directs the actress to keep in mind the family’s Southern origins. Walter uses the language of the ghetto but is...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Written just as the Civil Rights movement began to get underway, this play (and the motion picture made from it in 1960) made an important statement regarding race relations. Lorraine Hansberry, coming as she did from an affluent African American family, had experienced discrimination in her own childhood when her father moved the family out of the Chicago ghetto to a home in Englewood, Illinois. She also had strong opinions about the position of black women in American society, who are represented to a great extent by the character of Beneatha in this play.
Additionally, Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred” must be considered seminal in understanding the play. In it the poet asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?. . . or does it explode?” and Hansberry has successfully dramatized various human reactions to such deferment. The time in the play spans only a few weeks, but the dreams held by each of the characters have roots that reach far back. As the play begins, Lena is expecting a check of $10,000 as beneficiary of her husband’s life insurance, and each character sees that money as the key that will unlock the future.
Most volatile about getting control of the money is Walter Lee, who wants to invest (with two other men) in a liquor store and become an independent businessman. He represents the dream that is ready to explode. In the first scene, he makes his attitude very clear when...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Hansberry’s influence in the theater in terms of black performers and black audiences—who saw themselves truthfully presented onstage for the first time in A Raisin in the Sun—was far greater than might seem to be the case. By 1959, Hansberry had attained fame as the youngest American and the only black dramatist to win the Best Play of the Year award. A Raisin in the Sun ran for 530 performances, toured extensively, and has been published and produced in more than thirty countries. In it, she raised the issues of racism and segregation, showing their negative influence on all of American society. She also illustrated the stereotypical hierarchy common in African American families that lack a father-figure, and she represented fairly those whom Walter Lee characterizes as “takers”—those of all colors who exploit others.
The feminist point of view is best represented by Beneatha, but Hansberry shows her three-dimensionally, not as a perfect woman, but as one probably on her way to growing into a warmer, less egocentric person, one who can combine social and political awareness with more tolerance for the foibles of her fellow human beings.
A Raisin in the Sun certainly represents Hansberry’s personal philosophy, which she summed up in an address to young black writers when she said:What I write is not based on the assumption of idyllic possibilities or innocent assessments of the true nature of life,...
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The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s
A Raisin in the Sun directly addresses the issue of segregated housing in the United States. While many neighborhoods remain effectively segregated today, such segregation was legally enforced during the 1950s. Despite several Constitutional Amendments subsequent to the Civil War, African Americans were denied many civil rights a full century later. In 1954, the case of Brown vs. Board of Education was toed in Kansas; it reached the United States Supreme Court in 1955. The Court found that segregated education was inherently unequal edu-cation, effectively outlawing the practice of "separate but equal" school systems. Also in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott occurred, with blacks and some whites refusing to ride city buses that forced blacks to sit in the back. In 1958, the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas were closed by the Governor in an attempt to defy the Supreme Court's ruling. In 1959, the bus system of Atlanta, Georgia, was integrated, although the Governor asked riders to continue "voluntary" segregation. Ironically, in that same year, the United Nations voted to condemn racial discrimination anywhere in the world. By the 1960s, Civil Rights demonstrations became common and resulted in much new legislation, although cultural implementation of those ideas would take much longer.
Literature and Arts in the 1950s
Artistically and culturally, the 1950s are commonly thought of...
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Act I, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Ruth scramble Walter’s eggs, even though he says does not want them scrambled? What does this indicate about their relationship and about whether or not they try to listen to one another?
2. Why does Ruth tell Travis to get his mind off the money that is coming the next day? What does this indicate about Travis?
3. Why does Walter give his son more money than he needs for school? How does this leave Walter, in terms of money he himself needs in order to get to work? What does this indicate about Walter’s personality?
4. What rift is indicated between Ruth and Walter when she says to him, “You mean graft?”, when he talks of how he plans to get his liquor store license approved? How does this relate to the state of their marriage?
5. What do you think the significance of Beneatha’s name might be? What words does her name sound like? What might the author be conveying about Beneatha and her effect on other people by giving her this name?
6. If you were to draw a conclusion about why Walter is so concerned with how much money Beneatha’s schooling will cost. Aside from his wanting money for the liquor store, what might it be? Why might he be so resentful of his sister wanting to continue her education so far as to go to medical school?
7. Why do Ruth and Walter refer to themselves as “colored,” rather than “black”?
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Act I, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
1. Which theme that has been raised before is referred to in the reference to roaches “marching…like Napoleon”? Who was Napoleon? What relevance might references to him have for this play?
2. What issue in particular is alluded to when Beneatha says, “All everyone seems to know about when it comes to Africa is ‘Tarzan’”?
3. What recurring theme is alluded to when Beneatha says, while talking about how missionaries save people, “I’m afraid they need more salvation from the British and the French”?
4. In terms of the imagery associated with the rat Travis and other children are chasing, what deeper meaning do you think might be conveyed by Travis’s words as to there being rat blood all over the street? You must “read between the lines” to answer this question.
5. What theme is reiterated by the fuss over Beneatha’s hair?
6. When Mama asks Beneatha where she is going, why does Beneatha answer, “To become a queen of the Nile”? Where is the Nile, and what great civilization in antiquity flourished on the Nile? Why would that interest Beneatha?
7. When the check arrives, why does Mrs. Younger just stare at it for some time before the family urges her to open the envelope? What is her reaction to actually seeing the check?
8. Why does Mrs. Younger say, “Ten thousand dollars they give you. Ten thousand dollars”?
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Act II, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. What significance for their continued relationship do you think it has that Beneatha prepares to go out to a play with George Murchison in the dress that Joseph Asagai got for her?
2. What do you think has prompted Beneatha to cut her hair short and into an “Afro” hairstyle?
3. Do you think politics is the only reason Beneatha declares she hates assimilationists? If not, what could another factor be?
4. What does it show about Ruth’s awareness of racial tensions that in a casual chat with George Murchison she refers to bombings?
5. What do you think prompts Walter to assert that he has been to New York plenty of times when his wife flatly contradicts him?
6. Why does Walter launch into a string of insults to George Murchison? Why might Walter be so resentful of Murchison?
7. How do you think Walter knew that Murchison was insulting him by calling him “Prometheus,” even though he didn’t know who Prometheus was?
8. Why does Mama ignore her son when she comes home? What does this show… is the tension in their relationship?
9. What theme in the play is recalled to the reference to “marching roaches”? Why do you think the author put that phrase in the play at that point?
10. What quality do we see in Mrs. Younger when she tells her son, “When it gets like that in life—you just got to do something different, push...
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Act II, Scene 2: Questions and Answers
1. What qualities do we see in George Murchison at the beginning of the scene that Beneatha might not like?
2. Why does Beneatha refer to him as a fool, when speaking of him to her mother? In what ways would she consider him foolish?
3. When Mrs. Johnson says, “I’m just soooooo happy for y’all,” do you think she is being honest or hypocritical? What later actions or words of hers either confirm or deny that she is speaking honestly here?
4. Why do Mama and Ruth roll their eyes before offering Mrs. Johnson the coffee? What do you think they are reacting to?
5. Why do you think Beneatha greets Mrs. Johnson so curtly? Why does Mrs. Younger object?
6. This question relates tangentially to the play and can be answered in many ways. What do you know about the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups like them which exist in the United States? Do you think they should be allowed to continue to operate or do you think they should be outlawed? State your reasons.
7. In your opinion, why has Walter’s drinking gotten worse?
8. Do you think Mrs. Younger made the right decision in deciding to give money for the liquor store venture to Walter? Why or why not?
9. What do we understand clearly when Travis asks his father if he’s drunk?
10. At the end of the scene, when Walter says he will hand the world to his son, do you think this will...
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Act II, Scene 3: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Walter say, “Even the N double A C P takes a holiday sometimes…?” What is the NAACP, and what does his referring to it show about his changing attitude?
2. When Beneatha answers him, “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” what are we reminded of?
3. Why do you think Karl Lindner goes to such lengths to talk about everybody getting along before he gets to his reason for talking to them?
4. Who catches on first to what his purpose in talking to them is about? How do you know?
5. What is so cruelly ironic in Lindner statement: “They’re not rich and fancy people; just hard-working, honest people who don’t really have much but those little homes and a dream of the kind of community they want to raise their children in”?
6. Do you believe Linder when he says to the family, “I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it”? Why or why not?
7. What is the disturbing reminder when Mama says that her children have all the energy of the dead?
8. How is this theme carried forward in Walter saying, “they just dying to have out there… a fine family of fine colored people”? What is the tone set by Walter’s remark?
9. What conversation are we reminded of when Mama prepares to take her plant to the new house and says “It expresses ME!” How does the plant express Mrs....
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Act III: Questions and Answers
1.What do you think accounts for Beneatha’s deep pessimism at the beginning of the act? Do you think it is all because of the lost money?
2. What qualities do we see in Joseph Asagai which enable him to break through Beneatha’s mood to consider her own self-pity?
3. Reading between the lines, so to speak, what does it say about whether or not Beneatha has really given up on medical school, when she refers, even mockingly, to curing “the great sore of Colonialism…with the Penicillin of Independence”?
4. Why do you think the word, “end” appears four times in the top half of page 134? What does this signify?
5. Do you see any symbolism in Asagai asking Beneatha to “come home with” him to Africa in the future? Do you see any meaning other than the literal one of her going to Nigeria?
6. Why do you think the word “dreams” appear so many times throughout this act? What theme is reiterated?
7. Do you think life can be broken down into the takers and the “tooken”? Is it a matter of “getting over” before one gets “gotten over on”? Why or why not?
8. What do you think Mrs. Younger is referring to when she says to Walter, “You making something inside me cry, son. Some awful pain inside me”? What is the source of that pain, in your opinion?
9. What resolution of conflict is apparent when Beneatha says to Lindner...
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Among the most important elements of A Raisin in the Sun is its setting. Because the Youngers are attempting to buy a new home in a different neighborhood, their current apartment and neighborhood achieve particular significance. The play takes place in a segregated Chicago neighborhood, "sometime between World War II and the present," which for Hansberry would be the late 1950s. In other words, the play occurs during the late 1940s or the 1950s, a time when many Americans were prosperous and when some racial questions were beginning to be raised, but before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
More specifically, the play occurs in the Youngers' apartment, which Hansberry describes in detail: "Its furnishings are typical and undistinguished and their primary feature now is that they have clearly had to accomodate the living of too many people for too many years." The furnishings, that is, come to represent the hard lives of the characters, for though everything is regularly cleaned, the furniture is simply too old and worn to bring joy or beauty into the Youngers' lives, except in their memories. Other details of the setting also contribute to this closed-m feeling: the couch which serves as Travis's bed, the bathroom which must be shared with the neighbors.
Two significant allusions are prominent in this play—one literary and one historical. The title of the play, A Raisin in the...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: Schools and neighborhoods were racially (and sometimes ethnically) segregated, often by law. These laws received several major court challenges during this decade; many of the laws were declared unconstitutional.
Today: Many neighborhoods and schools remain segregated despite legal and cultural attempts to reverse this situation. On the other hand, many schools, including prestigious universities, are completely integrated. Yet Affirmative Action, the practice through which this integration was in part achieved, is currently being challenged in several states.
1950s: The computer microchip was invented by an employee of Texas Instruments and began to be widely produced. This invention would come to revolutionize the technological industry. Computers and computerized products were generally limited to military and industrial purposes and were not common household products. Computers that did exist were much larger than an average-sized living room.
Today: Nearly every American home contains one - or more likely several - products that rely on computer microprocessors. These include not only personal computers complete with modems but also digital watches and clocks, compact disc players, and remote control devices for televisions and videocassette recorders.
1950s: Senator Joseph McCarthy held his famous Senate hearings which attempted to demonstrate Communist infiltration of...
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Topics for Further Study
Research segregation laws that applied to various U.S. cities in the 1950s. Examine the arguments people made in efforts to change these laws.
Investigate the history of a particular neighborhood with which you are familiar. Analyze how its ethnic composition has shifted over decades or centuries and discuss the causes and effects of those shifts.
Write an argument for or against owning or investing in a liquor store. Try to use specific examples or statistics in your essay. Consider the ethical as well as economic issues involved.
Research the recent history of Nigeria. Compare its national events with the predictions Joseph Asagai makes in the play.
Compare how extended families functioned in the 1950's (or another time period of your choice) with the way they function today.
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A Raisin in the Sun was released as a film by Columbia Pictures in 1961. Its cast included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, and Louis Gossett Jr. This version was produced by David Susskind and Philip Rose. This film is distributed by Columbia Tristar Home Video.
An American Playhouse version of the play was released for television in 1989. It is distributed through Fries Home Video and stars Danny Glover, Esther Rolle, and Starletta DuPois, and is directed by Bill Duke.
Another video which was originally a filmstrip provides a supplement to the play. It is also called A Raisin in the Sun and is available from Afro-American Distributing Company.
A cassette sound recording of the play is available from Harper Audio. It stars Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, and Lloyd Richards. This cassette was produced in 1972.
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What Do I Read Next?
Native Son by Richard Wright, which was published in 1940, opens with a scene in which a family attempts to kill a rat. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, becomes a chauffeur and eventually kills the daughter of his boss.
The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, published in 1987, contain much of the work Hughes published, including the poem "Harlem." Hughes' s poems both protest injustice and celebrate beauty.
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black is a collection of autobiographical writings by Lorraine Hansberry published after her death in 1969. It remains one of the most well-known autobiographies of the 1960s.
Coming of Age in Mississippi, published by Anne Moody in 1968, is the story of one young woman's work during the Civil Rights movement. It focuses particularly on voter registration in the American South.
Up from Slavery is a collection of autobiographical essays by Booker T. Washington, published in 1901. Although he is often considered a hero, he seems to argue for "separate but equal" social arrangements between the races.
The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois was published in 1903. DuBois presents a more radical argument than Washington, and he predicts that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line."
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun: The Complete Original Version. New York: Signet/Penguin Books USA Inc., 1987.
Nemiroff, Robert, ed. A Raisin in the Sun: The Unfilmed Original Screenplay. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1992.
Dedmond, Francis "Lorraine Hansberry" in American Playwrights since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kohn, Greenwood, 1989, pp. 155-68. This is a thorough article which provides an assessment of Hansberry's reputation through her career. In addition, it includes a useful resource list.
Hansberry, Lorraine "Willie Loman, Walter Younger, and He Who Must Live" in the Village Voice, Vol. IV, no. 42, August 12,1959, pp. 7-8. Hansberry discusses positive and negative responses to her play and compares it to Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
Howes, Kelly King, editor. "Lorraine Hansberry" in Characters in 20th Century Literature, Book II, Gale, 1995, pp. 204-09. This article approaches the play through an analysis of its characters It provides an extensive discussion of each of the characters and compares them to other significant characters in American literature.
Sacks, Glendyr. "Raisin in the Sun" in International Dictionary of Theatre-1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 649-50. This article is a basic...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Abramson, Doris. Negro Playwrights in the American Theater: 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. The definitive work in African American drama. Treats the origin and development of the black drama—its structure, themes, innovations, and impact—from its nineteenth century beginnings through Hansberry.
Bennett, Lerone, Jr., and Margaret G. Burroughs. “A Lorraine Hansberry Rap.” Freedomways 19, no. 4 (1979): 226-233. A discussion between Bennett, a historian and editor of Ebony magazine, and Burroughs, an artist and teacher. The article focuses on Hansberry’s career, with much of the discussion devoted to an assessment of the themes and characters in A Raisin in the Sun and the reasons for its popularity with both black and white audiences.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: William Morrow, 1967. In the chapter on Hansberry, Cruse criticizes A Raisin in the Sun for what he sees as its soap opera qualities and for its failure to deal realistically with the problems of the black underclass.
Hairston, Loyle. “Portrait of an Angry Young Writer.” Crisis 86 (April, 1969): 123-124. Examines the ways in which Hansberry’s activist philosophy and rebellious attitude influence her work, especially in terms of themes and character...
(The entire section is 484 words.)